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Recently, in my AP English class, we had a discussion about whether tragedy, in the dramatic sense, is still alive today. Several of my classmates pointed out that it probably isn’t, considering how much the general population loves to see happy endings, and loathes endings with inadequate, or “unhappy”, resolutions. Still others defended in the favor of modern tragedy, but everyone seemed to agree on a few things–side characters cannot experience the role of a “tragic hero”, in the traditional or modern sense, because they aren’t the characters we “care about”; and also that a tragic hero should, and must, die in order to fulfill their role.
I got to thinking, and thought maybe this would be an interesting thing to discuss here. As soon as the question was posed, I instantly was in favor of modern tragedy, because I, personally, have read and experienced so many stories with unhappy endings. Not only in books, but oftentimes in video games and films as well. (Although I’ll try to mostly stick to book examples for the sake of my readers.) I was kind of surprised that so many of my classmates didn’t seem to believe in modern tragedy anymore, and to be honest, kind of upsetting. To me, tragedy is the most beautiful form of story, and by far the most emotional. But is it true? There are lots of tragic things that occur in the books we read or films we see, but how often do those same stories overcome the tragedy and earn (or have it handed to them, as the case sometimes is) their happy ending?
The first example when thinking about the modern tragedy that entered my mind was, of course (if you know me), Phantom of the Opera. The original novel by Gaston Leroux is tragic in some ways, although I don’t feel like the reader feels all that poorly for Erik because he is kind of a jerk. And it seems to me that very few people view the Phantom as a tragic hero because he is traditionally seen as the “antagonist” versus the protagonist team of Christine and Raoul. However, I feel like the tragedy of Phantom’s story was enunciated with the stage version by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and narrowed down even more to pity and desperation with Gerard Butler’s performance in the 2004 film–which was, admittedly by Schumacher, Webber, and Butler, the most pitiable performance of the Phantom seen in a long, long time. I, personally, have always loved the Phantom and pitied him from the first time I was introduced to the story, but that’s not the case for most of the population familiar with story. However, his story is tragic, in every way. He falls in love with a girl who cares about him for who he is, and doesn’t care about his deformities. When you study the film rather intently, you realize that the Phantom never did anything malicious or possessive towards Christine until Raoul suddenly entered the picture and threatened to take her away from him. The Phantom literally risks everything for Christine, and it all ends up being pushed back in his face in the end. In a moment of growth, after a lifetime of cruel treatment and being unloved, he did the most selfless thing and let her go so she could be happy; so she could live the life she deserved, with a man who had, relatively, good intentions for her. He watches her walk away, and although it rips him apart inside, he deals with it. He then proceeds to leave the place he has known since childhood; the only place he ever called home. He leaves and never comes back, dooming himself to an eternity of loneliness and sorrow.
Like I said, the Phantom is not a tragic hero in the traditional sense. In a lot of ways, he’s not a hero at all; even I can see that’s true. However, his is an incredibly tragic story. He gets no happy ending (some could argue that he doesn’t deserve one, although that’s a topic for another time), and although he doesn’t die, everything in his life shows him, constantly, that he has nothing to live for. And this is only one example of a modern tragedy that came to me right away.
My mind then wandered to Lord of the Rings, and I thought of Frodo. I mentioned this to a couple guys sitting next to me, and they kind of looked at me in surprise. “But Frodo destroyed the Ring. Frodo won!” What’s tragic about that? Nothing–not on the surface. But think about it for a little while. Frodo saves the Shire and destroys the Ring, but at what cost to himself? Frodo even turns to Sam and says,
But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.
