Comedy and Tragedy

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Comedy and Tragedy

Margaret Doody

As literary concepts, the terms “tragedy” and “comedy” arise from a Greek-rooted Western tradition and cannot be imposed on other traditions. The identification of tragedy in particular is complex, partly because a major philosopher of the fourth century BCE analyzed sets of Greek plays in a brilliantly authoritative fashion. Aristotle saw in serious Greek plays certain common elements which he extrapolated in order to create a category of thought. He gave us focus on plot and character, and terms to distinguish between dramatic representation (the mimetic), and narrative (diegetic). The purpose of this entry is not to elaborate a theoretical definition of tragedy or comedy in the history of literature, nor is it to offer a survey of “tragic” or “comic” novels, Western or non-Western. Indeed, even within the Western tradition, the two modes often converge in the same literary work. Rather, this entry proceeds by drawing upon examples from fiction as well as drama in order to illustrate the iterations, transformations, and implications of tragic or comic modes as they have come to be understood in literary criticism.

Comedy and Tragedy in Classical Literary Discourse

Aristotle's ideas regarding tragedy offer one way of framing a consideration of how the novel form, in its great variety and over many centuries, reveals iterations of, and transformations to, the concept of tragedy and its antonym, comedy. Aristotle looked down on plays in which the gravely threatened hero recovers from adversity; these works are not really tragic, such endings arise from the weakness of the audience (see Poetics 13:11). In his theory, anagnorisis (plotted turns of events and recognition brought about through tokens, etc.) evoke or revise reactions to what modern readers would term the personality of the hero. Aristotle taught us to look at individual sensibility as the unique premise of dramatic literature. Notoriously, we have lost Aristotle's lectures on “Comedy” (a subject of Umberto Eco's novel Il Nome della rosa (1980, The Name of the Rose). Literary historians such as Horace (d. 8 BCE) locate the origins of comedy in rural harvest celebrations (Epistles 2:1). Aristotle might have agreed with Horace that staged comedy is more difficult to write or act, with less indulgence given it than tragedy. Aristotle is aware that there are kinds of literature not covered by his three main terms: epic, tragedy, comedy. “For we do not have a common name for the mimes of Sophronos and Xenarchon and the Socratic speeches [i.e., Plato's dialogues]” (Poetics 1:8, 1447b]. But he may have said that comedy treats of low characters whose fate does not affect whole societies, or that incongruities and problems can be resolved in comic dramas, whether absurdly or more naturalistically. We might perhaps also assume that Aristotle would not be too surprised by the development of the prose story and dialogue into the novel—and he might claim that the GENRE was obviously destined to be comic, an outcropping of vulgar comic drama in pedestrian speech, lacking verse, a work of indeterminate if clever moral conversations.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Aristotle's critique of drama is his determined but apparently casual secularization of it. Like most drama in the world Greek tragedy had its origins in religion. Attic drama was a sacrifice, most particularly to Dionysos at the spring celebration of the Great Dionysia. Plays were mounted only as part of religious festivals. Aristotle removed tragedy from the religious realm to that which we would term “entertainment.” But in the nineteenth century Nietzsche, in Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik (1872, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music), indignantly restored tragedy (or his version of it) to its religious and communal setting and Dionysian contact with the dark sublime. The Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka later came to reinterpret Nietzsche in his Bacchae of Euripides (1973), a rewriting of Euripides that blends classical drama with Yoruba theater and rituals of the god Ogun, whom he designates as “elder brother of Dionysos.”

Aristotle's secularization points the way to forms of written fiction that would not be rooted in religion, nor attached to folk festivals of seedtime and harvest. In this sense, we might say that he presages the coming form that began to take shape when the conquests of Alexander and the movements of peoples brought about an amalgamation in which North African, Asian, and European styles, topics, and techniques converge. The writers of the earliest surviving results of this fusion that we call the novel are educated in the Greek language and culture, but not themselves Greeks. Of the two great early novelists who wrote in Latin, only one (Petronius) is a true Roman. The others are foreigners: from North Africa, Syria, or Asia Minor. All alike are very clearly aware of the dramatic traditions of tragedy and comedy as these had been devised by the Athenians, just as they are aware of the Homeric epic. They constantly draw upon tragedy, offering references and quotations, and shaping scenes and even whole plots or subplots in relation to tragic conventions or stories. Knemon's story in Heliodorus's Aithiopika (An Ethiopian Romance) is a comic reworking of Euripides's Hippolytos. Tokens and reunions figure, recognitions abound. Recognitiones, the title of one of the earliest Christian novels, indicates a shared cultural consciousness of tragedy and of Aristotle's statements about it, even while the Christian and redemptive themes contradict in large measure both Greek tragedy and Aristotelian secularism.

