Post 1: “Fargo” as an Aristotelian tragedy

In “Fargo”, the two principles of tragedy, plot and character emerge. Aristotle speaks of 5 elements in the narrative structure. 

First, complication. The protagonist, car salesman Jerry, finds his illegal schemes have gotten him in over his head. In an attempt to get out of it, Jerry hires hoodlums, Carl and Gaear, to kidnap his wife, Jean. 

Next, in the narrative structure is reversal. Then, recognition, where the plot goes from complication to unraveling. In Fargo, Jerry assumes Jean’s wealthy father will pay the ransom money. The hoodlums are useless and things spiral downward. Carl leaves the dealer plates on the car and gets pulled over by a cop. The cop is shot by Gaear.

The local police officer, Marge, is pregnant, upbeat and sharp. At the scene of the crime, she establishes what happened immediately, saying of the murdered officer, “He looks like a nice enough guy. What a shame.” Her investigations lead her to the car dealership where Jerry works.

The last two points of Aristotle’s narrative structure is suffering and catharsis. The kidnapping gets out of Jerry’s control, as he attempts to maintain an even-keeled facade. Many characters represent the empty promise of “the American Dream”. But at the same time, they seem unable to restore optimism with the persistent troubles in their lives. As example, after Marge captures Grimsrud, she scolds him: “There’s more to life than money, you know?” Another example is the cashier at the diner, with a false-cheerful attitude.

Only Marge and her husband, Norm, seem truly happy in their lives. Marge has a positive view of life, despite the challenges of police work. And, Norm finds pleasure doing wildlife paintings. He’s dismissive of having his art on a stamp, but Marge tells him that “people need the little stamps” – or, learn to be happy with that.

Blog Post 1

Fargo a story that can resonate as an Aristotle tragedy. “Again, Tragedy is the imitation of an action; and an action implies personal agents, who necessarily posses certain distinctive qualities both of character and thought; for it is by these that we qualify actions themselves, and these-thought and character-are the two natural causes from which actions from which actions spring, and on actions again all success or failure.” (Aristotle 11)

We see this in the character Jerry as he needs money from Wade to start up his own car lot. Which Wade won’t give him the money, so he hires two kidnappers named Carl and Gaear to kidnap his wife Jean who is the daughter of Wade. He sets this plan up so he can tell Wade that Jean has been kidnapped and that the kidnappers need 80,000 dollars. He says this amount because he’s going to give Carl and Gaear 40,000 and for them to split. Even giving them a car from his lot to use. He’ll keep the other 40,000 because that’s how much he needs to start his lot. For Jerry he doesn’t see anything wrong with this. He doesn’t realize the danger he’s putting his wife in as he’s stuck on his dream. A good example of him not realizing this is when he comes home to realize she has been kidnapped. Instead of showing himself being a little worried he is shown practicing how he’s going to call Wade about this.

Aristotle writes in his book, “An action which is one and continuous in the sense above defined, I call Simple, when the change of fortune takes place without Reversal of the Situation and without Recognition.” (Aristotle 19) This is what happens in Fargo as everything starts unavailing itself as when Carl and Gaear are driving with the kidnapped Jean back to their cabin they’re stopped by a highway patrol cop. Gaear kills the cop and a family who drives by and sees them. Bringing in Marge who is the chief and is pregnant as well. She goes searching for the killers as she goes into Minneapolis interviewing people that had contact with them from calls on phones or checking in at motels. While this is happening Jerry is trying to convince Wade that he needs to be the only one to give the kidnappers the money as that was their words. Wade is not giving in and when the day the money is needed to be given he goes and gets killed by Carl not before shooting him and grazing his face with a bullet. Jerry gets to the spot and sees that Wade has been killed but doesn’t show too much worry. He goes back to the cabin where he sees Jean has been killed for her constant squealing. He splits the money with Gaear and gives him the keys to his truck as he’s going to keep the stolen car for himself the car. Gaear wants the car which causes them to get into an argument. Carl leaves the cabin with his money to take the car, however Gaear comes charging out of the cabin with an axe and kills Carl. Marge ends up interviewing Jerry twice. The first time asking about the kidnappers car being possibly stolen from his car lot. He denies it. The second time she comes back in and ask the same question, however Jerry gets hostile and angry. He leaves to go do a car count just to find out he was leaving to escape to South Dakota. The next day when she’s leaving Minneapolis she spots the kidnappers car in the woods. She sees Gaear shoving Carl’s body into a wood chipper. He notices Marge and tries to run and gets shot. He ends up getting arrested and Jerry is found in South Dakota and gets arrested as well. With the fate he wasn’t expecting.

