Tragic Scenarios: Madness, Suffering, and Death

  • Ann Cline Kelly


Both Fate and Swift shaped Swift’s life into the pattern Raglan lays out for the mythologized figure, a tragic trajectory from high promise (“reputed to be the son of a god”) and high achievement (victories over enemies and successful rule) to the loss of it all (“loses favor with the gods/or his subjects, and is driven from the throne and city”), ending with a “mysterious death” alone on a hill or an “upper room.” While Aristotle says tragedy evolved from ancient fertility rites, death more than life is emphasized in the old order making way for the new. While the romance genre opens up explorations of gender, sexuality, and erotic relationships, tragedy encourages meditations on the reasons for suffering, the reality of death, the meaning of life, the nature of Providence, and the way an individual responds to the overwhelming questions these issues raise.1 Unable to conceptualize our own deaths, tragedy allows us to witness in detachment the drama of someone else’s death—to look at death slantways and accommodate ourselves indirectly to the uncertainties of the future and the inevitability of an end.2 Contrary to the inclination of most people to do the same, Swift humorously imagined the realities of his own eventual death in “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift,” a poem in which he shows himself looking calmly and clear-eyed into the void of the hereafter.


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  1. 1.
    See Timothy J. Reiss, Tragedy and Truth: Studies in the Development of a Renaissance and Neoclassical Discourse (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980). Reiss argues that “Tragedy in itself does not reveal any cosmic law. It does not show the impossibility of overcoming fate; it does not settle or unsettle the place of man in a divine order. Tragedy is a … textual … machine that enable use subsequently to make such readings” (15).Google Scholar
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© Ann Cline Kelly 2002

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  • Ann Cline Kelly

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