In order to be a true tragedy



Honore de Balzac’s Pere Goriot although being a story filled with sadness and the downfall of people in power can never be defined as a tragedy.


There is no doubt that Honore de Balzac’s Pere Goriot tells a sad tale, almost to the point of being tragic, but it is no tragedy. Too often are stories with sad endings end up being labeled as tragedies because of nescience. The rules that define a tragedy are extremely specific, and Pere Goriot does not fit enough of them.


First of all it is imperative to mention that this book is part of Balzac’s Comedie Humaine, or the Human Comedy. The origional intent of this novel was to show the folly of humanity. It is little more than documentation of what people are like. Pere Goriot was never meant to be a tragedy.


It is true that there is no one definition of tragedy. The concept has been defined and redefined multiple times over the years by countless literary critics, but there are two descriptions that are held above others.


The first and foremost comes from Aristotle. In the fifth century Aristotle became the father of literary criticism by writing his poetics. In them, he wrote the first complete definition of tragedy. For centuries, Aristotle’s definition of tragedy had been accepted as unalterable fact. Only in the past hundred years have Aristotle’s ideas been challenged. Arthur Miller is most famous for his re-writing of the definition of tragedy in various essays and plays. It has long been argued which definition is correct, but for the purposes of this argument both will be analysed.


Any search for the meaning of a word should begin with the dictionary. The Oxford dictionary describes tragedy as merely, “drama of elevated theme and diction and with unhappy ending; sad event, serious accident, calamity." Going through each of these components one by one, we will find that Pere Goriot applies to too few of them to be considered a tradegy.


In Balzac’s writing, there can always be found elevated theme and diction, but those two factors do not make a tragedy by themselves. They may be present in any genre.


It is also true that the ending is an unhappy one, but the entire novel is fairly unhappy. Besides, despite Goriot’s death a the closing of the book being a bit depressing for the reader, Goriot himself is the most delighted he’s been throughout the entire novel. In believing that his daughters are with him at his deathbed he is happy, so even though it is not a joyous ending to the story, it is a joyous end for the protagonist.


Also, Eugene de Rastignac’s show of strength in the last paragraph changes the feeling of the ending. His challenge to the city, “Henceforth there is a war between us,” is not one derived from pity or mourning. All emotion at the very end is shifted from sadness to a sense of animosity and revenge, so even though majority of the ending is despondant, the reader is left with an entirely different feeling when finished with the novel.


Yes, the book does contain sad events, but again, that alone does not make it a tragedy. Sad events are present in every story, or at least every story worth telling. However, the novel is devoid of both serious action and calamity, and is fairly calm all of the way through. So, Pere Goriot barely even has the qualities of this meager dictionary definition.


In his poetics, Aristotle explained that in a tragic play the protagonist, or tragic hero, must start off at an elevated status, and through some tragic flaw of his own, must come to a downfall before the end of the story, and most importantly the protagonist’s fall must arouse “pity and fear, where with to accomplish its catharsis.” The rising action, climax and denoument are very important in this form of story-telling because the stark contrast of the first half to the second half helps to create the feelings of pity and fear that Aristotle requires. Although the poetics are often thought of as the end-all be-all in defining tragedy, they were written after the last of the great fifth century plays, examples were taken from several plays,