Athenian tragic drama is one of the great developments in world literature, and the literary forms that have come after, including the novel form, supersede it without rendering it obsolete as a way of thinking about the purposes and effects of literature. Greek tragic dramatists ultimately seem to wish to deal with domestic pain that cannot be domesticated. In Euripides's Iphigenia in Tauris the dramatist shows us a rescued Iphigenia, lonely virgin tending a shrine of Artemis dedicated to killing foreigners. Iphigenia's work and deity fill her with dread, even before she has to kill the trespassing Orestes, her own brother. Orestes from time to time breaks into madness, result of the bloody revenge he has meted out to his mother. Everything is iteration or pause. There is a terrible stillness at the heart of this tragedy, like a stone of sacrifice, a MEMORY of sacrificial assault so huge that no human-contrived process seems able to come to terms with it. Yet the dramatist feels called upon to suggest that some (if imperfect) resolution might be found to this pain, that the infernal stasis of memory and iteration cannot and should not endure.

Here we touch on something of great importance that the Western novelists take from the developments of tragedy from Aeschylus to Euripides. Novelists tend to think that personal disasters, even giant catastrophes, can be endured and survived—they hold out the hope that there are mental and emotional as well as social processes that can bring about recovery. This explains the great contempt that Nietzsche felt for novelists as a whole—in his view their works are the vulgar fruit of Apollonian optimism and confidence in reason. He blames their weak, cowardly cheerfulness on the prosy moral brightness of both Aesop and Socrates. The novel is a pleading, submissive, happiness-seeking Chrysothemis in comparison to its stronger uncompromising sister. Tragedy, like an Electra, would not deny that the terrible is terrible. Aristotle and Freud both had a point in seeing that tragedy centers on personal relations within the family; in other words, that it has an essence that we learned to call “psychological” once Freud used the tragedies to think with. Tragedy's individual center is at once its strength and its weakness. The great catastrophes of the works of Sophocles and Euripides concern the family and the person struggling within it, rather than the suffering of the many—we rapidly lose interest in the plague victims in Thebes as we concentrate on Oedipus and his peculiar parentage (see PSYCHOLOGICAL).

Comedy has its own ways of dealing with the terrible. Arguably, comedy may be better at dealing with widespread disaster than traditional tragedy. The horrors of the Thirty Years' War are not brought out in historical drama like Schiller's grand trilogy Wallenstein (1798—1800) but in Grimmelshausen's novel of 1689, Der abenteuerliche Simplicissimus Teutsch (Simplicius Simplicissimus), a brutally comic work in which the deadpan voice of a puzzled boy is employed to narrate the rape, killing, and mere senseless destruction that accompanies the overrunning of a household and a village by a brutal military. Voltaire picks up this tone in Candide (1759) for the fantastic rendition of the unspeakable in his account of European battles, or the cruelties that accompany the takeover of South America.

If medieval Western literature gives a high place to love stories, in China and Japan, love stories likewise take a central role in much literature from the twelfth century. This development is likewise accompanied by an emphasis on and exploration of female characters. Chinese drama never seems quite to acknowledge as a separate entity what Nietzsche would have recognized as “tragedy”: but it does include stories of death and loss. The Yuan period (1271—1368), when the Han were overcome in the Mongol invasion, gives rise to some of the best of China's drama, written by jobless scholars in poetry for a populace suffering from foreign oppression. A popular variety form of one-act drama with song, folk music, and clowns, called zaju, developed into a four-act play with a prologue, a form capable of serious work. Many later forms of Chinese drama, including Beijing opera, descend from Yuan drama, and the first Chinese plays to come to the West are of the Yuan era. Voltaire turned an already translated version of the zaju play Zhaoshi guer (The Orphan of the House of Zhao) by Ji Junxiang (d. 1368?) into his play L'Orphelin de la Chine (1755), trans. Arthur Murphy (1727—1805) (1759, The Orphan of China). Two centuries later Bertolt Brecht (1898—1956) created his own version of Li Xingfu's zaju drama of the early fourteenth century, Hoei-lan-ki (The Chalk Circle). The Caucasian Chalk Circle (first staged in the U.S. in 1948) turned the story into a political fable. The two Yuan plays deal with the difficult possibility of upholding values in cruel and turbulent times. Characters we like may die along the way, but the virtues survive among the people. These motifs would emerge later in Chinese novels, along with comic expressionism, as in novels like Shuihu zhuan (Water Margin) and Xiyou ji (1592, Journey to the West). Similarly, many Chinese plays deal with parental cruelty and social restriction, love and separation—what the Greeks would have called erotika pathemata. As in Western fiction, love can be an even fatal sickness. Suffering and redemption may be shown in huge, elaborately staged operas like Mudan Ting (The Peony Pavilion by Tang Xianzu (1550—1616); in this opera a beautiful girl dies for love, but the man she loves, with the help of a portrait, brings her back from the dead. Such a dramatic story, not unlike the contemporary A Winter's Tale, belongs to the category that Edward Dowden in Shakespeare, His Mind and Art (1875) invented for William Shakespeare's late plays, i.e., “Romance”—a kind of piece which stubbornly refuses allegiance to the rules of either comedy or tragedy. Probably “Romance” is really the dominant form of modern fictional literature, mimetic, and diegetic. If we think of modern popular mimetic forms—movies, musicals and TV—Romance in this capacious sense dominates, topping some minor stylized epic adventures and the persistent situation comedy.

