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Archive for the ‘Tragedy’ Category

Thanks to Netflix and this useful site, I recently watched my way through Breaking Bad. This was a thoroughly pleasing series, both for its relentless logic and its humor. There is also a point of interest for those of us who study literature.

First, consider the character of Everyman.

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He is the subject of the mediaeval morality play by the same name about a man who must account for his life before moving on to either heaven or hell. The term has moved over the years into a name for an ordinary person who gets caught up in difficult times.

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Alfred Hitchcock made most of his films on this character type.

Also recall the last discussion about tragedy. In the ancient days, a tragedy required a hero–someone with a divine parent in the ancestry–who also has a character flaw, typically hubris. Again, these days, tragedy gets applied to just about anyone whose life goes from good to bad due to some personal failing. (It gets applied to a lot more, but that’s often in error.)

These things bring me to Walter White.

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He starts out as a high school chemistry teacher with a disabled son and a baby on the way, a man who founded a company using his skills as a chemist and got cheated out by his partner, and then finds himself with lung cancer.

(Heere there be spoilers.)

By the end of the series, everything in his life has come crashing down. The fact that he tears down his enemies with him doesn’t change the nature of the story as a tragedy.

The point here is the nature of tragedy in the modern world. Walter White gets screwed over by corporations, by his health insurance company, and ultimately by his life. Breaking Bad is a well done show, but it reveals the tragedy of our days. The real flaw is our willingness to accept the power of the few abusing the many.

This is not a flaw that is beyond cure.

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This being the season of peace, love, joy, and all that rot, I feel the need for a corrective. Or better yet, a purging. That is what catharsis means. And for that, we need a tragedy.

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Yes, I’m talking about A Christmas Carol, the finest version on film starring George C. Scott in 1984. Let’s recall that a tragedy is the story of a hero who starts out in a high place and falls low through some flaw in his character. For the purposes of this article, I’m considering Ebenezer Scrooge to be just such a tragic hero.

At the beginning of the tale, Scrooge is a successful man of business who contributes to the economic life of the British Empire and supports himself and his profligately breeding employee, Bob Cratchit. He possesses a logical mind and a keen wit. But thanks to the interference of spirits and one wretched night, by Christmas Day, he has fallen to an addled spendthrift making promises that he won’t be able to keep, the victim of base sentimentality.

But you probably knew the story. (Though perhaps not the way that I characterized it.) The question here is regarding Scrooge’s flaw. This will take some consideration.

The reflexive answer is greed, but he is not greedy. He recognizes at the start that money has to be earned, that giving money away only results in the wealth being spent to no good end. What we don’t work for, we don’t value.

We could say that Scrooge has fallen into senility, but that can’t qualify as a tragic flaw, at least not in the proper sense, for the flaw has to be a moral failing or error in judgement. The fate that we’re all born to is sad, but hardly distinctive or instructive in this context.

The fact that a tragic flaw can be an error in thinking helps here. Over the course of the night, Scrooge is subjected to emotion in the absence of reason. The spirits will not engage with him on a rational level. Instead, they remind him of the circumstances in his life that cause him regret, a feeling that is fatal to getting work done. They present to him scenes of suffering, without permitting any consideration of how the desperate people got into their stations in life or what social policy would be best to ameliorate that pain.

Thus we find the answer. Like an alcoholic who cannot take one drink in safety, Scrooge is susceptible to sentiment. He comes to believe in the false promises of a workers’ paradise in which ambition will be lost and achievement scorned. Like Oedipus walking blindly off the stage into exile, Scrooge faces an end of penury and wallowing in emotion.

There, do you feel better now? If so, I’ll expect your payment in the mail. Or you could just buy my book.

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