Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Aristotle vs. Children's Literature: Tragic Heroes

Over at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy, there's a bit of interesting hash going on about the possibility of tragic heroes existing in children's literature. Apparently, this was a question posited by a library patron, and both Liz and the readers who posted comments are in a bit of a disagreement as to whether or not tragic heroes even exist in books for young readers. (Does the tree in The Giving Tree count as a tragic hero? Or just the kid who has to listen to that story?) A commenter named Andrew asked:

I wonder if it's possible to have a strictly Aristotelian tragic hero in a children's book. Do the flaws of even YA protagonists rise to the level of tragedy? I'm not making a qualitative judgment at all--a tragic hero isn't innately any better than another kind of hero. It's just that most YA flaws aren't fatal or insurmountable, and they don't tend to lead to a great reversal of fortune (i.e., death, eyes ripped from sockets, etc.). The flaws aren't but-for-this-he-would-have-been-a-great-King-of-Denmark type flaws. I think if YA had "tragic heroes," the books would have higher body counts.
First question: Andrew, do you want to reconsider The Chocolate War? Does a high body count alone merit a story as "tragic"?

But I'm going to put aside the discussion of YA literature for a bit to go over a bit of how we define "tragic heroes" today. And to do that, I'm going to reference a delightful interview of Ken Gros Louis, who teaches a college course about heroes through the ages at Indiana University Bloomington. About defining what a "tragic hero" is, he writes:

The phrase "tragic hero" has been interpreted differently at different times of history; indeed, the definition often depends on one's interpretation of what history is.

Thus, in classical times, the tragic hero was one who had a tragic flaw that inevitably led to his downfall. But in medieval times, bad things happened to good people, and in a sense, because of the deep belief in resurrection and the afterlife, things that happened in this world didn't matter that much. For Shakespeare and his contemporaries, the tragic hero, like Hamlet or MacBeth or Othello, was one whose passions often overruled reason--or, put another way, one whose three parts of the soul were not in harmony. I could go on and on because the definition has really not been constant. Think of Job, for example--I'm not sure he would have been considered a tragic hero.

And does the classical definition of tragic heroes still apply in modern times?
The classical definition may work in certain circumstances, although I don't think the phrase "tragic hero" would necessarily apply. Thus, Bill Clinton may have a tragic flaw, but I doubt if most people would put him in the same category as the classical tragic heroes.
With this flexibility in mind, I'm going be a little bold and say that tragic heroes in children's literature can only exist in stories that end badly -- that are true tragedies. So, what are those?
In books for children, stories with truly unhappy endings tend to be tempered with that ever-pervasive "sense of hope" that leads us to believe that something good still exists for the protagonist in the future. Also, with the rise of realism in literature for kids, most disasters happen as a result of chance, or the consequences of a social system gone wrong. So, we have stories like Kira-Kira, Out of the Dust, Bridge to Terabithia, or even The Red Rose Box. In these stories, bad stuff simply happens. To find true tragic heroes, I think, you'd have to go back to a time before modernism hit the kidlit world. When the sensibility of the average children's book was still infused with the heady vapors of Romanticism.

That's right: I'm talking about Hans Christian Andersen. You want tragedy? Take a good gander at The Little Mermaid, or The Steadfast Tin Soldier. In terms of the Shakespearean tragic hero, these tales have protagonists whose passions truly rule over their reason and lead to their downfall. And yet, they are gorgeous, timeless stories. In Ruth Sawyer's classic novel, Roller Skates, tragic stories are explained to the ten-year-old protagonist as being something bad held within something incredibly beautiful, so we can stand looking such sadness in the face, and deal with it. In other words, tragic story is something that we need to psychically survive-- and that includes kids. Makes you think twice about throwing a singing crab into an Andersen tale, doesn't it?


kbookwoman said...

I am so sorry when I see a Hans Christian Andersen tale that is meant to be sad and thoughtful rewritten to downplay the author's wit and the true tragedy of the story.

Andrew Karre said...