Frodo is forced to leave the Shire entirely because it hurts him too much to be there. He tries to go back to his life, but realizes that it’s impossible because the changes he has experienced are too deep and set inside him that he can’t return to being a simple hobbit–much like Bilbo could never go back to being a simple Baggins once the Took in him was awakened to the love of adventure, although more sinister. The idea of “leaving Middle Earth”, to me, when I was a child, was equivalent with death. For the longest time, I thought Frodo was willingly giving away his life to be free of the torment of the Ring, and even then, the fact that Frodo lives a tragedy never really hit me. While leaving Middle Earth isn’t actually the equivalent of elfin suicide, Frodo’s experiences all point toward tragedy. His sorrow, his grief, is so great that he cannot bear his home any longer. The shame of the things he’s done and actions he’s taken grew too heavy for him to bear. And perhaps that’s not even the worst part. Perhaps it’s that Frodo knew, deep down, that his life would never be the same, and not for the better–even if he did succeed in destroying the Ring. So many people died–even friends, in the case of Boromir, and Theodin, and Gandalf for a brief time–and part of Frodo must blame himself. He admits to Sam that the Shire has been saved, but in order for everyone else to remain happy, Frodo had to give it up. I feel like whoever feels like The Lord of the Rings had a happy ending is mistaken–Aragorn becomes the king he is, and Sam marries the girl of his dreams and has a happy family, but our protagonist is left heartbroken and drawn up. Where once there was life and vitality, those things have been replaced with sorrow and a much more introversive attitude towards life. Frodo matures, yes, but is he better? Some would argue not. To Frodo, it was too much. He left Middle Earth–the only place, the only world, he had ever known. If you ask me, that’s true tragedy. The hero of the story is the only one who doesn’t reap the benefits of his own heroism. He carried the Ring miles and miles and almost didn’t make it–and although he saved the world for everyone else, the one person he was unable to save it for was himself.
Less well known examples to follow! When one of my classmates mentioned the unimportance of side characters to a plot as a whole, or their sacrifices being taken for granted because the primary characters prevail, I immediately thought of a certain side character very dear to me. If you’ve followed my reviews of the Hex Hall series (here, here, and here), you might remember my devotion to Cal, or Alexander Callahan. Cal was absolutely my favorite character from the moment he was introduced. It’s true, though, he was little more than a side character throughout the entire series. Even the pitiful love triangle Hawkins tried to introduce failed miserably (although I was rooting for him the whole time, and will forever be in favor of Cal’s love over Archer’s), and he never entered the realm of being a main character like Archer or even Jenna did.
However, I argue emphatically that side characters are capable of being tragic heroes. Even now, I’m not sure Hawkins realized what exactly she was doing, and how powerful of a character Cal was, when she was writing it. (And trust me, I’ve spent time pitifully writing one shot fanfiction from Cal’s point of view–I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Cal.) It’s revealed that Cal literally stayed at school, as a lowly groundskeeper, only because he knew Sophie would be there, and he wanted to be part of her life. He admired her from the moment his father introduced her to him when he was only fifteen, and she had no idea he existed. He was willing to marry her and became betrothed to her. He does a lot of things, just for her (I think I’ve even written posts on my personal outlining how everything Cal does in the whole series can be tied back to doing it for Sophie), that nobody even notices. He gives up to keep her safe. He saves Archer’s life because Sophie loves him. He runs back into a burning building under attack by their enemies because Sophie’s boyfriend–his rival by nature–and best friend are still trapped inside. And none of this even begins to cover the third book.
Cal eventually finds Sophie again after rescuing her father and attempting to save Jenna and Archer. He admits that he did it all for her, and that he thought about her every single day. The party, much later, troops into Hell–literal Hell. Cal is the only one who goes with Sophie, in the beginning. Archer stays in his tent and says goodbye, knowing Sophie is the only one who can enter Hell anyway. Cal refuses to just let her go, though; as he tries to convince her that he was never in love with her, and that he’s okay with her picking Archer, he literally walks her up to the gates of Hell. Jenna and Archer eventually come along, of course, and they all go inside together. But Cal was the only one of the group unwilling to let Sophie go alone. Once inside, everyone has terrible visions. Archer’s involves the death of his parents. Jenna’s involves the murder of her girlfriend. Everyone rushes out before they can see Cal’s vision. His comes just as everyone leaves, but Sophie is sure of one thing–she hears herself screaming. She asks what he saw, but he refuses to tell her. Later, he asks if maybe Hell doesn’t show the worst things that have happened, but the worst things that could possibly happen–the worst things that have yet to happen. It’s not until much later that Cal’s vision is revealed to the audience, and I feel like the revelation was lost on most readers. (Otherwise, how could you possibly still ship Archer/Sophie?)
