“On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.”
That is the opening sentence from Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. A monk who witnesses the fall of those travelers searches for answers as to whether the accident was simply chance or an act of the Divine. In writing The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Wilder was addressing the genre of tragedy which was defined by Aristotle in his Poetics as “an imitation of a serious act” in literature. The purpose of tragedy is to provide the reader, or viewer in the case of drama, an experience of loss without having to suffer what a fictional character suffers. Through his literature, Wilder, like the authors and playwrights before him, provided the experience and language to us to respond when there is a tragedy. Great literature does this well which may be why the literature taught in high school classrooms is, more often than not, tragedy.
Of course, tragedy is not always a popular curriculum choice. I am always being confronted by students, “Why do we have to read such depressing books?” or “Why does every book we read in English have to be so sad?” Predictably, when I hand out a book for a whole class read, student will examine the cover, the length of the text, and ask, “So, who dies?” Through literature, students learn a number of different approaches or definitions of tragedy. In grades 9-12, students are taught about Greek tragedy (Oedipus, Antigone, Medea) where fate or Nemesis cannot be avoided. They learn about catharsis, the purging of pity and fear, and pathos, the empathy one has for the tragic hero. Students are taught about how the Shakespearean tragedy (King Lear, Macbeth, Richard III) centers on the willful downfall of a character who brings about the destruction of others. We have also included a modern interpretation of tragedy by Otto Reinherdt as students read contemporary works of literature (Death of a Salesman, The Road):
“Tragic Man demands that an imperfect world conform to his notions of right and good, and he is defeated because discord, injustice, pain, and moral evil are the world’s warp and woof. The final paradox is man in his tragic vision saying, ‘I do not believe in the invincibility of evil but in the inevitability of defeat’.. . . But in the absoluteness of his commitment, the tragic hero triumphs in the very inevitability of his defeat.”
The indoctrination to tragedy as a “serious action imitated” begins early in the student’s educational career. In grade 5, whole class reads can be The Giver, a dystopian novel that features the euthanasia of a small child. In grade 6, students may read The Devil’s Arithmetic, a book that brings students closer to an authentic understanding of the Holocaust and the deaths of six million Jews. In young adult (YA) literature, there are so many stories about the deaths of pet dogs (Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, Love that Dog) that author Gordon Korman fought back against that literary trope with his YA novel, No More Dead Dogs. Our 7th grade reads that book as an opening bonding experience in September, but they also read Pearl Buck’s short story “The Big Wave” about a tsunami that wipes out a small coastal village in Japan. The recent tsunami in Japan gave our young readers a new appreciation for the tragedy caused by nature.
In high school curriculums everywhere, students decry the death of a character, “Why does the author make us like him and then kill him?” They rail against the death of Johnny in The Outsiders (grade 8); the death of Lenny in Of Mice and Men (grade 9); the death of Kat in All Quiet on the Western Front (Grade 10); the death of John Proctor in The Crucible (Grade 11); and the death of Hamlet (Grade 12). They claim to want a happy ending.
But do English teachers force an unwanted genre on students? Do students hate tragedy? Not really. Look at the two most popular series of books students chose to read independently. The Harry Potter series began with two deaths, the sacrifice of Lily and James Potter for their infant son, Harry. Seven books later, JR Rowling had bumped off over 50 characters, and one beloved owl Hedwig (although, admittedly the death of Bellatrix Lestrange was satisfying). Student loved these novels. In Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games trilogy, killing and death is a form of entertainment, an entertainment made even more horrific when teenagers are the assassins. In the first book, eleven “tributes” are killed on the first day of the games. The protagonist Katniss kills four tributes herself before she “wins” this round of games with Peeta; the deaths pile up as the series continues with Collins disposing of major characters at a furious clip. I cannot keep these books on my classroom shelf.
Ultimately, tragedy in literature prepares a reader for the experience of tragedy in life. My own first experience with death was from Louisa May Alcott in Little Women when the sickly Beth March finally succumbed to illness:
“As Beth had hoped, the `tide went out easily’, and in the dark hour before dawn, on the bosom where she had drawn her first breath, she quietly drew her last, with no farewell but one loving look, one little sigh.”
I remember reading and re-reading that passage over and over and thinking: “Had I read correctly? Were there only three March sisters left? How could Alcott do this to me?” Well, she did this to me and millions of other readers because in real life people die. Nice people. Good people. Young people. Beth’s death was not a tragedy in the literary sense, but the hole left by her death for the fictional family was “a serious act imitated in literature” like the many real deaths that leave holes in the lives of real families.
Our society confronts news that is tragic everyday. The recent death of 20 schoolchildren and six teachers in a school shooting not far from where I teach just before the Christmas holiday season is a tragedy so horrific that many have been left speechless; I hear, “There are no words.” But there are words, words in great literature written to prepare us, from a young age through high school and beyond, for exactly this experience. Thornton Wilder’s fictional story of The Bridge of San Luis Rey concludes with a paragraph that offers his response to a tragedy. Through literature, Wilder provides a language for readers to respond to a tragedy such as the one in Newtown, Connecticut, and other heartbreaking events:
“We ourselves shall be loved for awhile and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”