Hi Brooke,

Excellent post. This is a great discussion. My question that you quoted (I'm the aforementioned "Andrew" by the way) was meant to change the perspective of the question a bit, not necessarily to answer it. In my mind, a tragic hero is a narrowly tailored thing (nobility or greatness, fatal flaw, reversal leading to downfall and catharsis, etc.). Like I said before, a tragic hero--say, Hamlet or Coriolanus--isn't superior as an artistic achievement to another kind of hero who is decidedly not tragic in any Aristotelian sense--say, Elizabeth Bennett. (In fact, I'd argue for Elizabeth Bennett being a more fully realized character than Hamlet).

As for the Chocolate War, I don't think its "body count" makes it tragic or not tragic. As you aptly point out, it depends on your definition of tragic hero. As I read it, though, I think Jerry's status as an everykid-type figure answering the "Do I dare disturb the universe?" question makes him ultimately different from but nearly related to a tragic hero. I read his answer as "yes, I dared, but I wish I hadn't." I definitely think Cormier had tragedy in mind when he wrote the end. It's almost like he's rejecting the nobility of tragedy in a very modernist kind of way as Jerry thinks: "It's a laugh, Goober, a fake. Don't disturb the universe, Goober, no matter what the posters say." Very evocative of Hamlet's dying words to Horatio: "in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain / To tell my story"--except that Hamlet actually says them and Jerry can't, and at least Hamlet knows Claudius is dead, whereas Jerry knows Archie is going to get off. (Man, Cormier was a genius.)

weilin said...

My friends like to play it and buy aoc gold. If you have money to buy age of conan gold, you will find it is very useful. Earning conan gold is not so hard. Try your best and then you can get it. I buy cheap aoc gold, just because I like it. So simple the aoc money is.

I am so happy to get some aion kina from my friends. They know I need aion online kina, they give me. So I always can get some aion gold from my friends. I buy aion kina with my spare money. It makes me happy that I can still earn some cheap aion kina.

Anonymous said...

aion chinaaion china gold,
aion cn goldaion chinese gold,
aion gold chinaaion gold chinese,
china aion goldchinese aion gold,
aion china kinaaion chinese kina,
aion kina chinachina aion kina,
aion china buybuy aion china,
aion chinese server

aion cn server

aion china server goldchina aion server gold,
chinese aion server

aion chinese server

aion cn server kinaaion china server kina,
china aion server kinachinese aion server kinaaion online gold

requiem online gold said...

Now do you worried about that in the game do not had enough second life linden to play the game, now you can not worried, my friend told me a website, in here you can buy a lot linden dollars and only spend a little money, do not hesitate, it was really, in here we had much secondlife money, we can sure that you will get the cheap linden, quick to come here to buy lindens.

Now do you worried about that in the game do not had enough requiem gold to play the game, now you can not worried, my friend told me a website, in here you can buy a lot requiem lant and only spend a little money, do not hesitate, it was really, in here we had much requiem money, we can sure that you will get the cheap requiem lant, quick to come here to buy requiem online gold.

wo said...

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . I like it

wo said...

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . good,very good!

wo said...

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This article is very good,I like it !

wo said...

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . good!good!

wo said...

. . . . .
. . . .
. . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I like it,good,very good!

Anonymous said...

