Critical Concepts


[also:  analyzing a formal definition -- an illustration]

We will concern ourselves here only with a useful start for thinking about a various body of literature to which the word "tragedy," in often quite different senses of the term, has been applied in the course of two and a half millenia.  Let's look at the definition proposed by two prominent modern poets and critics in a book they designed as an introduction to literature (n1).  And let's use this as an occasion, too, to practice the essential skill of analyzing a definition.  Here is what they have to say:

By tragedy, generally speaking, we mean a play that portrays a conflict between human beings and some superior, overwhelming force. It ends sorrowfully and disasterously, and this outcome seems inevitable. Few spectators of Oedipus the King wonder how the play will turn out or wish for a happy ending.  In a tragedy," French playwright Jean Anouih has remarked, "nothing is in doubt and everyone's destiny is known . . . .  Tragedy is restful, and the reason is that hope, that foul, deceitful thing, has no part in it.  There isn't any hope.  You're trapped.  The whole sky has fallen on you, and all you can do about it is shout." 

a play

that portrays a conflict between

human beings and

some superior, overwhelming force.



These are some of the ways that the remarks about conflict in tragedy ending disastrously and seeming inevitable appear to expand on what was evidently meant in the first instance by saying that the tragic conflict is between "human beings" and "some superior, overwhelming force."  Our writers are anticipating that these implications might not have been adequately appreciated if the reader were to be left with the original formulation of these criteria.  And spelling out these implications this way indicates that these are an essential part of the point of the original formulations in the first place:  if we don’t understand (2) and (3) this way, we haven’t really understood them.

But it is equally important for us to note that unless we enter into the sorts of thought experiments we have been through, we would still not have appreciated these explanations in turn.  Kennedy and Gioia are expecting their readership to be accustomed to taking their remarks as cues to go into these sorts of imaginings.


N:  Kennedy, X.J., and Dana Gioia, Literature:  An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, 7th Edition.  New York:  Longman (2000), p. 1215.

N:  Translated by

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      This page last updated 30 April 2000.