The Allure of Tragic People

Some of my favorite books, stories, films, and histories are about tragic people. You know those individuals whose stars shine so brightly and flashes across the sky so quickly, it either burns out or comes to an abrupt halt? Well, I loved reading novels like Madame BovaryAnna KareninaTess of the D’UrbervillesThe Virgin Suicides, etc. I still do. These characters were recognized for their peculiarity, shows of defiance, rebel hearts, moodiness, brilliant ideas, and supreme radiance. This combination of traits typically leads these people towards extinguishment. They burn too hot and so they either put themselves out or someone or a series of events does it for them. Therein lies the tragedy and it’s extremely alluring. I’m not necessarily just rooting for them. Yes, they’re the protagonist, but there are elements to their personalities and choices that defy common sense. As appealing as they can be, they’re off-putting as well. Emma Bovary, for example, while a great romantic, was extremely narcissistic, materialistic and histrionic. You kind of love to hate her. Especially, if you can relate to her.

Much like in these novels, I’ve been drawn to historical figures that also claim a dramatic rise and fall motif to their lives. Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, has been an obsession for a long time, but I also have biographies on Napoleon, Mao Zedong, and Alexander Hamilton on my bookshelf. What these people have in common is the fact that their incredible personal agency, drive, and Machiavellian mode of networking allowed them to achieve rapid success. They went all the way in reaching their goals, often without considering anyone else and even at the detriment of many people. They had blinders on; you have to give them so much credit for the power they wielded, regardless of the destruction it may have caused. They were polarizing to their peers; loved or hated, revered or despised, exalted or executed. As swiftly as they brought the world to its knees, they were brought down to their own. That is fodder for a great story and a very intriguing legacy.

It could be that I have a diluted touch of a histrionic personality myself; (I can hear you gasping in shock!). As a young child and teenager, I always created much more internal fantasy around my life to make it more interesting. I think this is an innate quality; not something that can or should be learned. This internalized tendency towards drama has definitely ebbed as I’ve gotten older, thank goodness, but I believe my fascination with interesting, divisive people will never go away.


As Oscar Wilde said, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Think about Oscar Wilde, himself! I believe it was not just his wit, but the fact that his life ended in tragedy, that makes him one of the most quoted icons of his generation. There were insidious rumors about his lifestyle, both real and imagined. Much of them were propagated by himself. After being incarcerated for sodomy and gross indecency, his bright light was forever snuffed out and he died not too long after at the young age of 46. His shocking behavior in Victorian era England both launched and destroyed him. That said, he will assuredly never be forgotten.

Oscar-Wilde

So that begs the question: is it better to live fast and die young/in disgrace, as a true legend? Or is it best to be “steady eddy”, not make waves, and leave behind no palpable legacy? I wish I could know what some of these people felt in the moments of their greatest achievements and greatest failures. For Anne Bolyen, what was it like to be crowned Queen of England against all odds while serving as the unofficial helm of an entirely new religion? What was it like when she was imprisoned in the Tower awaiting execution? It’s people like her, or Alexander Hamilton that continue to capture modern minds, whether in a book, musical, movie, or television series. Game of Thrones is a perfect example of tragic characters on crack and so it’s one of the most popular tevelision series of all time.

I believe dipping our toes in this kind of drama allows us to escape and explore the fantasies of our lives. At the same time, we’re able to turn off, shut, or walk away from experiencing this heightened stress whenever we feel like we’ve had enough. Still, don’t you ever wonder what it would be like to be in The Room Where It Happens?


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5 thoughts on “The Allure of Tragic People”

  1. I once was not accepting of tragedies. I discovered the genre of tragedy in high school and pretty much was close-minded. I thought they were pure sad and nothing else. I ignored them and did not care at all.

    I eventually learned to love tragedies. There are books out there are tragic, but beautiful at the same time. Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Les Misérables” are example. When I think of tragic characters, I go straight to fiction. I was in college where I opened myself up to tragic plots, but they have to go beyond tragedy for me to appreciate them

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I was introduced to Victor Hugo through Les Misérables as in the musical. The musical encouraged me thread the unabridged book and the musical made me understand what was going on in the book

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It’s a great book, I own it myself. Les Mis the musical is in my top three as well. Who is your favorite character?

        Like

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