One concept I attempt to convey to students when I teach tragedy is that when tragedy works, it exhilarates rather than depresses the audience. Much depends on the protagonist; he or she must outstrip us in stature, or as my translation of Aristotle puts it, be “better” than we are, i.e., more profoundly human, capable of greater deeds (and greater misdeeds).
However, Aristotle is not my man when it comes to tragedy. My man is Richard Sewell whose The Tragic Vision offers a brilliant description and analysis of the tragic landscape, that bleak Darwinian plain of pre-Christian darkness, an elemental shriek-filled darkness that hearkens to that time in human history before we had mastered fire.
Or, as Yeats puts it, when
The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy.
Faulkner possessed this tragic vision, and Addie Bundren in As I Lay Dying beautifully articulates it:
And then [husband Anse] died. He did not know that he was dead. I would lie by him in the dark, hearing the dark land talking of God’s love and His beauty and His sin: hearing the dark voicelessness in which the words are the deeds, and the other words that are not the deeds, that are just the gaps in people’s lacks, coming down like the cries of the geese out of the wild darkness in the old terrible nights.
What has set my mind to such dark contemplations is the penultimate episode of Season 1 of the HBO series Treme, and in the unlikely event if, like me, you’re four years behind and still on Season 1, you might not want to read any further, but then again, a careful viewer would already have noted the not-very-subtle foreshadowings of the character Creighton Bernette’s impending suicide.
Bernette, played by John Goodman, is an English professor at Tulane struggling with his beloved New Orlean’s destruction after Katrina and with the paralysis of writer’s block. Even though he has a loving wife, an early teen-aged daughter, and an intact, lovely house in the city, he pulls a Harte Crane and jumps off a ferry into the Mississippi River and drowns himself. Notably, he had just finished teaching Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, whose protagonist Edna Pontellier, also a New Orleans citizen, drowns herself over a failed extra-marital affair and in essence because marriage and motherhood don’t offer her enough satisfaction — despite the fact she has servants to do housework for her.
These two, Creighton and Edna, fail the tragedy test — they’re merely pathetic, i.e., worthy of pity — but there’s nothing exhilarating about their copping out over problems that pale compared to those of the wretches who follow below — my top six literary suicides, which I catalog in chronological order.
Sophocles presents us with a perverse and terrible vision of life. The drama takes place in a universe governed by malevolent deities who rain horror upon the otherwise innocent offspring of evil doers (Yes, Oedipus suffers from hubris but is the epitome of integrity and about as well-meaning as any tragic hero out there. He, his wife/mother, half-sisters/daughters and half-brother/sons don’t deserve their fates).
Near the close of the play, his wife and mother Jocasta stands on the stage mutely listening as Oedipus bullies an old shepherd in telling him the truth of Oedipus’s origins.
As he undergoes his anagnorisis, the agonizing recognition of his horrible situation, Jocasta runs off stage to hang herself.
Someone called “Second Messenger” fills us in in Dudley Fitts’ and Robert Fitzgerald’s translation:
When she had left us,
In passionate silence, passing through the court,
She ran to her apartment in the house,
Her hair clutched by the fingers of both hands.
She closed the doors behind her; then, by that bed
Where long ago the fatal son was conceived—
That son who should bring about his father’s death–
We heard her call upon [Oedipus’s father]Laius, dead so many years,
And heard her wail for the double fruit of her marriage,
A husband by her husband, children by her child [. . .]
[. . .] For with a dreadful cry
[Oedipus] hurled his weight, as though wrenched out of himself,
At the twin doors: the bolts gave, and he rushed in.
And there we saw her hanging, her body swaying
From the cruel cord she had noosed about her neck.
A great sob broke from him, heartbreaking to hear,
As he loosed the rope and lowered her to the ground.
I would blot out from my mind what happened next!
For the King ripped from her gown the golden brooches
That were her ornament, and raised them, and
plunged them down
Straight into his own eyeballs, crying, “No more.
No more shall you look on the misery about me,
The horrors of my own doing! Too long you have known
The faces of those whom I should never have seen,
Too long been blind to those whom I was searching!
From this hour, go in darkness!” And as he spoke.
He struck at his eyes—not once, but many times;
And the blood spattered his beard.
Bursting from his ruined sockets like red hail.
Of course, in Shakespeare we have several suicides from which to choose — Romeo and Juliet, Ophelia, Cleopatra — but I opt for Othello, who has just strangled to death his innocent bride Desdemona after having been cruelly convinced by the sociopath Iago that Desdemona had been unfaithful with Othello’s friend and confidant Cassio.
Here’s Othello’s great suicide speech.
Soft you; a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know’t.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex’d in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.
Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina
Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina might be considered the great-great grandmothers of Edna Pontellier, but they’re so much more alive, so much richer creations that their suicides, the first by poisoning herself, the second by throwing herself in front of a train, move us more — and they are certainly more terrible.
