According Owl Purdue's page on structuralism and semiotics, tragics falls under historical criticism and tragedies fall under archetypal criticism. What is the difference between a tragic and a tragedy?

When I searched for an answer, all I could find was that "tragic" is a synonym of "tragedy." However, seeing how Purdue puts them under different labels, this does not work here. Is there another meaning where they are different?

  • In Greek drama, a comedy has a happy ending usually with a wedding, a tragedy an unhappy ending usually someone or lots of people die. A tragic could be presumably something that doesn't finish in bloody tragedy, like say Death Of A Salesman where the stakes are fundamentally more human-scale & ordinary..
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Dec 19, 2020 at 20:52

1 Answer 1



The distinction between "tragic" and "tragedy" made on the Owl Purdue page is extremely narrow and very specialized. The terms are used in a technical sense derived from Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism (1957), and the distinction has no wider use or more general application.


The Owl Purdue page uses the terms "tragic" and "tragedy" in reference to Northrop Frye's taxonomy of literature in Anatomy of Criticism (1957). Frye claims that criticism should bear the same relationship to literature as physics does to the natural world: it should be a systematic framework that allows us to examine individual literary works as illustrating the operation of the literary system as a whole. He sees himself as working in the tradition of Aristotle's Poetics:

A theory of criticism whose principles apply to the whole of literature and account for every valid type of critical procedure is what I think Aristotle meant by poetics. Aristotle seems to me to approach poetry as a biologist would approach a system of organ­isms, picking out its genera and species, formulating the broad laws of literary experience, and in short writing as though he believed that there is a totally intelligible structure of knowledge attainable about poetry which is not poetry itself, or the experience of it, but poetics. (p. 14)

Frye then attempts to provide such "broad laws of literary experience". He begins with an exploration of literary modes. He says that there are five modes:

  • Mythic, where the hero is a divine being
  • Romantic, where the hero is a human being but with powers that exceed the ordinary laws of nature
  • High mimetic, where the hero is a leader
  • Low mimetic, where the hero is an ordinary human being
  • Ironic, where the hero is inferior to ordinary human beings in power or intelligence.

He then says that in general, plots can be either tragic or comic:

[T]here is a general distinction be­tween fictions in which the hero becomes isolated from his society, and fictions in which he is incorporated into it. This distinction is expressed by the words "tragic" and "comic" when they refer to aspects of plot in general. (p. 35)

In Frye's terms, for example, Shakespeare's Othello would be high mimetic tragedy, because Othello is a leader and, as the play progresses, is increasingly isolated from society. Austen's Emma, on the other hand, would be low mimetic comedy, because Emma is an ordinary person and the novel ends with her marriage to Mr Knightley, marking her reintegration into society.

The Owl Purdue page is somewhat mistaken in that it lists "tragic" as a mode. There is no tragic mode; when Frye discusses modes, he uses "tragic" specifically to mean a certain kind of plot that involves the hero's progressive alienation from his society. This tragic fiction can be found in any of the five modes.

In a later chapter, Frye turns away from a discussion of literary modes to one of archetypes. Modes are historically specific literary categories, whereas archetypes are "narrative pregeneric elements of literature". He asks:

[A]re there narrative cate­gories of literature broader than, or logically prior to, the ordinary literary genres? There are four such categories: the romantic, the tragic, the comic, and the ironic or satiric. We get the same answer by inspection if we look at the ordinary meanings of these terms. Tragedy and comedy may have been originally names for two species of drama, but we also employ the terms to describe general characteristics of literary fictions, without regard to genre. ... If we are told that what we are about to read is tragic or comic, we expect a certain kind of structure and mood, but not necessarily a certain genre. The same is true of the word romance, and also of the words irony and satire. (p. 162)

That is, comedy, tragedy, romance, and irony/satire do not refer just to specific plots or modes, but to archetypal patterns that underlie literary works generally. Frye links these patterns to the seasons:

  • Comedy is related to spring
  • Romance is related to summer
  • Tragedy is related to autumn
  • Irony/satire is related to winter.

Tragedy is autumnal because it represents a myth of fall and separation. Frye also associates tragedy with ritual sacrifice, as in the Christian eucharist:

Anyone accustomed to think archetypally of literature will recog­nize in tragedy a mimesis of sacrifice. Tragedy is a paradoxical com­bination of a fearful sense of rightness (the hero must fall) and a pitying sense of wrongness (it is too bad that he falls). There is a similar paradox in the two elements of sacrifice. One of these is communion, the dividing of a heroic or divine body among a group which brings them into unity with, and as, that body. The other is propitiation, the sense that in spite of the communion the body really belongs to another, a greater, and a potentially wrathful power. (p. 214)

So specifically in Frye, there is a distinction between, on the one hand, the tragic as a modal plot, which applies to specific literary works; and on the other hand, tragedy as an archetype, a recurrent literary theme or plot structure based on vast, cyclic patterns. Outside of this very technical context, "tragic" and "tragedy" do not have distinct denotations, as the former is simply the adjective derived from the latter.

The pertinence, or lack thereof, of the distinction

It is probably worth mentioning that Frye's typology of literature has not remained particularly influential for practical criticism. Literary critics no longer speak of tragic modes or the archetype of tragedy. Arnd Bohm observes:

When it first appeared in 1957, Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism was recognized and hailed as a major theoretical treatise. ... This reputation of the book endures. And yet even an attentive observer of the current state of literary theory and discussion would be hard put to cite specific instances of Frye having any immediate influence on critical practice. Narratologists, who are concerned with problems of taxonomy and hence might be expected to proceed from Frye, choose to ignore him. The widely-used introduction to narratology by Mieke Bal does not even mention Frye. Roger D. Sell's recent and thorough manual for literary criticism, Literature as Communication, has only one sentence on Frye. ... As with other canonical texts of secondary literature, Anatomy of Criticism seems to be one of those books everyone knows but few have actually read. (p. 310–311)

The highly specialized distinction between "tragic" and "tragedy" as Frye uses the terms is not one that is likely to be encountered even within literary studies, let alone outside that field, any more.


  • Bohm, Arnd. “Northrop Frye: The Consolation of Criticism.” Monatshefte, vol. 95, no. 2, 2003, pp. 310–317. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30154107. Accessed 13 Dec. 2020.
  • Frye, Northrup. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. 1957. With a foreword by Harold Bloom. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000.

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