Wheeler, Kip L.
This essay by Kip Wheeler poses the question: What is the value of tragedy? Wheeler claims, “Most people do not see the point to tragedy. Most of American pop culture tends to embrace the comic vision of art, finding tragedy depressing or disturbing.” Wheeler describes how tragedy has been valued for different reasons during different historical periods. According to Wheeler, classical Greek writers perceived tragedy as teaching humans to know themselves, while Romantic poets viewed tragedy as a emotional exercise for learning compassion. Wheeler also claims that in a true tragedy the tragic hero must cause suffering by his or her own errors and that the tragic outcome occurs because of a mixture of personal choice and fate.
“Some thoughts about Tragedy (Both Literary and Mundane)” is an interesting text because it combines description of components of tragedy and definitions of terms related to tragedy such as “catharsis,” “anagnorsis,” and “tragic hero,” with quotes about tragedy by famous thinkers. The individual paragraphs are framed by quotes about the concept of “tragedy” by thinkers as varied as Aldous Huxley, C. S. Lewis, Joseph Stalin, Aristotle, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
While the Flesch-Kincaid readability test places this essay at the high end of the eighth-grade reading level, I feel that it warrants a higher readability ranking because it deals with its theme in a complex and complicating way. Unlike texts that have provide more straightforward definition of liteary terms or background to the genre, “Some thoughts about Tragedy” rambles about, offering up varied observations, quotations, and questions. This eclectic musing makes “Some Thoughts about Tragedy” a rich text, but one with ambiguities which readers might find harder to confront. Specifically, readers might not know what to make of the varied perspectives on “tragedy” offered by the quotations or of Wheeler’s claim that tragedy should include both personal agency and fate. Also, while Wheeler provides definitions of terms like “catharsis” and “anagnorisis,” these are specialized literary terms that may require further examples and explication to make clear.
Use in Class
I would include this text as one of a set of differentiated texts students could choose for guided independent study. “Some Thoughts about Tragedy” contributes insights which students might bring to bear upon discussion of “Macbeth.” By working off of alternative meanings of the word “tragedy” (tragedy as a genre of art and as a condition of life), this text perhaps complicates rather than simplifies “tragedy” for readers. Whereas other texts help aid comprehension, this text provides many questions readers could try to piece apart for themselves, such as: Are the claims Wheeler makes true? Does reading tragedy help us understand ourselves or produce feelings of compassion? If so, how does that work? What does it mean when he argues that a tragedy must involve both fate and freely made errors?
Submitted by Julia Katz