Early-Modern and Modern Articulations

The novel is customarily averse to tragedy as a stance and a mode, even as it draws upon the genre as upon a mine of emerald. It is the custom of novels worldwide to conduct their business in a comic mode, even if the story is going to end “unhappily”—i.e., with the death of one or more of the protagonists. It is thus difficult to apply the word “tragedy” to a novel neatly or unproblematically. Samuel Richardson proclaimed that in Clarissa (1747—48) he intended more than “a Novel or is of the Tragic Kind,” but the novel proceeds in the comic mode as well.

Among the world's great novels with unhappy endings we may list Murasaki Shikibu's Genji Monogatari (eleventh century, The Tale of Genji); Clarissa; Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761, Julie, or, The New Héloïse); Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774, The Sorrows of Young Werther); Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857); Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1873—77); and Henry James's The Wings of the Dove (1902). The death of women features very largely in those would-be—or could be—tragic novels. Madame Bovary's death seems so greatly desired by her author; it is hard to say the novel's ending is a matter for sorrow or an object lesson. The era in which the novel became the dominant literary form in Western Europe is noticeably precisely the time at which it became practically impossible to write or produce tragedies involving the fall of tragic heroes. The decline of the classical notion of the tragic hero in modern times presumably was precipitated both by the historical decline of the nobility in status and military power, and the concomitant fading away of revenge, personal or familial, as a governing rule of conduct. Honor underwent a sea-change, and tragedy with it. A new rationalism and confidence in progress became visible in Western Europe, supported by the growing wealth of some in a new era of trade and imperialism. Against this background, the notion of a person of good family and education being subjected to a destiny that he could not control becomes more unpalatable.

If tragedy in the strict sense declined by the eighteenth century (or hid out in opera), comedy came up. Molière, in whom we can find not only great irony but even at times a sort of dry despair (as in Dom Juan, 1665), is never tragic. He was followed in England by the Restoration comic playwrights. New comedies involved persons of the lower aristocracy and the wealthy middle class. They exhibited the world of display, of getting and spending—matters attractive to the Venetian comic dramatist Carlo Goldoni in mid-century, though Goldoni is attracted by the lower middle class as much as by the well-off. In England women began to write comedies for the public stage as Susanna Centlivre did, democratically picking up the characteristic traits and habits of contemporary middle and lower-middle-class life in such plays as A Bold Stroke for a Wife (one scene of this play of 1718, set in a coffeehouse, gives us stock calling and stockjobbing.)

The same period in Japan sees the rise of Kabuki theater, one of the world's greatest theatrical inventions. Kabuki comes from the low end of popular culture; it incorporates “low” characters like prostitutes and lower-class merchants. Lively productions involved colorful costumes and music. It is remarkable how Kabuki can take hold of classic tragic themes, fitted to a period of noble rule, and adapt them, as the dramatist does in Sukeroku Flower of Edo (1718). Sukeroku, a lonely revenger, is aided by a loyal courtesan; his revenge is worked out satisfactorily, and yet everything remains within a comic frame. The comedy feels at liberty to deal with themes traditionally grand or tragic without insulting them; the play certainly does not simply mock the feelings or frustrations of its central characters. Rather, the comic mode has overtaken and swallowed the tragic—it incorporates the tragic. Kabuki seems one of the most democratic forms of theater ever invented. The reestablishment in modern times of the tragic in Japanese literature has been accomplished in the novels of Yuko Mishima, who summons tragic themes and tones in his tetralogy HImagejImage no Umi (1966—71, The Sea of Fertility). The author punctuated his story with a full stop in his dramatic suicide in 1970. Yet his long narrative is supersensitive to the Proustian pleasures and nuances of telling a story and getting into a character's mind. Mishima, who desired tragedy not just on paper, may be seen as retorting to Kabuki's treatment of nobility, revenge, lost hopes, and suicide.

