Posted by: Robin | February 21, 2008

Musings: The Hope of Tragedy in Storytelling (from 6/2007)

A couple of days ago I watched a film called Dangerous Beauty about a courtesan in Venice in the Late Middle Ages. About three quarters of the way through it, I thought it was surprisingly good, maybe worth five stars on my NetFlix rating. Then the denouement arrived, and the courtesan was put on trial by the Inquisition. (Unfortunately I can’t make my point without giving the ending away, so read no further if you want to see the film.)

All our courtesan has to do is confess her guilt and repent. She cannot. While initially this way of life was thrust on her by her mother, a former courtesan, she’d embraced it because she loved to learn, and she was a talented poet. Only this life allowed her to pursue both. She would not diminish who she was by a false repentance. If she did, she would become someone else, someone less. She would be assenting to the hypocrisy of one of her judges who was one of her clients. She could not turn her back on everything she believed, valued and made her who she was. The man she loved begged her to play along saying it would only be words. She could recant once she was safe. But words had never simply been words for her. They had essential meaning and power. They were the tools of her trade, and she would not violate them. 

[SPOILER] In the end she was saved because her courage and her lover’s words inspired/shamed all the most influential men of the city who had been her clients to stand before the tribunal and share her guilt so that the pope had to back down.

The movie had had me in its grip and then loosened its fingers at the most critical point. My disappointment surprised me because, for the most part, I’m a fan of happy endings. Not here. This movie had made passionately clear that our choices matter, and that the easy choices, the ones that turn their back on our integrity of being, result in death of the soul. Refusing them is worth dying for. The courtesan needed to die.

Though her stand resulted in the “redemption” of the men of Venice, bringing them to make the difficult choice that would enlarge their souls, it made it too easy for the audience to dismiss the importance of the heroine’s choice. It allowed us to take the easy choice.

As a writer one of my great struggles is that I am the courtesan’s lover with my characters, begging them to save themselves regardless of the cost. Some stories require Tolkein’s eucatastrophe–the unexpected, impossible, turn of events that restores hope and joy–to achieve the fullness of their power. I think that is the fine knife J.K. Rowling stood upon as she wrote The Deathly Hallows, and it will be interesting to see the choice she made. Is Harry’s death or his living truer to the story? Will his dying bring the greater but costlier truth and hope?

True tragedy as Aristotle defined it does not offer hope, but sometimes a character’s tragic death (or misadventure) is necessary for the truest hope, though never for its own sake. Often it is the difference between a good story and a mythic one. Maybe that’s why C.S. Lewis regarded the crucifixion and the resurrection of Christ as a myth that happens to be true. He knew that a story, especially the greatest of them, must be “true” to its own internal truth. It is easier to say than do, and it requires more courage and ferocity than I may have. I will find out.



  1. […] The Peregrinations of a Wandering Mind placed an interesting blog post on Musings: The Hope of Tragedy in Storytelling (from 6/2007)Here’s a brief overview […]

  2. Are words an end or a means? Do they have value for themselves or in the people, events and ideas they embody?

  3. Are you trying to make my head explode, Don? In the sense that they have precise meaning and connotation, I think they have value for themselves. Only as verbal communication are they an end in a sense that they are the necessary medium, or in the definitive sense as in the case of a dictionary. Words can be both binding and supple, objective and subjective. But in the case of the courtesan they have a precision and promise, a luxuriousness and a sparseness. She uses them to create and evoke with the specificity of an artist’s palate. Use this word and not that word because it is a different shade of green more true to the purpose. Can you tell I’m riffing here? My hours reading literary criticism on this subject keeps popping up with counter arguments for everything I’ve said, so yes! No! Yes! No!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: