Why Do We Enjoy Suffering in Literature?

Remains of 11th century priory on the site of the Anglo-Saxon monastery of Lindisfarne. By Lisa Jarvis, CC BY-SA 2.0

Why do we enjoy tragedies? Why is there something almost pleasant about an elegy.

We watch King Lear, knowing that the moment will come when he carries Cordelia out. We watch Macbeth to hear “Out, out, brief candle!”

I’ve noticed that I enjoy Old English poetry and the works of Thomas Hardy because they enter so well into this elegiac mode.

When I felt worn down by the relentless plot of Thomas Malory, I turned to poems like “The Ruin” and “The Wanderer” to get my strength back.

One of my favorite tropes that captures this elegiac mode is the ubi sunt motif. In it, the poet asks “where are they?” Where have all the people I’ve loved and the things I’ve enjoyed gone. In Old English, this was rendered as “hwær cwom.”

I’m sure you’ve heard it before. Tolkien places words inspired by “The Wanderer” on Aragorn’s lips as he thinks about the very Anglo-Saxon Rohirrim:

Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?

Peter Jackson transfers these words to Theoden in this scene:

Why is this so moving? Do we enjoy laments so much because we all experience the passage of time? Perhaps. The transience of life is a favorite theme in Old English literature and it resonates with us still.

But what about a staged tragedy or laments that don’t fit so well with our own experiences? Are we being voyeuristic when we read about Jude’s tragedy in Hardy or the sad stories of bards like Deor?

Augustine considered this in his Confessions. Living in Carthage, he finds himself attending tragedies in a way that exacerbates his passions rather than granting catharsis:

Augustine. Confessiones. BPH Ms 83. Manuscript on vellum. Germany, first half 13th century. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Stage-plays also drew me away, full of representations of my miseries and of fuel to my fire. Why does man like to be made sad when viewing doleful and tragical scenes, which yet he himself would by no means suffer? And yet he wishes, as a spectator, to experience from them a sense of grief, and in this very grief his pleasure consists. What is this but wretched insanity? For a man is more affected with these actions, the less free he is from such affections. Howsoever, when he suffers in his own person, it is the custom to style it misery but when he compassionates others, then it is styled mercy. But what kind of mercy is it that arises from fictitious and scenic passions? The hearer is not expected to relieve, but merely invited to grieve; and the more he grieves, the more he applauds the actor of these fictions. And if the misfortunes of the characters (whether of olden times or merely imaginary) be so represented as not to touch the feelings of the spectator, he goes away disgusted and censorious; but if his feelings be touched, he sits it out attentively, and sheds tears of joy.

Are sorrows, then also loved? Surely all men desire to rejoice? Or, as man wishes to be miserable, is he, nevertheless, glad to be merciful, which, because it cannot exist without passion, for this cause alone are passions loved? This also is from that vein of friendship. But whither does it go? Whither does it flow? Wherefore runs it into that torrent of pitch, seething forth those huge tides of loathsome lusts into which it is changed and transformed, being of its own will cast away and corrupted from its celestial clearness? Shall, then, mercy be repudiated? By no means. Let us, therefore, love sorrows sometimes. But beware of uncleanness, O my soul, under the protection of my God, the God of our fathers, who is to be praised and exalted above all for ever, beware of uncleanness.


But I, wretched one, then loved to grieve, and sought out what to grieve at, as when, in another man’s misery, though reigned and counterfeited, that delivery of the actor best pleased me, and attracted me the most powerfully, which moved me to tears. What marvel was it that an unhappy sheep, straying from Your flock, and impatient of Your care, I became infected with a foul disease? And hence came my love of griefs— not such as should probe me too deeply, for I loved not to suffer such things as I loved to look upon, but such as, when hearing their fictions, should lightly affect the surface; upon which, like as with empoisoned nails, followed burning, swelling, putrefaction, and horrible corruption. Such was my life! But was it life, O my God?

I want to agree with Augustine, much as I want to agree with Plato at times, but can’t fully here.

Augustine seems to be following Plato’s view of poetry in the ancient quarrel. You can read more about that here, but (in a nutshell) Plato proposes in the tenth book of The Republic that imitative art is thrice-removed from reality. First, is the form that all other instances of a thing derive from. Second, is the thing that is physically crafted. Finally, there is the imitation of craft through poetry or painting. Since in Platonic thought, the form is primary and truth is prioritized, and since poetry encourages lower passions instead of reason (which seems to concern Augustine here), poets are exiled from the Republic.

Of course, with such a great thinker like Augustine, especially one who is ancient to the point where we have to be careful in our interpretation, I fully recognize that I may misunderstand the Bishop of Hippo. So I want to tread carefully with my response and always be open to the text. I see how entertainment and art enter into us and that we can have obsessions even with good things. To love sorrow sometimes sounds like a commendable approach to moderation. And for many people, the darkness of a Hardy novel is not the right place to go.

But I can’t help seeing that there is compassion in the shared sorrow of tragic art. I wonder if there’s another way.

For instance, I don’t think I was focusing on suffering in an abject way when I was recently captivated by this elegiac section in Beowulf. It tells of the loss of a son:

So it is sad for an old man
to live to see his young son
ride on the gallows–then let him recount a story,
a sorry song, when his son hangs
of comfort only to the ravens, and he cannot,
though old and wise, offer him any help.
Each and every morning call to mind
his son’s passing away; he will not care
to wait for any other heir or offspring
in his fortress, when the first one has
tasted evil deeds and fell death.
He looks sorrowfully on his son’s dwelling,
the deserted wine-hall, the windswept home,
bereft of joy–the riders sleep,
heroes in their graves; there is no harp-music,
no laughter in the court, as there had been long before.

My wife is a harpist, so the idea of her harped draped and unused chills me. Once you have children, I don’t think you can read literature in the same way. Perhaps I should have more objectivity as a researcher, but I know I will always be arrested by the loss of a child more that I used to be. The baptism of Sorrow in Tess absorbs me and the passed-over death of the first Elizabeth-Jane haunts me all the way to Henchard’s will.

There’s a new book by Rachel Kent that looks at the medieval origins of the novel that could quiet Augustine’s concerns. Kent suggests that we gain intimacy with the suffering character through what she calls “Pietà moments” based on the devotional development of the Pietà, depicting a crucified Christ held by a sorrowing Mary.
Carlo crivelli, pietà del 1470 circa, con ampi rifacimenti di luigi cavenaghi

Rather than leading to “a love of griefs” as Augustine worries, reading a modern novel can remind us that with all our foibles we are still “sacred complexes of dignity.” According to Kent, suffering in the modern novel “drinks from vestiges of late medievalism’s invitation to an intimate, unswerving encounter with embarrassing decay,” which leads to an “intimate encounter with pained flesh.”

As Simone Weil put it:

Joy and sorrow are equally precious gifts—one must savor one and the other fully, each in its purity, without seeking to mix them. Through joy, the beauty of the world penetrates into our souls. Through sorrow, it enters us through the body.

As always, you can follow along with the reading lists with the Powell’s partner links below:

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