Here’s where I argue that side characters are capable of being tragic heroes. Sophie falls into the demon raising pit and gets stuck. She hurts her ankle–Archer is nowhere to be seen, and nobody is there to help her. Nobody can save her. But at the last moment, Cal jumps in after her. He raises her up and throws her out, but of course he can’t save himself. Sophie reaches out for him, but all he says in return is, “It’s okay.” And then he’s gone. And then he dies. For her. Most readers missed this; but when Cal returns from his own vision from Hell, he gives Archer a funny look. I, like most probably, assumed he saw a vision of Archer betraying Sophie. But in reality, he saw Sophie in danger, Sophie about to die, and he was wondering where Archer was. Surely, Archer would be there to save her. But the fact is, he wasn’t. The worst thing in the universe Hell itself could come up with to be the most soul destroying and awful image for Alexander Callahan to suffer was the death of Sophie. He wouldn’t tell anyone about it–how could he? In my opinion, it’s impossible to argue that Cal was telling Sophie the truth when he said he wasn’t in love with her. He was lying through his teeth. Otherwise, Hell would have been able to come up with something worse than watching her die. But it didn’t. That’s what it showed him; and he was so selfless and loved her so much, that he couldn’t tell her about it and make her feel guilty for not loving him back. Cal was most definitely a tragic hero. He dies for the girl he loves, knowing that she will absolutely never love him back–even though, in every way, he is better for her and definitely loves her more than the guy she did choose. Archer was selfish at times, arrogant and self-centered. He betrayed his own kind. Cal was never like that. He never thought of himself before Sophie. He always looked out for her. He always protected her. He made sure he was there to die for her when Archer couldn’t, or wouldn’t. And the real tragedy of Cal’s death isn’t anything I’ve mentioned–it’s that nobody even mourns him once he’s gone. They accept it, and even then, even then, Sophie doesn’t realize the extent of his feelings for her. That’s the real frustration of the book being written from her point of view–it’s so limited and naïve, so willing to see only what she wants, that she doesn’t comprehend everything that Cal did for her. But alas, he’s only a side character. That’s all he ever really is. And yet, he’s the most heroic and powerful character in the entire book.
I’ve already written so much, but I keep thinking of new examples. I hail from the emotional world of video games; that’s where I started out, and to be honest, my heart still lies there, even more so than with books at times. My earliest memory of experiencing tragedy–actually crying as I explained the plot to my mother–was trying to comprehend Final Fantasy X. This is definitely an example of modern tragedy, and I think it’s impossible to argue otherwise. It’s nearly impossible for me to summarize Final Fantasy X without venting or ranting or going into way too much detail, but most of my readers won’t be familiar with it, so I’ll do my best, because I feel like it’s one of the best examples of tragedy I can possibly think of.
The story of Final Fantasy X follows a young man named Tidus. His world gets destroyed and he’s swept into a place he’s never been before, away from everything he’s ever known. He discovers that his father is a monster called Sin, destroying everything in this new world. He meets a young woman, and her name is Yuna. She’s training to be a summoner, like her father, so she can defeat Sin and bring about The Calm–a period of ten years in which Sin is dead, before it is reborn and begins to terrorize again. Along the way, Tidus becomes one of Yuna’s guardians and assists her in her quest to receive the Final Aeon–the only means of defeating Sin. However, he’s met with a lot of trials. He falls in love with her, and finds out that summoners must die in order for the Final Summoning to work. The Final Aeon kills the summoner once Sin is defeated. Yuna’s father left her when she was ten years old, knowing he would never come back. And still, Yuna was selfless enough to think of everyone before herself. Tidus also discovers that his world is only a dream–he isn’t real anymore. He’s only a figment of the dreams of fayth–the creatures that help create aeons. Still, he swears he won’t let her die. It’s obvious–so obvious–that they love each other. But they both realize they can’t be with the other for different reasons. Yuna, because if her pilgrimage succeeds, she will die in the end. Tidus, because if he saves Yuna and they defeat Sin for good, the fayth will stop dreaming–and he will cease to exist. But Yuna doesn’t know this, and Tidus doesn’t tell. Instead, the end of the game draws near. They defeat Sin (and simultaneously, Tidus’ father) and release the fayth. Tidus beings to disappear. Nobody understand what’s going on, Yuna least of all. She believed that he worked so hard to save her so they could be together, never realizing that all along, he knew this would happen. She admits that she loves him, and he says his final goodbye. Before she watches him run and eventually fade into nothing.
