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?


Anonymous 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.)

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