The difference between sad and tragic

The tragic sense derives from the realization that great misfortunes and failures and not merely imposed upon us from without, but are largely the result of our own tragic flaws. A tragic story is not merely a sad story. In a sad story the hero dies or fails in his enterprise or is rejected by his special love; the unfortunate outcome is brought on by enemies, poor conditions, bad luck, or some unexpected deficiency in the hero.

The tragic story has a different character. Its hero is engaged with extraordinary virtue and skill in a noble quest. He is defeated in this quest. The defeat is due in part to formidable external difficulties, but it stems above all from an internal flaw, a quality of character that is an intrinsic part of the heroic striving. The flaw usually involves hubris (arrogance, ego inflation, omnipotence) and destructiveness. The nobility and the defect are two sides of the same heroic coin. But genuine tragedy does not end simply in defeat. Although the hero does not attain his initial aspirations, he is ultimately victorious: he confronts his profound inner faults, accepts them as part of himself and of humanity, and is to some degree transformed into a nobler person. The personal transformation outweighs the worldly defeat and suffering.

Daniel J. Levinson, The Seasons of a Man’s Life

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