Here’s Emma’s in Paul De Man’s translation:
Suddenly from the pavement outside came the loud noise of wooden shoes and the clattering of a stick; and a voice rose — a raucous voice — that sang
Often the heat of a summer’s day
Makes a young girl dream her heart away.
Emma raised herself like a galvanized corpse, her hair streaming, her eyes fixed staring.
To gather up all the new-cut stalks
Of wheat left by the scythe’s cold swing.
Nanette bends over as she walks
Toward the furrows from whence they spring.
“The blind man!” she cried.
And Emma began to laugh, an atrocious, frantic, desperate laugh, thinking she saw the hideous face of the poor wretch loom out of the eternal darkness like a menace.
The wind blew very hard that day
It blew her petticoat away.
A final spasm threw her back on the mattress. They all drew near. She had ceased to exist.
Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigailov
drawing by Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin
Of course, with its happy ending, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is not a tragedy. However, its supposed villain Svidrigailov’s suicide near the end of the narrative is so incredibly cool it makes my top six.
Svidrigailov has reached hedonism’s dead end, has been rejected by Dounia, the protagonist’s sister, and finds himself in a mouse-infested flop house suffering through one of the greatest nightmares ever conceived and rendered.(Here, Henry James’s admonition, “Tell a dream, lose a reader,” is proven false).
A description of Svidrigailov’s last few minutes from Constance Garnet’s translation:
“I’ve had nightmare all night!” He got up angrily, feeling utterly shattered; his bones ached. There was a thick mist outside and he could see nothing. It was nearly five. He had overslept himself! He got up, put on his still damp jacket and overcoat. Feeling the revolver in his pocket, he took it out and then he sat down, took a notebook out of his pocket and in the most conspicuous place on the title page wrote a few lines in large letters. Reading them over, he sank into thought with his elbows on the table. The revolver and the notebook lay beside him. Some flies woke up and settled on the untouched veal, which was still on the table. He stared at them and at last with his free right hand began trying to catch one. He tried till he was tired, but could not catch it. At last, realising that he was engaged in this interesting pursuit, he started, got up and walked resolutely out of the room. A minute later he was in the street.
“What do you want here?” [a soldier] said, without moving or changing his position.
“Nothing, brother, good morning,” answered Svidrigailov.
“This isn’t the place.”
“I am going to foreign parts, brother.”
“To foreign parts?”
Svidrigailov took out the revolver and cocked it. Achilles raised his eyebrows.
“I say, this is not the place for such jokes!”
“Why shouldn’t it be the place?”
“Because it isn’t.”
“Well, brother, I don’t mind that. It’s a good place. When you are asked, you just say he was going, he said, to America.”
He put the revolver to his right temple.
“You can’t do it here, it’s not the place,” cried Achilles, rousing himself, his eyes growing bigger and bigger.
Svidrigailov pulled the trigger.
Too bad Treme’s Creighton Bernette wasn’t teaching The Sound and the Fury instead of The Awakening because pathetic, doomed Quentin Compson’s self-drowning would add some literary heft to Bernette’s own pathetic situation. Interestingly enough, although fictional, Quentin has a commemorative plaque on the Anderson Bridge over the Charles River that reads
Drowned in the odour of honeysuckle.
Here’s the first paragraph of the Quentin Section:
When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtains it was between seven and eight oclock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch. It was Grandfather’s and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather excruciatingly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father’s. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.
This is Quentin’s last day. He wrenches the hands from this watch that once belonged to General Compson, CSA, but the watch keeps ticking.
Here is the last paragraph:
The last note sounded. At last it stopped vibrating and the darkness was still again. I entered the sitting room and turned on the light. I put my vest on. The gasoline was faint now, barely noticeable, and in the mirror the stain didn’t show. Not like my eye did, anyway. I put on my coat. Shreve’s letter crackled through the cloth and I took it out and examined the address, and put it in my side pocket. Then I carried the watch into Shreve’s room and put it in his drawer and went to my room and got a fresh handkerchief and went to the door and put my hand on the light switch. Then I remembered I hadn’t brushed my teeth, so I had to open the bag again. I found my toothbrush and got some of Shreve’s paste and went out and brushed my teeth. I squeezed the brush as dry as I could and put it back in the bag and shut it, and went to the door again. Before I snapped the light out I looked around to see if there was anything else, then I saw that I had forgotten my hat. I’d have to go by the postoffice and I’d be sure to meet some of them, and they’d think I was a Harvard Square student making like he was a senior. I had forgotten to brush it too, but Shreve had a brush, so I didn’t have to open the bag any more.
Lots of, if not most, people try to avoid tragic works because of the reasonable idea that the world is so full of woe — ISIS, Ebola, tornadoes, head-on collisions, etc. However, in great tragedies like Oedipus and Lear we can take solace in our shared humanity with these great figures, our shared woe. Antigone is my sister and Hamlet my brother. After hanging out with them, I can agree with Hamlet:
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like