No, you read that correctly. That’s the end of the game. Of course, the “happy ending” lies in the fact that Sin has been defeated forever, and Yuna has managed to bring about the Eternal Calm. It’s a time for celebration for literally everyone living in this world. But now, Yuna must live without her love. He doesn’t “die”, in the traditional sense. But he’s gone, and that’s what really counts, isn’t it? He fades away, willingly, in order to ensure that she will not die, that she will live because she deserves life, and a character thoroughly believed to be the whiniest, most irritating character in the game ends up being perhaps the most selfless and self sacrificing. Of course, in its sequel, the game makers mercifully brought Tidus back at the very end of that game (but even then, you can choose to either have him come back again for good, or let Yuna continue to live without him for good), but that’s not what we were all thinking back in 2001 when this game was all we had. Yet, Final Fantasy X was the most beautiful, heartbreaking story I had ever seen. I was only seven, and you can probably only imagine my mother’s face when I came upstairs after watching my brother finish it the first time with tears streaking my face and neck. In every way, Tidus’ story is a tragedy. His father abandons him at a young age, and his mother soon dies “of a broken heart”. He falls in love with a girl he can never be with. Once he comes to love his father again and realize that his hatred was unfounded after ten years of loathing, he must kill him in order to save everyone else. He then disappears, willingly, so the girl he loves can live to see her eighteenth birthday–and consequently, saves every summoner who may have come after her, and saves hundreds of lives that Sin may have destroyed. He gets no happy ending, not traditionally. He fades away, and that’s all there is. It’s another example of a self sacrificing hero whose sacrifice is overshadowed by the “bigger picture”. I think that this story, more than anything else, solidifies my conviction that modern tragedies still exist.
This is the last example, I swear. I know I started off this essay type thing being a little professional and put together, but somewhere along the way, my emotions got the better of me. Everything kind of fell apart into an emotional puddle of glop. But one last example to prove my point, which I feel like I should include because it’s (aside from the final Hex Hall novel), the most modern example of tragedy today.
One more Final Fantasy game! It’s true, Final Fantasy XIII did not have a huge fanbase among traditional Final Fantasy gamers. Most complained that the story and characters were stupid and the plot was sacrificed for pretty graphics. I, however, thoroughly enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII, and it wasn’t until I was thinking about Final Fantasy X that I realized this other installment was a fairly good example of tragedy in the modern day, although perhaps not as strongly as other ones I’ve mentioned.
I won’t summarize the entire plot of Final Fantasy XIII–it’s not as necessary for understanding as the plot of Final Fantasy X, and the truth is, I haven’t grown up with it and am not nearly as familiar with the universe as I am with the latter. Any overall plot explanation I try to offer probably won’t be up to par and won’t contribute to my point. What you do need to know that is there are seven main characters you need to kind of worry about. Lightning, Serah (Lightning’s sister), Snow (Serah’s fiancé), Hope (a young man whose mother dies when she was in the protection of Snow), Sazh (a man who has lost his son to the l’cie), Vanille (a young woman who is responsible for the essential death of Sazh’s son), and Fang (protector of Vanille)–this is the main cast of characters. The other thing you need to know is that I am an avid shipper of Hope/Vanille. I promise that will come into what I have to say!
