In order to be a true tragedy

Honore de Balzacs 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 Balzacs 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 Balzacs 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.

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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, Aristotles definition of tragedy had been accepted as unalterable fact. Only in the past hundred years have Aristotles 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 Balzacs 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 Goriots death a the closing of the book being a bit depressing for the reader, Goriot himself is the most delighted hes 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 Rastignacs 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 protagonists 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, but the book was mainly based on Sophocles Oedipus Rex. So, when looking at a piece in another culture and time frame, only the core message can be used to analyse any modern piece.


The novel begins at the Maison Vaquer with Goriot at the lowest point in his life, he is physically, mentally, and socially broken. Although it is revealed later in the novel that he was, in the past, wealthy and contented, Aristotles definition dictates that the piece of literature must begin at a high point, not that a man who deals in pasta would ever qualify as nobility.
It is also lacking the symmetrical structure that Aristotle desires in plays. In using a retrospective technique Balzac throws off the rhythm and balance. With Pere Goriot starting at Maison Vaquer, the book is devoid of the rising action, and climax of Goriots life.
Some have argued that Pere Goriot is indeed tragic because the protagonist possessed the tragic flaw of love. This, however, cannot be true. First of all, the term tragic flaw requires that the thing be a flaw, and love is surely not a flaw. Furthermore, Goriot does not display any signs of pride, avarice, or any other sins that may have lead to his downfall. Without a tragic flaw, he cannot be a tragic hero.
Much of Arthur Millers contribution to tragedy can be found in his essay, Tragedy and the Common Man. He states that, As a general ruletragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing–his sense of personal dignity. From Orestes to Hamlet, Medea to Macbeth, the underlying struggles that of the individual attempting to gain his rightful position in his society. Miller also believed, in stark contrast to the dictionary, that tragedy does not have to be linked to pessimism per se, but to optimism. The story should not reinforce a hatred of humanity, or its foibles, but instead its final result ought to be the reinforcement of the onlooker’s brightest opinions of the human animal.
Miller believes that the tragedy comes from characters ready to lay down their lives. Goriot did give all that he could give to his daughters, but he did not give them his life, and he did not give them everything; he had kept enough for himself to live on. The loss of his luxuries and dignity may have been the cause of his death, but even if it were, he did not give away his wealth knowing that it would be the end of him. In fact, he gave away everything thinking that in the end his daughters would repay him for his generosity.
He goes on further to say that tragic heros sacrifice their lives in order to gain their rightful position in society. Pere Goriots motivation had nothing to do with helping himself. He was quite content with his lot in life before he started giving all of his money away to his daughters. There was no selfish reason for him to do it. He had acted only out of love for his daughters.
The novel does not evoke any feelings of love for humanity, nor does it reinforce any positive opinions of humanity. Miller states that tragedy implies more optimism and if so, Pere Goriot is no tragedy. There is no sense of hope in this book, if there ever was the characters have proven to be beyond all hope. Having been shunned from it too many times, Balzac could not have been optimistic on the subject of french high society.


So, there we have it. A piece of writing cannot be a tragedy unless it applies to the rules of tragedy. Out of the definitions given by the Oxford dictionary, Aristotle and Arthur Miller, Pere Goriot has applied to none, therefore it is not, and can never be a tragedy.