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Aristotle And Tragedy Essay, Research Paper

A tragedy is loosely defined as an event which ends in calamity or distress. However, Aristotle’s Poetics provided us with a more detailed set of guide lines with which to define the genre of Tragedy. He stated that the real pathos is effected by our awareness of some wasted, admirable quality/ies in the protagonist, the realization of which is invariably obstructed by the pride of that character. Thus the final fall, and subsequent death, of the protagonist is also a form of catharsis, the nemesis which counters the character’s misplaced pride. In Greek tragedy and even later imitations the plot would generally revolve around the aristocracy, royalty or important members of state. As a result the impact of the fall would be emphasized. In English literature some of our most poignant tragedies of course come from Shakespeare, and his tragedies too move in these same spheres; King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet and so on. Shakespeare’s use of soliloquy was an integral part in his creation of tragic pathos because it was in soliloquy that we were made privy to the private aspirations and emotions of the central character, ones which would often clash with the public picture we had of these men. For example, Hamlet’s mental torment is piercingly transcribed in his soliloquies. As a result we see clearly that his public duty to avenge his father’s murder and to fulfill his role as prince of Denmark is complicated and frustrated by his human doubts and moral anguish. It is his soliloquies that arouse our sympathies and illustrate the full implications behind his task, that show that he is not just a prince but a man also. So, is it possible to call the plays in question, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and The Death of a Salesman and Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, Tragedies? What we see in dramatists like Miller and Williams are essentially the same principles at play. Where these plays differ from traditional Tragedy is that the world in which they function is a modern one. Theirs is domestic tragedy, drama that uses the battle ground of modern America as its setting. Rather than being concerned with the elite, the middle class family environment provides the focus of these plays. Nevertheless, the principles that turned the large, splendid cogs of Greek tragedy are the same as those that fuel the little cogs in the world of mediocrity. We may then ask the question, can this be true tragedy if it tells the story of the ‘little man’? In the plays under discussion here, I intend to argue that it is entirely plausible to do so when we consider that, in their own world, each person is a big man. Who could deny, for example, that an integral part of Willie Loman’s tragedy is his own realization that he has fallen from grace in the eyes of his son Biff and that he is therefore no longer a whole man. In turn this triggers much of his self-delusion and his obsessive need to maintain the facade of success, to his son in particular. This of course is his tragedy, the failure to acknowledge who he really is. I shall also look at the allocation of responsibility in these tragedies to see whether it lies with the protagonist or the society in which he functions. Something that is common to all three plays is that each child is left with the legacy of its parents’s mistakes. In the short space of each of play it is inevitable that the elder character plays the chief tragic role because that person is nearing the end of their life. Consequently, with the aid of flashbacks, we are made privy to an entire lifetime of mistakes which we may then weigh up and judge. For example, Willie’s regret about not following in his brother’s footsteps, Biff’s disillusionment that springs from his father’s infidelity or Joe’s guilt over of his malpractice and its eventual destruction of his son’s faith in him and so on. Whilst the elder characters give the tragedy most weight in each play, the lives of the younger generation fall under the same generic umbrella. This is not hard to see if we can envisage the potential growth of the seeds of disquiet which we see sown by the parents in their children. In fact one of the greatest tragic elements of all three plays is found in the erroneous efforts of the parents to project their ideals onto their off spring. These children form a second generation of tragedy which will continue to function independently after the death of their parents. However, their tragedy is at the same time entirely dependent on that of their parents for its existence. Each child is full of potential tragedy and each suffers as the screen onto which their parents project their aspirations and philosophies. With the use of flashbacks to childhood we are made aware of this process, perhaps best exemplified in Biff Loman. In Biff’s own words Willy, ‘blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody!’ (p. 104). Willie instilled a sense of false pride in his son which preceded his fall. Biff may be the only one who really learns who he is in the play, ‘Pop! I’m a dime a dozen, and so are you!’ (p. 105), but sadly this is not until he is in his mid-thirties. Much of the damage has already been done. By way of comparison, Biff’s contemporary Bernard is at this same stage of life a successful lawyer whilst Biff is a ‘lazy bum’. Happy of course is not enlightened by his father’s death and the event only makes him more determined to carry out Willy’s dream. The fact that his father’s demise does not deter Happy in this plan shows the dangers of self-delusion inherent in such a philosophy. Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It’s the only dream you can have – to come out number-one man. He fought it out here, and this is where I’m gonna win it for him. (p. 111) Aside from the dissatisfaction that this imposition of values breeds in the second generation, it also serves to highlight the inability of the parent to relinquish his/her impractical dreams in favour of a lifestyle in keeping with the changing conditions of contemporary America. Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie is a good example of this character flaw. This is a play in which our narrator, Tom Wingfield, gives us ‘truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.’ (p. 234). At the start of the play we are confronted with the contrast between the free range Amanda gives her imagination about her past and the restrictions of her true circumstances. The Wingfield building is described as an architectural testimony to the changing state of American society; The Wingfield apartment is in the rear of the building, one of those vast hive- like conglomerations of cellular living-units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centres of lower-middle-class population and are symptomatic of the impulse of this largest and fundamentally enslaved section of American society to avoid fluidity and differentiation and to exist and function as one interfused mass of authomatism. Its claustrophobic atmosphere and its contrast to Blue Mountain is aggravated by the fact that even this is not her own, she is indebted to her son for its upkeep and lives in perpetual fear of his leaving. She is backed into a corner and this is symbolized by the frequent references to the lack of air in the apartment. Only on the arrival of Jim O’Connor, the long awaited Gentleman Caller, does Amanda feel a breeze which is again symbolic of the hope for her daughter that she sees embodied in him, ‘I think we could stand a little more air in here! Tom, leave the door open. I felt a nice fresh breeze a moment ago.’, (p. 284). It is even more pertinent that when she sees Laura and Jim talking she says, ‘Mmm, just breathe that air! So fresh,’ (p. 309). She never expected this restrictive future for herself, ‘I wasn’t prepared for what the future brought me.’ (p.285), and it is through her daughter that she seeks to free herself from these chains. However, she does not desire freedom for herself in the practical sense. She makes it clear in the conversation that she has with her son that she does not hope or expect Laura’s eventual marriage will ensure her financial security; as soon as Laura has got somebody to take care of her,….you’ll be free to go wherever you please..But until that time you’ve got to look out for your sister. I don’t say me because I’m old and don’t matter! (p. 261) Her dream of liberation through her daughter is a psychological one. She hopes Laura will be the vessel that will carry out the plans she once had for herself. In her anger at Laura’s leaving the business school she betrays these aspirations to the audience, ‘all of our plans – my hopes and ambition for you – just gone up the spout,’ (p. 244). The biggest of these plans is the acquisition of a ‘Gentleman Caller’ for her daughter, the notion of which is a preposterously outmoded archaism for the period in which the play was set. It is a left over from Amanda’s youth when ‘We had to send the nigger over to bring in folding chairs from the parish house.’ (p. 237). Thus the image on the screen at the start of the play is ‘o sont les neiges’. This quite clearly sets the mood of the play because it is an ubi sunt refrain, most famous for its place in Villon’s Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis, which ran ‘Mais o sont les neiges d’antan?’, or ‘Where are the snows of yesteryear?’. It is immeadiately clear therefore that, ‘The play is memory.’ (p. 235). Amanda’s adherence to the dream that ‘It’s almost time for our gentleman callers to start arriving.’ (p. 239), is also evidence of the fact that she has failed to accommodate the changes that have come to pass in the social status of women. Amanda, unlike her daughter, grew up in a pre-emancipated America and evidently does not wish to admit that with this progress comes the added freedom for women to function independently of men. As a result she fails to see the benefit of Jim O’Conor’s visit for its own sake and instead insists on seeing it as a wasted evening, despite having enjoyed herself, ‘Tonight I’m rejuvenated!’ (p. 308). To her mind they have simply entertained ’some other girl’s fianc!’ (p. 312). The tragic element of this scenario is that, because of Amanda’s insistence on the need for she and her daughter to ‘catch’ the gentleman caller, any confidence that Jim did trigger in Laura is forgotten when she realizes that he is already somebody else’s ‘beau’. Laura reverts to seeing the evening in her mother’s shallow terms. In The Glass Menagerie Amanda’s attempts to live vicariously through, and impose her ideals upon her daughter is tragic. It changes the play from a domestic drama to a domestic tragedy because her own life is testimony to the supposed value of ‘charm’ that she holds in such high esteem. The picture of her faithless husband that is in view throughout the play symbolically mocks and undermines all her efforts to marry her daughter off to the best bidder; When people have some slight disadvantage like that, they cultivate other things to make up for it – develop charm – and vivacity- and charm!’ (p. 247) When Amanda dresses her daughter for the gentleman caller and pads out her bust, she is essentially encouraging Laura to market herself in keeping with her own shallow values. Her misplaced faith in the value of charm is not dissimilar to Willy Loman’s over estimation of good looks and popularity, which leads him and his sons to a like state of dissatisfaction. What is more, when charm wears thin and looks fade, both Willy and Amanda are at sea. Willy’s assurance that success is about being ‘well liked’ gives false hope to Biff who leaves high school uneducated. Willy’s own life is a product of these misplaced ideals. He is conscious of his appearance and concludes that his failure in business is in some way tied up with this, ‘I’m fat. I’m very – foolish to look at, Linda.’ (p. 29). He fails to see that his ideals are valueless in the modern world of commerce; Willy, when you gonna realize that them things don’t mean anything? You named him Howard, but you can’t sell that. The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is that you’re a salesman, and you don’t know that. (p. 76) In keeping with the genre, these things make for tragedy because the adherence to these misplaced values means the denial of other ones in life that may have brought success to these people, ‘And the funny thing is that you’re a salesman, and you don’t know that.’ In All My Sons Joe fails to try and understand his son and instead lives a lie in the belief that he has acted in Chris’s best interests. Joe maintains he has done what is best for his family. The tragedy is that Joe can see no further than the perimetres of his family, as he says to Kate, ‘Nothin’ is bigger!’ (p. 163). This is ironic since it is because of this narrow perspective that Joe looses the respect of his family and specifically his son. In answer to his father’s defensive remark, ‘I did it for you,’ Chris reveals the disparate perspectives of father and son; For me! Where do you live, where have you come from? For me! – I was dying every day and you were killing my boys and you did it for me? What the hell do you think I was thinking of, the goddam business? Is that as far as your mind can see, the business? What is that, the world – the business? What the hell do you mean, you did it for me? Don’t you have a country? Don’t you live in the world? (p. 158) This brings us to the question of blame. Does the responsibility of failure lie with the character or the society in which he lives? Let us look first at the case just mentioned. From the start of the play no secret is made of Joe’s lack of education. He is described by Miller thus; …a business man these many years, but with the imprint of the machine-shop worker and boss still upon him. When he reads, when he speaks, when he listens, it is with the terrible concentration of the uneducated man for whom there is still wonder in many commonly known things, a man whose judgments must be dredged out of experience and a peasant-like common sense. (p. 89-90) He is evidently uncomfortable in the modern world as we see from his comments about the fast expanding world of commerce; All the kind of business goin’ on. In my day, either you were a lawyer, or a doctor, or you worked in a shop…..in my day, there was no such thing. You look at a page like this you realize how ignorant you are. (p. 91) Whilst his ignorance is not strictly the fault of society, his lack of education may be considered so. However, it is not the fault of contemporary society but the one in which he was brought up. As Miller said, his judgments are born out of ‘experience and a peasant-like common sense’ and that experience does not stretch to the extended boundaries of the modern world. We see this particularly in the conflicting morals of him and his son. Like most of the younger generation, Chris was an active participant in the war. To him the war meant camaraderie and the forging of loyal bonds. To his father the war was an industrial machine and supplying the demand was of prime importance. The difference in perspective on this issue is most clearly expressed in Chris’s words to Annie; Everything was being destroyed, see, but it seemed to me that one new thing was made. A kind of – responsibility. Man for man. …And then I came home and it was incredible. I – there was no meaning in it here; the whole thing to them was a kind of a – bus accident. I went to work with Dad, and that rat-race again. I felt – what you said -ashamed somehow. Because nobody was changed at all. It seemed to make suckers out of a lot of guys. I felt wrong …. to open the bank book….you can take those things out of a war, but when you drive that car you’ve got to know that it came out of the love a man can have for a man, … (p. 122) Joe, on the other side of the fence argues for the position he held during the war; I’m in business, a man is in business;…..the process don’t work you’re out of business;…they close you up, they tear up your contracts, what the hell is it to them? You lay forty years into a business and they knock you out in five minutes, what could I do, let them take forty years, let them take my life away? (p. 157) Of course Willy Loman expresses these same feelings about the competitiveness of modern commerce, and essentially the lack of ‘personality’ in business, ‘I put thirty-four years into this firm, Howard, and now I can’t pay my insurance! You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away-’ (p. 64). Whilst we may agree with the idealism of Willy and Chris, the reiteration throughout all the plays is that in the business world it is dog eat dog. Of course the example that best highlights this is the relationship between Joe and his dead son Larry. Kate’s refusal to acknowledge the death of her son is because, ‘if he’s dead, your father killed him. Do you understand me now?’ (p. 156). In this relationship the conflicting worlds of business and morality are juxtaposed to greatest effect. Joe’s tragedy is that he had a goal, a morally questionable dream, which he tried to adhere to in the face of adversity. He falls trying to sustain this dream. Once again, although Joe is not an heroic figure, he was undoubtedly a role model to his son to the extent that Chris does not want to admit any impediment to the iconic picture he has of his father; ‘I was made yellow in this house because I suspected my father and I did nothing about it,’ (p. 166). Although Chris’s idealism should win through, its practicality is again called into question by Sue. She informs Annie that ‘Chris makes people want to be better than it’s possible to be.’ (p. 130). Of course what she really means is that Chris wants people to be better than they are able to be within the boundaries of contemporary society. In Death of a Salesman Willie tries to live his dream but is partially obstructed by the money making machine of society. Chris of course has been handed a successful business on a plate and, as Sue says, ‘if Chris wants people to put on the hair-shirt let him take off his broadcloth. He’s driving my husband crazy with that phoney idealism of his,’ (p. 132). We are reminded again of Charley’s words to Willy, ‘The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell.’ (p. 76). Thus we are faced with the fact that, regardless of your own private dreams, there is only so far you can take them in contemporary society. We are beaten before we begin as we see in Chris’s defeatist speech; This is the land of the great big dogs, you don’t love a man here, you eat him! That’s the principle; the only one we live by – …The world’s that way, how can I take it out on him? What sense does that make? This is a zoo, a zoo! (p. 167) If Joe’s tragedy is his fall from grace in his son’s eyes we must question how much of the blame lies with him and how much with society. His inherent belief in the need to support his family does not always comply with the broader moral issue. Nor is it always the most intelligent option. However in terms of tragedy, Joe has an ideal and he adheres to its ethos. In the same way that winning the physical battle was of prime importance for Chris in the war, for Joe, winning the battle to provide for his family was paramount in his small world. Jim’s cynical comment to Kate betrays a great deal about the type of competitive world in which he, Joe and Kate live, ‘Money. Money-money-money-money. You say it long enough it doesn’t mean anything. Oh, how I’d love to be around when that happens!’ (p. 159). At the end of the play even Chris relinquishes his hold on idealism and reluctantly admits, ‘I’m practical now. You made me practical.’ (p. 166). What is more, being practical seems in all plays to be the antithesis of being human. This is essentially the tragedy; where these characters start life as idealistic human beings, the machinations of society force them out and only those prepared to ride rough shod over the rest survive. In this we see valuable qualities wasted in the face of necessity, in the face of survival. The oppressivness of this society is commented on again and again; ‘Once in my life I would like to own something outright before it’s broken!’, (Death of a Salesman p. 56); ‘To suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation, when all you really desire is to be outdoors…And always to get ahead of the next fella…that’s how you build a future.’ (p. 16); ‘I don’t know what the hell I’m workin’ for.’ (p. 17); ‘The business doesn’t inspire me.’ (All My Sons p. 102). Finally of course the ill-timed power cut in The Glass Menagerie is an ironic look at the inhumane, impersonal nature of business; it goes on irrespective of the effect it is having on people’s private lives, ‘Well, we got through dinner. Very considerate of them to let us get through dinner before they plunged us into ever-lasting darkness,’ (p. 290). Essentially the tragic conflict in these plays is the suppression of dreams and ideals in the face of practicality and the lack of room for such dreams in America’s ‘automated’ society. As Tom Wingfield pertinently says; People go to the movies instead of moving! Hollywood characters are supposed to have all the adventures for everybody in America, while everybody in America sits in a dark room and watches them have them! (p. 282) There is the undercurrent in all three plays that there is something of greater quality in these people than has room to breath in contemporary society. For example, Tom is a poet who is trying to get ‘out of this 2 by 4 situation!’ (p. 255), and Willy’s instinct to plant seeds in the throws of his breakdown is symptomatic of the unnatural, clinical situation in which he lives. We may say then that the blame lies between society and character. The former for creating an unnatural, claustrophobic habitat in which these people live, the latter for persisting in ignoring that this state of affairs does exist. Willy’s insistence that success is about being ‘well liked’; Amanda’s belief in charm as the cure for all ills; Joe’s narrow-minded outlook and so on. All these people live the wrong dream perhaps, but, in keeping with Tragedy, they die either a literal or spiritual death fighting the battle to succeed. In the process they are falling and as they do so, we watch the possible solution being washed away down stream; this is tragedy. The most poignant example is Willy Loman who decides to commit suicide in order that his son might have the collateral to get the advantage he never had himself. What he fails to digest is that Biff does not have his father’s dream for himself. Moreover he ignores Charley’s warning, ‘Willy, nobody’s worth nothin’ dead.’ (p. 77). BIBLIOGRAPHY Miller, Arthur. All My Sons, (London: Penguin, 1961). Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman, (London: Penguin, 1961). Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie, (Middlesex: Penguin, 1962).

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