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Renunciation as a Tragic Focus

Renunciation as a Tragic Focus: A Study of Five Plays

Eugene H. Falk
Copyright Date: 1954
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 116
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    Renunciation as a Tragic Focus
    Book Description:

    Norman J. DeWitt explains, in an introduction to this volume, that these essays are written in terms of a personal humanism. “Personal humanism,” Mr. DeWitt says, “comes from an awareness of a world in which pain is real, and it leads to the traditional virtues of wisdom and justice, terms that are seldom heard in academic circles today.” Traditionalist though he may be in the basic virtues, Professor Falk, in these studies, challenges a traditional concept. By analyzing the conflicting values in five plays, he demonstrates why the traditional definition of tragedy should be broadened. He shows that martyrdom and self-sacrifice, when they involve an act of renunciation, should be included in the realm of tragedy. The older concept ruled out these elements by its insistence that the death of a martyr is not the defeat but the victory of an individual. The five plays studied here are Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Antigone, Corneille’s Polyeucte, Maeterlinck’s Aglavaine and Selysette, and Samain’s Polypheme. In all of them, the tragic experience of man’s defeat in an unequal struggle against destiny is examined in the light of the conflict between his worldly and his spiritual aspirations. The plays illustrate the tenet that renunciation becomes a tragic experience only if the character’s devotion to both worldly and spiritual values is genuine. In succession, the five plays represent a progression from authentic to seeming renunciation. The studies are pertinent to many interests in the broad academic field of the humanities as well as to such specific disciplines as comparative literature, drama, French literature, and the classics.

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-3676-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
    E. H. F.
  3. Tragedy and Personal Humanism
    (pp. ix-xvi)

    This brief essay, like many other introductions, is actually a postscript. And since it is also a report on one reader’s experience, it may well be justified as a warning to other readers. The warning is that the essays which follow have been written in terms of a personal humanism. The reader may find, therefore, that the critical terms employed are not those to which he is accustomed.

    The reference to “personal” humanism suggests, of course, that there are kinds of humanism. The reference also implies that personal humanism is a distinct kind, and that it is opposed to, or...

  4. Table of Contents
    (pp. xvii-2)
  5. Can Martyrdom Be Tragic?
    (pp. 3-6)

    “Tragedy, in its pure idea, shows us a mortal will engaged in an unequal struggle with destiny, whether that destiny be represented by the forces within or without the mind. The conflict reaches its tragic issue when the individual perishes, but through his ruin the disturbed order of the world is restored and the moral forces reassert their sway.”* There is no reason to question the validity of Butcher’s definition, although its underlying assumption does seem to limit the scope of dramatic situations which might well fall within the concept of tragedy.

    That definition presupposes a tragic character who challenges...

  6. Oedipus the King
    (pp. 7-24)

    The skepticism of Protagoras, a somewhat younger contemporary of Sophocles, has not penetratedOedipus the King. InAntigone, the skeptic view of life seems to be represented by Creon, and with him it is destined for defeat. Man is not yet the measure of all things, as the great Sophist of Abdera thought he was; the course of his life is still dependent on the will of the gods. Man is not yet the master of his destiny, and his success is not yet the effect of his wisdom or cunning. Fate is not a blind irrational force, nor does...

  7. Antigone
    (pp. 25-33)

    Creon, in theAntigoneof Sophocles, seems to offer a rather striking example of the theory of tragedy as we have seen it formulated in S. H. Butcher’sAristotle’s Theory of Poetry and Fine Arts. Creon is truly engaged in an unequal struggle with destiny; through his ruin the disturbed order of the world is restored and the moral forces reassert their sway.

    Creon’s tragic flaw is his rashness and stubbornness. He is proven to be wrong in trying to impose his own order — to him fully justified — against the established divine order, and his stubbornness is broken...

  8. Polyeucte
    (pp. 34-72)

    It is important to consider the motivations of the act of renunciation, and of the fulfillment of duty. Instead of being an act of pure devotion, renunciation could be an act of despair, or the result of a conscious or unconscious feeling of insufficiency as in the case of the proverbial sour grapes. In such instances, renunciation is imposed and not freely chosen. Likewise, the fulfillment of duty could be imposed by vanity, by the desire to retain the esteem of others, or even by self-esteem, the pride of achievements which preserves a man’s self-respect as he identifies the views...

  9. Aglavaine and Selysette
    (pp. 73-81)

    Maeterlinck’sAglavaine and Selysettehas many traits which permit the drawing of a comparison between this play andPolyeucte, in spite of obvious and considerable differences.

    In one of the typical, almost legendary, Maeterlinckian castles live Meleander and Selysette. They are happily married, although Meleander has very little in common with his childlike wife. With them live Selysette’s invalid grandmother, Meligrane, who spends the days sleeping in her chair, and Selysette’s little sister, Yssaline. The peaceful harmony and calm joy of this carefree existence are suddenly disturbed by a letter announcing Aglavaine’s arrival. Selysette’s brother has died and left Aglavaine...

  10. Polyphème
    (pp. 82-89)

    The action of Albert Samain’sPolyphèmesheds further light on the dichotomy of causes which lead to self-sacrifice inPolyeucteandAglavaine and Selysette. Polyeucte’s self-esteem and honor lead to his death as much as his newly embraced faith does. Selysette’s vanity and honor lead to her death just as much as her newly acquired sense for Aglavaine’s spiritual beauty. Both come to believe in superior motives for the death which, initially, they seek as an escape from an unendurable feeling of inferiority. To save their self-esteem and arouse the esteem of others, they eagerly adopt a worthy cause, the...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 90-92)

    Martyrdom and self-sacrifice are tragic if they emerge from, a conflict between authentic worldly and spiritual aspirations. Without such a conflict, without the necessity to measure one’s allegiance to an ideal, without an act of renunciation, martyrdom and self-sacrifice are outside the sphere of the tragic. Oedipus, Antigone, Polyeucte, and Selysette, all experience the mental distress of a real renunciation, whereas the distress Polyphemus experiences is over an illusory renunciation. Except for Polyphemus, they could all hold on to the treasured life they lead if conscience, honor, and dignity would let them accept expediency as a norm for their behavior...

  12. INDEX
    (pp. 93-97)