Mishima's hero incorporates a national trauma and a concomitant sense of loss and insult. Yet Japan's most widely known cultural response to the shock of the end of WWII and the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is—notoriously—Godzilla. That great monster has tramped his way through countless cities, and been overcome countless times. It is humbling to consider that the works of greatest efficacy to grapple with horror may have nothing to do with grand, self-conscious tragedy, and that as Aristophanes once saw, only the fantastic (co-opting folk tale and legend) can do the job.

Comedy, Tragedy, and the Novel Genre

The novel is, of course, above all a written work—not primarily recited nor performed. It is lengthy, and in prose, so it cannot be memorized and carried about in the head. There is no scene save “the mind's eye.” It requires versatility in an author, and confidence. In part, the versatility is an effect born of a certain cunning showing off, a borrowing of phrases and even situations from other works, a reference back and forth, flitting from epic to tragic play to lyric. The novel allows the narrative to create a hash, like the satura of satire—if not necessarily with satiric intent (see PARODY). We may delight in a sudden unexpected relation or collision of Sappho and Sophocles. No other genres are sacred. This is just as true of literature at a great geographic and historical remove from the Greek cultural world. Think of Shitou ji (The Story of the Stone) by Cao Xueqin (ca.1715—ca. 1763), the Chinese classic novel of the Manchu era. Confucian lore and advice is brought in only to be defied, traditional lyric mingles with tragic and comic opera in cascades of literary reference. Not only do the central characters read poetry, they are poets, and all of literature is culled to give us a sense of the inwardness and complexity of the central personages. There is a religious meaning to Shitou ji, but it is neither obvious nor narrow, and one can get to it only by going through a number of modes, moralities, and literary devices and desires.

Novels of all sorts make constant reference to tragedy. Yet, however respectful such reference may be, there is often a certain ironic content. Goethe once wrote a critique of Alessandro Manzoni as too respectful of the past in trying to recreate archaic feelings and motives. Goethe holds that the great Greek writers of epics and of the dramas were employing anachronism. Accepting the truth in Goethe's remarks, we can see that when a novelist refers directly or indirectly to the characters, themes, and techniques of comedy and (especially) tragedy, he or she is being anachronistic. We may be entertained by the reminder of a valuable but superseded style, a genuine antique to be picked up and put down again, a work to be both treasured and relinquished as insufficient to the needs of modern life. The anachronism of such reference within a novel adds to its own odd charm, but does not necessarily pay substantial tribute to the work referred to. Goethe's own Werther illustrates ironic reference both to epic literature and to modern attempts at tragedy, when the suicidal hero tries to set up his dying scene with the right props, including the text of Emilia Galotti.

In making such references as almost inevitable and inevitably anachronistic the novel exhibits tragedy as at once valuable and superannuated. Heliodorus, in his early Greek novel Aithiopika (ca. third century CE, Ethiopian History), offers a vision of Odysseus as petulant, sly, and aged. The novel knows it is superseding the epic. Heliodorus does much the same thing with tragedy, mocking his characters for tragic speeches, while they often refer to their lives as scenes on the tragic stage. Heliodorus's highly wrought and witty novel became extremely important to early modern fiction after its publication in 1534; its effects can be traced in Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra's Don Quixote (1605, 1615) and Persiles y Sigismunda (1617), Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749), Clarissa, and others. Heliodorus taught modern novelists in the Western European traditions about the fun of sophisticated mixing and questioning of genres. Such almost callous displacement of both epic and tragedy in Heliodorus's novel exemplifies the ways in which “low” forms (conventionally considered) of literature or other arts consistently elbow out or displace “higher” forms. This seems to be a pattern found throughout the world. Of course, at times a popular art like the Chinese Yuan zaju comedy will be replaced by a higher, more “educated” art, as zaju was displaced by the “marvel plays” and then by the kingu, slow and classic, which delighted courtiers and officials. From time to time governments or elite power groups seek to refine taste and escape from or counteract popular culture—as when the wealthy and titled brought in the Italian opera to London in the eighteenth century. In the general pattern of aesthetic history, however, what was once “low” can and will displace the “high.” However respectful the novel pretends to be of its more culturally or intellectually respectable predecessors, it is a saucy usurper or a downright cannibal that feeds on other genres.

