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Aristotle's Theory of Tragedy

In: English and Literature

Submitted By edmondmak269
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Edmond Mak
Professor Bradley
ENGL-103-192
27 April 2011
Aristotle’s Theory of Tragedy When one thinks of Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, some works that might come to mind include Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles, or the many works written by Shakespeare such as Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, or Macbeth. A common feature that all of these works share is that they were all written around and/or before the sixteenth century. One might be surprised, however, to discover that stories are still being written in today’s societies that follow the elements of Aristotelian theory. One story written in relatively recent history is that of "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. which in many aspects, can be considered a Aristotelian tragedy. Aristotle described a tragedy as a story that consisted of a tragic hero and a plot that would generate fear and pity in its audience. In this story, fourteen-year-old Harrison Bergeron valiantly attempts to break free from an equality-based society, but is quickly denied by the authoritative force of the government. The most important element in Aristotelian tragedy is the plot of a story. Aristotle states in Poetics that a story must consist of a beginning, middle, and end (Aristotle, 7). "Harrison Bergeron" fits this description very well because the beginning, middle, and end can be clearly identified while reading the story. The story opens by giving a description of what the society people live in is like. "THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way" (1). By reading this description of what life was like, one gets the idea that people lived in a totalitarian-based society. As the story progresses, the reader is introduced to Hazel and George Bergeron, who are watching a ballet program on their television when a special news bulletin comes up on the screen. It is during this part of the story that the middle of the story begins taking place. The report talks about their fourteen-year-old son, Harrison Bergeron, who has just escaped from jail, who claims he will overthrow the government. After the reporter claims Harrison to be dangerous and that no one should try reasoning with him, he breaks down the door and shouts out that he will be the emperor of the new government. At the end of the story, while Harrison is dancing with his empress, who is one of the ballerinas in the program Hazel and George were watching, the United States Handicapper General Diana Moon Glampers, comes into the room and shoots and kills them both. The second most important element in Aristotelian tragedy is the incorporation of a tragic hero. According to Aristotle, a tragic hero should be a character of nobility, who causes his own downfall in a way that he does not expect (Aristotle, 11). In the story, Harrison Bergeron plays the role of the tragic hero. For the most part, Harrison lives up to this description. As described by the reporter on television, Harrison is "a genius, and an athlete... and should be regarded as extremely dangerous" (3). In "An Overview of Harrison Bergeron", by Carl Mowery, Mowery states that Harrison is tragic hero because he tries to “show his individuality” by being different from everyone else, which is the reason for why he plans on overthrowing the government (Mowery). However, since no one in the society is allowed to look better than anyone else or be more “physically adept” than someone else, he is murdered by the Handicap-General at the end of the story (Mowery). Although this may be true, Harrison does not completely fit the description Aristotle describes a tragic hero to be; Harrison's actions were not a mistake in the sense that he knew what kind of retaliation he would receive from the government if he tried to overthrow it. Another element that an Aristotelian tragedy must consist of is the generation of fear in its audience (Aristotle, 12). In the society in which Harrison lives, “people cannot choose what they want to take part in or what they are good at because if a person is above average in anything, even appearance, they are handicapped as a result” (Wyatt). For people in today’s society, who have been used to not having any restrictions on something such as their level of intelligence or even appearance, it seems crazy to think about a world in which every single aspect of a person is the same. Nonetheless, the idea of having to hide the physicals features the government feels will make someone less equal than another, is quite scary. The element of Aristotelian tragedy that usually accompanies the aspect of fear in a story is pity. In "Harrison Bergeron", the government has basically brain-washed the minds of its people to the point where anything they do or see means almost nothing to them. If a person in today’s society were to witness the death of his son, he would obviously be very sad not only because his son died, but because he actually witnessed the event. In the case of George and Hazel, however, who have been living under the laws of the totalitarian government in which their society is governed, they do not react in the same way. According to Joseph Alvarez, the government has brain-washed Hazel, for example, to the point where she is “desensitized to the murder of her own son” (Alvarez). The fact that she cannot remember why she is crying, when asked by George, can do nothing to the audience but make it feel sorry for Harrison. The elements of Aristotelian tragedy, as one can see, are definitely present in modern-day literature. Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” can be considered a tragedy for the reasons that it contains some of the major elements that Aristotle described in his work, Poetics. For example, his incorporation of a tragic hero in Harrison and the way the story is written to generate fear and pity in the audience definitely makes for a more interesting story. Something to also note is that the story took place within the time-span of one day, which also makes for a better reading because it is more surprising to the reader. With the incorporation of these major elements from Aristotelian tragedy in this story, there is no doubt that it can be considered one.

Works Cited
Alvarez, Joseph. "An Overview of 'Harrison Bergeron'." Gale Online Encyclopedia. Detroit: Gale, 2011. Literature Resource Center. Web. 26 Apr. 2011.
Aristotle. Poetics. Written 350 B.C.E. Translated by S. H. Butcher
Mowery, Carl. "An overview of 'Harrison Bergeron,'." Gale Online Encyclopedia. Detroit: Gale, 2011. Literature Resource Center. Web. 26 Apr. 2011.
Vonnegut, Jr., Kurt. "Harrison Bergeron." The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction Oct. 1961: 1-7. Web..
Wyatt, Megan B. "Kurt Vonnegut's Short Story Harrison Bergeron: An Analysis and Discussion on Dystopian Themes and American Trends." Suite101.com: Online Magazine and Writers' Network. 22 July 2009. Web. 26 Apr. 2011.…...

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