Mar. 6th, 2017

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"The last thing to determine conclusively is whether you are in a comedy or a tragedy. To quote Italo Calvino, ‘the ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: The continuity of life, the inevitability of death.’ Tragedy, you die. Comedy, you get hitched."

--Professor Jules Hilbert, as portrayed by the inimitable Dustin Hoffman in Stranger Than Fiction


Back when I first saw this movie years ago, it set me on ruminating over the difference between comedy and tragedy. The definition above isn't untrue, if a bit simplistic - obviously there are plenty of comedies that don't end in weddings, and tragedies that don't end in death. A better definition might be that a comedy ends in a strengthened sense human connection, whereas a tragedy ends with a weakened connection and/or increased sense of isolation, but that's describing the effect rather than the cause.

So here's my proposal: a comedy is a story where the protagonist learns, grows, and changes. A tragedy, on the flipside, is a story where the protagonist has an opportunity to learn and grow, but misses it, and fails to change (or fails to do so enough to avert loss).

This, I think, is why comedies are so often love stories - be it romantic love, filial love, friend-love, or even self-love. Love is one of the primary drivers of change in our lives; to quote M. Scott Peck, love is "the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth". For those of us lucky enough to live in relative safety, few other forces will ever highlight our weaknesses while simultaneously driving us to aspire to better - that is, provide ideal circumstances for learning, growth, and change - than love.

I suspect, also, that this is why comedies tend to focus on younger protagonists, often those of working- or middle-class. Younger people, even those in their 20s, are in many ways are still discovering the world around them; it's often easier for them to admit that a former assumption was incorrect, because their world is still very much in flux. That's not to say that a change isn't without consequences, both internal and social; otherwise the story would have no stakes. Think of the romantic hero afraid of being laughed at when he falls in love with a less-than-acceptable partner, for instance, or the pre-med graduate whose whole life has been about becoming a doctor, until they picked up the guitar. But it's easier to make a drastic career change, or to make better friends, when you're younger; as you grow older and settle into habits, the stakes get commensurately higher. Tragedies, by extension, tend to focus on older, higher-class subjects - especially rulers in one form or another. And whoo boy, when you're the political and social figurehead of a kingdom, do you have a lot to lose by admitting that you're wrong. Often, however, your country has even more to lose by your refusal, which compounds the magnitude of the tragedy.

Of course, no good framework is ever offered without examples and discussion - that's how we vet any theory. So let's have an impromptu humanities class! What are your favorite comedies or tragedies? (No judgment allowed on people's choices; there's just as much room for discussion of the tragic/comic aspects of Riverdale or Three Men and a Baby as there is of The House of Mirth or The Yiddish Policeman's Union.) What are the stakes? How does the main character change (or refuse to change)? Is the story a tragedy from one perspective but a comedy from another? Does your choice upend my whole theory? Let's discuss!

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