When psychological characterization is not enough, the novel's relation to tragedy practically ceases to operate. Novelistic narrative turns then to the fantastic. There are some public and huge calamities which, as we have seen, will not fit into the tragic mould any more than into domestic or situation comedy. In these instances the novelist finds a resort in the fantastic, more like Aristophanes or the cinematic devisers of Godzilla. The story that Apuleius tells in his Metamorphoses or Asinus aureus (second century CE) is not a comedy like the simple ass-story in Onos. Certainly it is not a tragedy—it even seems to promise, if ironically, a happy ending on a spiritual plane. It expresses, I think, the deeply problematic nature of living under a foreign empire. What might be called the “magical realism” of Apuleius's sort seems to be the mode of choice for dealing with general political catastrophe and cultural takeover—as it is in Gabriel García Márquez's Cien Años de soledad (1967, One Hundred Years of Solitude). A recent Chinese novel, Mo Yan's Shengsi pilao (2006, Life and Death are Wearing Me Out) deals with the hideous events of the Great Leap Forward and its aftermath through use of metempsychosis and metamorphoses, borrowing overtly from Apuleius as from Chinese fiction (including the classic Xiyou ji). The comedy is not comedy of manners or familial drama, but energetically surreal. Comedy returns to the absurd triumph of physical survival in a crazy world.

Over the years and across cultures, then, novels have ingeniously created new forms of themselves; novels have dealt in forms of science fiction from earliest times, and also developed the art of description, the ekphrasis, almost out of recognition. In the eighteenth century the new form above all was the gothic novel, which brings in the Dionysian, willful, violent material censored out by optimism and regulation. Gothic fiction permits doubt and darkness, violence and despair—if sometimes to the point of self-parody. The gothic novel feeds into novels not ostensibly gothic, bringing its secret stash of tragic material with it, as the death of the villain-hero of M. G. Lewis's The Monk (1796) feeds into the death of Quilp near the end of Charles Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop (1840—41). Defying neoclassicism and a reinvented Aristotle, the new literature could go in for bloodshed, excess, and unjust suffering. The death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop is often decried—especially by those who have not read the book. There is no deathbed scene (unlike the bad TV dramatization). The real tragedy is the story of the gambling-addicted grandfather who has unwillingly killed the thing he loves. But unlike a traditional tragic hero this old man (who is never given a real name) gains no insight, he has not wit enough left to recognize his flaw. As a novel with an “unhappy ending” The Old Curiosity Shop has a real affinity with King Lear, but, curiously, cannot qualify as a tragedy—it doesn't want to. Instead, it brings to our attention the demonic and fantastic energies of the world. Here we have Dionysian fantasy unregulated by tragedy. Honoré de Balzac's Le Père Goriot (1835, Father Goriot) is a rewriting of the King Lear story, with a new class setting. The bossy old father dying in a suburban lower middle-class boarding house, mistreated by his social-climbing daughters, is not grand like Lear on the heath. Balzac wants to make us see if we can care for this suffering in someone who is neither a king nor kingly, and a world in which the struggle is not for grand power but for the power there is in money. Shakespeare's King Lear is at once restored and demystified.

Late twentieth- and twenty-first-century uses of tragedy, as in Samuel Beckett's En attendant Godot (1953, Waiting for Godot) seem to tend toward the exhibition of life unfilled, stories of frustration and incompleteness. Violence and bloodshed currently belong more to variants on adventure story. We know that Franz Kafka's posthumously published Der Prozeß (1925, The Trial), the story of a man who undergoes strange legal trials and can never show himself innocent, is not at all like a crime drama. Kafka's story is of Everyman, the slow, trying process of each human life, perpetually judged as falling short—and ending inevitably with a death sentence. On another level, it can be said to be the story of alienated populations working in the same space, and the story too of the threat impending over the Jews. To call Kafka's novel a tragic work would, peculiarly, belittle it—and yet we are reminded of Tragedy. On a lighter note—yet not too light—Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach (2007), a story of misunderstanding ending with the separation of hero and heroine after their one evening of marriage, is often described by young readers as “a tragedy.” But this identification is simpleminded. One of the things tragedy can do is make us aware of the part played in life by unalterable acts. Nietzsche is right in seeing that the tragic sense in the Greek plays does call upon us to respect the ineluctable toughness of things. In that respect, McEwan's novel links us with tragedy, which says that loss is loss, and that some bad things cannot be washed away, though they may be redeemed at some level not yet visible.

SEE ALSO: Ancient Narratives of the West; Definitions of the Novel; Melodrama; Romance


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