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Tragic Times of the Common Man

Tragedy is such a misunderstood concept. People only understand tragedy is when something terrible happens to the protagonist. No one really gets the significance of the idea. Some people do not even know how important the idea is. In Grecian times, tragedy was believed to teach observers the way to a plentiful, joyful life through showing what not to do. People contribute tragedy to the wealthy and those above the common people. Tragedy is meant to make the observer feel strong emotions of pity, but the protagonist is always much richer than those watching him. They are brought down from their high place to below the audience. The hero’s downfall happens due to their hamartia—an error in judgment that causes the hero’s undoing. Their greatest strength may also be their greatest weakness, but many times the two go hand in hand. The hero always has a lot to lose; he loses it all in the end. They do not even realize they are losing their most prized possessions until after they are gone. The peripeteia—the moment when hero gains misfortunes—allows the audience to relate to the hero on a deeper level and consider what they would do in the hero’s place. Tragedy is altered due to evolving times and circumstances.

Arthur Miller demonstrates in his Theatre Essays of Arthur Miller that he has a difference in views considering the concept of tragedy. Miler states the Greeks believed classic tragedy could not be connected to the common man because it only applies to noble heroes. However, modern tragedy had to change in order to continue teaching readers the lessons of tragedy. While common people “are often held to be below tragedy—or tragedy above” [Tragedy 3] them, Miller decides tragedy always created situations which apply to all sorts of people. Miller’s idea of tragedy even has the idea of a hamartia because anyone can have a fatal flaw that causes his or her destruction. Tragedy makes:
“Everything we have accepted out of fear or insensitivity or ignorance…shaken before us and examined, and from this total onslaught by an individual against the seemingly stable cosmos surrounding us—from total examination of the “unchangeable” environment—comes the terror and the fear that is classically associated with tragedy” [Tragedy 4].

The concept of tragedy shows the reader or observer the hero’s fatal flaws. The tragic hero’s downfall makes one question everything one has ever learned. It does not allow for people to blindly accept facts but to question “the seemingly stable cosmos surrounding us.” Tragedy gives humans an excuse to wonder about life; it allows for humans to want a better quality life and not make the same mistakes the protagonist made. People relate to characters in tragedies that are similar to them—and see how they failed. Tragedy allows people to see at what point their similar character made their fatal mistakes; the reader is able to understand what they can do to prevent themselves from making the same ones. “Tragedy, called a more exalted kind of consciousness, is so called because it makes us aware of what the character might have been”[Nature 10]. When a person sees that the character “might have been” able to achieve their goal but failed, they work even harder to achieve to their own goals. People are enlightened by tragedy and the lessons it teaches. By having a more relatable character, readers not only see mistakes the hero makes but also the mistakes they, themselves, could possibly make.

Tragedy is used in many texts, though not as subtly and brilliantly as Kazuo Ishiguro uses it in Remains of the Day. The protagonist, Stevens, is one of the most tragic characters ever written about—and he does not even realize his connection to the Tragic Mode as Miller describes it. “The tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing—his sense of personal dignity” [Tragedy 4]. Stevens is constantly striving to gain a “sense of personal” and professional “dignity” through his employers. He believes his “personal dignity” will come when his employer, Lord Darlington, gains his own. His obsession with being a dignified man creates great holes in his life. He refuses to get close to anyone because he is afraid of showing emotions, possibly destroying his dignified image. Stevens gives up his father and Miss Kenton in order to pursue an unrealistic dream of being a dignified servant. He believes “professional prestige lay most significantly in the moral worth of one’s employer”[Ishiguro 79]. He fights for his dignity through serving Lord Darlington, yet he fails through the same actions. His struggle is unraveled when Lord Darlington’s own “moral worth” is destroyed. Despite the fact Stevens places his life in Lord Darlington’s hands “to secure one thing—his sense of personal dignity,” Lord Darlington cannot “secure” it for him. Stevens gives up his free will; in turn, he gives up his dignity. However, he remains hesitant to admit defeat until the end of the novel. Stevens’ adventures lead him to “knowledge or enlightenment” [Nature 9].
“He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really – one has to ask oneself – what dignity is there in that?” [Ishiguro 162]

His peripeteia is at the beach where he discovers all he the errors he made during his life in order to become successful. He realizes this “knowledge” too late, like the ideal tragic character. He decides there is no dignity in trusting “his lordship’s wisdom” because it led him astray—he cannot do anything about his choices now. He decides he cannot retrieve a dignity he never truly had, but he can make his new employer content. He has the “indestructible will of man to achieve his humanity” [Tragedy 7]. He wants to “achieve his humanity” through making his employer a content American in the unfamiliar Great Britain. He gives up his own happiness in the end. By doing so, the readers learn what not to do with their own lives.

Miller seriously questions the institution of the American Dream through Willy Loman, the protagonist of The Death of a Salesman. “No tragedy can…come about when its author fears to question absolutely everything, when he regards any institution, habit or custom as being either everlasting, immutable or inevitable”[Tragedy 6]. Miller does not fear questioning “absolutely everything” when considering the American Dream. He demonstrates through Willy Loman’s disturbed mind what the effect of striving for something impossible does to people. Willy’s life is destroyed by the “seemingly stable cosmos” surrounding him. He cannot be a great salesman because he strives too often to be “impressive, and well liked” [Miller 64]. He will not fight people back and gets angry when his dignity is questioned. He wants to be “well liked” more than anything in the world. His desire to be popular is his hamartia. After losing his job and his family’s support, “tragedy enlightens—and it must, in that it points the heroic finger at the enemy of man’s freedom”[Tragedy 5]. The point of peripeteia is when Willy realizes he cannot continue living the way he is because it caused him to lose his mind. He is tragic because he made so many mistakes. He asks Ben, “Does it take more guts to stand here the rest of my life ringing up a zero?”[Miller 80] He is “ringing up a zero” in every part of his life; his sons think he is a fool, his wife pities him, and he cannot earn enough money to support his family. He realizes he screwed up his life too late. Willy Loman, like “the commonest of men may take on that stature to the extent of his willingness to throw all he has into the contest, the battle to secure his right place in his world” [Tragedy 6], gives up his everything to become something he could not achieve. In the end, he failed to get his American Dream. By demonstrating the destruction of his protagonist, Miller questions society and the concept of the American Dream.

Tragedy is one of the greatest forms of literature created. “The idea of tragedy is constantly changing, and more, that it will never be finally defined” [Nature 8]. Tragedy is forever being altered to the unique times. In Grecian times, tragedy was a story of the wealthy being brought down from a high place. They did not allow common people to be tragic heroes because commoners in Grecian times did not have much to lose. Meanwhile, the rich had the chance to lose everything. In all types of tragedy, “people are responsible for their actions and their heredity, and must pay for trespasses committed even unwittingly,” states Frye on his view of the tragic mode. Miller’s version of tragedy applies to more modern novels, like Remains of the Day and The Death of a Salesman. His definition is of a tragic hero that is a common man. In some books, the hero is sometimes below other characters due to the use of the author’s use Ironic Mode—but only by the character’s own choice. The character feels inclined to be below others because their lives are so tragic. They believe their tragedy makes them less dignified than their peers. Many times the Tragic and Ironic Mode are written together in modern novels. In the future, tragedy will be altered again depending on what the circumstances are. Tragedy “will never be finally defined,” but instead it evolves with the changing times—unlike many of the heroes described in the Tragic Mode.



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