These shining jewelries have fatal attraction to women who never feel satisfied for the cartier love jewellery they have had. cartier The following are some basic information in the hope that it could help you in some way. cartier love jewelry That is because as the ornaments and complements of dressing, cartier jewellery plays an important part in highlighting one's unique qualities. cartier love But it is hard for people to master the tips in choosing jewelries properly. cartier jewelry The suggestions herein are about how to choose jewelries in the hope that you will find them useful cartier jewelry Great attention should be paid to the coordination of the jewelries you chose to your face, complexion, temperament, hairstyle, etc. so that you can obtain the most suitable jewelries. cartier jewellery The basic criteria is to choose the jewelry whose shape is neither resemble your face shape nor totally opposite your face shape. cartier People with round face should choose cartier jewellery jewels that can increase the length of the faces. Such as long necklaces. And for earrings, lucky enough! Almost all earring types look good on this face shape. It seems that angular shapes such as squares or rectangles look great. But really this shape can get away with any earrings. cartier jewelry Hairstyle, as the essential part of your head decoration, should be well considered when choosing jewels to make sure that your hairstyle and cartier jewellery are well fit for each other. cartier bracelet Jeans and jackets go well with jewelries having exaggerated design. cartier pendants When you are in an informal place, you can wear designed jewelry that have some color to fit your clothes, which will have a special kind of taste from your general wearing. cartier bangles However, red and other dark color could not be more suitable for people with fair skins. cartier necklace While cartier earring in large size could better highlight the features of the ladies who are tall and plump, comparing with the ones in small size. cartier ring The simply designed cartier necklace are most suitable for the office ladies, which are a good match for the suits. cartier bangles

nanchang said...

Your blog is very good, it's the best blog I've ever seen, thank you!
By the way, do you like polo shirts, which are very chic, especially the polo t shirts, I love them very much. I also like playing tennis rackets, it can keep healthy, what do you like to do? I'd like to introduce myself as the outlet of polo t shirts women, polo t shirts on sale, and polo t shirts for women. These products are our masterpieces, such as polo shirts on sale, polo shirts men, men's polo shirt, men polo shirt, mens polo shirts, mens polo shirt, besides we also sell cheap polo shirts, discount polo shirts, men's polo shirts, women's polo shirts. We are also the outlet of, cheap tennis racket, discount tennis racket, we recommend prince tennis racquet, head tennis rackets, wilson tennis racket, babolat tennis racquet. And it is our great pleasure that you come to our store online!

Anonymous said...

You probably spent UGG Boots Accessories quite womens ugg boots a womens ugg boots bit of money on your ugg boots, so it’s important you take care of them properly ugg boots to ensure they ugg sale last for uggs a long time. cheap ugg boots ugg boots sale ugg australia No one ugg boots 2010
wants to run around in a pair of boots that look australia ugg boots dirty and kids ugg boots, so mens ugg boots here are discount ugg boots a few things you can do to make sure your UGG Boots uggs on sale keep that brand new winter boots look for as long as possible. cheap uggs

bike arenal said...

Costa rica tours, shopping online, costa rica fishing, jaco fishing charters, costa rica whale watching, costa rica dolphin watching, costa rica party boat, panama fishing, fishing costa rica los suenos, los suenos fishing charters, costa rica fishing los suenos, los suenos costa rica fishing, costa rica los suenos fishing, fishing costa rica los suenos, los suenos fishing charters, costa rica fishing los suenos, los suenos costa rica fishing charters, costa rica los suenos fishing, Los suenos fishing, Fishing costa rica los suenos, Costa Rica Rafting,

Ephesus said...

I loved every moment of our tour. Istanbul, cappadocia and ephesus are fantastic city. We saw so many historical places and guide was very informative. We definitely recommend it. - We visited Istanbul for the first time on your tour turkey tours we are from Cappadocia tours Greece and we just loved it! istanbul tours We finally were able to see sights that we had only heard from our friends who visited I have to say that this trip was fantastic. I had a great time in Turkey. Everything went on very well actually much better than we expected istanbul travel Our guide was very friendly and ephesus tours he knew all details of history. Thanks for everything.

istanbul hotel said...

All Istanbul Hotels: Find the best Istanbul, Taksim hotels, attractions, restaurants, travel agencies, shopping, travel advice and more on

Anonymous said...

İsmek Kursları İstanbul Ücretsiz El Sanatları Bilgisayar yemek spor kursu sertifikalı kurslar

Anonymous said...

İstanbul Topkapı Gooo Turkey Blogs İstanbul nice wacthie fneee travell toursen netpase

Anonymous said...

Child Story website
Child Story teller is a web site that lists some of famous kids stories and fairy tales such as Cinderella, the little pigs and the sleeping beauty. Please visit the site at