The whole problem is that Serah fulfills her Focus (after becoming a l’Cie), and becomes a crystal. The other six also then become l’Cie and must discover their Focus in order to free Serah and not turn into what are essentially zombies. Unfortunately, their collective Focus is to turn into Ragnorak, a huge beast, and destroy Cocoon–the place the come from.
This is an inherently sad story, to be honest. Sazh laments the loss of his little boy, and Vanille lives with the guilt that it’s actually her fault, but is terrified to tell Sazh the truth. When she does, he tries to kill her, wants to, but realizes it won’t do anything. Instead, he attempts to take his own life, but doesn’t succeed. This is one of the saddest points of the game, to me, because Vanille is the typically “cheery” girl. She’s the one character who always has a smile on her face. But even she carries a secret she can’t bear on her own and the guilt overwhelms her.
Sazh’s son and Serah are both crystal, and can only be released when Cocoon is saved. However, one or more of these characters must sacrifice themselves for an eternity in order to make that happen. They’re afraid of not being strong enough and destroying the world they want to protect. Otherwise, I’m sure any of them would have been more than willing. But they were afraid of their weakness. Somehow, Fang and Vanille end up as the willing participants. Hope admits to Vanille that it “makes him happy when she smiles”, and you can tell when he realizes that Vanille is not coming with them that he doesn’t understand. All six characters came together in their own ways, but Vanille was the one who was there to console him when his mother died, and Vanille helped him push through. However, Vanille and Fang turn to crystal, and manage to save Cocoon. At the end, the four remaining characters look into the sunset to see figures coming towards them. They are, obviously, Serah and Sazh’s son. Snow and Sazh rush forward immediately, and Lightning runs towards her sister. It’s a happy ending for everyone, right? But Hope holds back. He’s looking, but whatever he wants to find isn’t there. Lightning notices, and he responds sadly, “She isn’t coming back…is she?” I think most of the fandom assumed he was talking about his mother–the person he mourned from the very beginning. But it hit me that it wouldn’t make sense for him to think that she would come back; when she had died and had not been crystallized like the others. Quickly, you realize that he’s actually looking for Vanille (and maybe Fang), but she isn’t there. She’s not coming back. A once happy ending is suddenly shattered as the side characters–yes, the side characters!–take charge of emotion and you realize that not only has Hope lost his mother, but his best friend. And she will never, ever return.
It doesn’t seem to be a tragedy at first, it’s true. It takes some squinting, which is why this is my least effective example. It’s only really noticeable if you’re like me and looking for every inkling of Hope/Vanille you can possibly find. However, even this “happy ending” has obvious nudges at tragedy when the player realizes a huge sacrifice was involved. Hope, of course, isn’t the only one who lost Vanille and Fang in their sacrifice; everyone was friends with them. I happen to gravitate towards Hope, though, because he’s the only character who doesn’t have a loved one redeemed. Neither his mother of Vanille come back to him. And maybe I’m making it up in my head, but you can hear it when he’s talking with the others about Snow and Serah’s impending wedding that he’s melancholy about the way things have turned out.
I’m sure in the morning, I’ll think of a million other examples I could have talked about. Already, I’m thinking of other literary examples, other games (Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult, and Final Fantasy Type-0 immediately come to mind), other everything (even the very life of Edgar Allan Poe reeks of modern tragedy). Unhappy endings litter how media and entertainment, and maybe only the truly emotionally masochistic individuals will be able to seek them out in the sea of overwhelming happy endings (even when they are not realistic or plausible at all). It’s true, the modern age has drifted far from the traditional tragedies of Oedipus, or Hamlet, but that doesn’t necessarily mean tragedy has ceased to exist altogether. I believe in the exact opposite. Tragedy is much more subtle nowadays, and it takes some serious thinking to discover the little tragedies in seemingly happy endings. However, tragedies are just as prevalent, if not more so, today as they were hundreds of years ago.
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