Fargo as an Aristotelian Tragedy

According to Aristotle, a Tragedy must consist of six different parts. There must be a coherent plot, with a beginning, middle, and end, which must be somewhat complex, long enough to be complete, but not so long as to be difficult to remember. Characters must be believable and well-developed, either better than real life or called from real people. There must also be logic in the reason, or thought, of the drama, and the diction, or language, must make sense in the context of the story. The appearance of the set falls under the heading of Spectacle, and the Song, or the chorus, must support the story.

The movie Fargo fits many of the aspects of the classic tragedy. A tragedy, according to Aristotle, must have a plot that is either pitiful or terrible, leaving the audience thinking something like, there but for the grace of God, go I. Jerry Lundegard seems to be the epitome of car salesmen, trying to make a little bit more money. Over the course of the movie, he makes one poor decision after another, and in the end is arrested while trying to flee from the consequences of the bad decisions he makes. Aristotle explains that certain circumstances make a situation either more or less tragic. For instance, when an enemy kills another enemy, he writes, there really is no reason for the audience to feel any kind of sympathy.

“But when the tragic incident occurs between those who are near or dear to one another – if, for example, a brother kills, or intends to kill, a brother, a son his father, a mother her son, a son his mother, or any other deed of the kind is done – these are the situations to be looked for by the poet.” (Poetics, p 25)

In Fargo, by his own schemes, Jerry ends up causing his wife’s death by placing her at the hands of the two men he hires to kidnap her. He didn’t seem to be unhappy with his wife, just eager to gain more money without having to earn it or ask for it directly.

The plot of the story has a clear beginning, where Jerry delivers the car and instructions to Carl and Gaar and then heads back home. The plot begins to build in complexity when he finds out that his father-in-law might actually be willing to assist Jerry financially, but before he can determine this, the two men who are preparing to kidnap Jerry’s wife are already making their way to town to complete their task. The middle of the plot is when the kidnapping actually occurs, and violence begins to unfold, and Jerry begins to work the “deal” to get his father-in-law to pay the ransom. At this point, we are introduced to Margie, who is a small town cop with a pretty shrewd mind, who begins to unfold the crime and uncover the truth. As Margie interviews various witnesses, she draws closer and closer to the truth, eventually actually solving the crime, but not before Jerry’s wife, Jean, and his father-in-law have lost their lives to the kidnappers Jerry hired. In the end, all of Jerry’s bad decisions snowball into him being arrested as he’s desperately fleeing from the state.

According to Aristotle, a good plot must either be something that could possibly happen, or did actually happen. Since Fargo is based on real life events, the plot is clearly of the historical category. The character development, the diction (or in this case, the colloquial Minnesota accent of the characters) the artistic style, all build up the story to a level that even Aristotle would have agreed to be a great Tragedy.

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