The Tragedy of Fargo

“Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.”


Though written over 2000 years ago, Aristotle’s Poetics is still a standard in the Western storytelling tradition. On first reading, it can be seen as dated both in its antiquated language and references as well as its discussion of the trappings traditional to Greek theater. Upon closer inspection, there are many pieces of wisdom that are of great use to writers today; many of the underlying theories are timeless. This can be seen when comparing Poetics to a modern classic of cinema, Fargo.

Action vs. Narration

One point raised frequently throughout Poetics is that actions speak louder than words, or as certainly any formally trained writer has heard countless times “Show, don’t tell.” Aristotle said that all art is in some way imitation. As an absolute law, this is something that has been challenged frequently in multiple artistic movements, but in general, this rule is still tremendously practical advice that should be heeded far more often than it is avoided. This concept is referred to as “mimesis,” meaning the representation or imitation of life in art, and comes from the same root as “mimicry.” This is why painters recreate landscapes, still lifes, and portraits, for all are imitations. Even abstract art represents something, even if only metaphorically. In order to mimic something, there must be an object to mimic, and so in regards to drama, Aristotle says in Poetics:

“[the] objects of imitation are men in action.”

In the film Fargo, the audience first sees a black screen with white text informing the viewer that the following story is true, that it takes place in Minnesota in the 1987, that names have been changed at the request of those that lived through it, and that out of respect for the dead, it is recreated exactly as it actually happened. This is the only narration we are given, the only non-diegetic voice present in the film, and at that it is more a footnote or disclaimer rather than narration proper. After this point, everything unfolds before the camera naturalistically, as though the audience were a proverbial fly on the wall.

A Single Action

Aristotle also speaks of the three classical unities:

  1. unity of action
  2. unity of time
  3. unity of place

In Aristotle’s original interpretations of these unities, the entirety of the plot should result from a single action, in a single location, in the space of a single day. Anything more results in a more complicated plot that is harder for the audience to follow and more suited to the format of epics, which categorically deal with stories of a larger scale such that they can span years, continents, and an entire host of characters. Fargo doesn’t follow these unities precisely, but we can see their lessons in play:

  1. Everything stems from a kidnapping plot gone wrong.
  2. Everything happens in about a week, if not a couple days.
  3. Everything happens in the area adjacent to the small town of Fargo, Minnesota.

It is unity of action of which Fargo is most exemplifying. In cinema, short stories, or any such short-form storytelling medium, it is important for the plot to remain concise, that each scene serves a purpose and advances the plot, as anything else would just be a distraction. Fargo starts, technically, with the credits rolling, showing the desolate, snowy region which creates much of the tone of the film. Out of the fog, a car appears and pulls into a parking lot. Jerry Lundegaard enters a bar, approaches two men, and tells them about his plot to kidnap his own wife to extort his father-in-law for money. Though this scene is predominantly dialogue, it is dialogue as action: he informs the two men of the plan that they are about to be a part, and in so sets everything else in motion. Just as Aristotle urges in Poetics, the film follows the chain of events that follow in such a manner that is both possible and probable, that they

“arise from the internal structure of the plot, so that what follows should be the necessary or probably result of the preceding action.”

The film ends when Jerry and his accomplices are all either dead or arrested.

Complication and Unraveling

According to Aristotle, a good story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. It starts with the inciting action and ends when that action has been resolved. In between are numerous twists and turns that result from the natural flow of events, and they are complications and the unraveling. Fargo is a story of plans gone wrong, and things go wrong from the very beginning. The kidnapping, declared by Jerry to be a simple thing, quickly becomes violent and results in his wife unconscious at the bottom of the stairs. However, it is during the getaway that the film moves into the second act: pulled over for not having their temporary plates displayed, the two kidnappers end up shooting a state trooper, and then killing two witnesses that happened to drive by. The discovery of these three bodies begin an investigation and introduces the character Marge Gunderson. The second act then is a series of complications as Jerry and the two kidnappers try to continue their scheme, and the unraveling as Marge attempts to track them down.

Pity and Fear

“…Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than actual life.”

Aristotle is very clear in Poetics, that tragedies depict characters of our level or higher while comedies depict characters beneath us. He does clarify

“…Not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the Ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain.”

The fumblings of Jerry are something we look down on, his inability to stand up for himself in conversations with the kidnappers as well as his father-in-law stem from a lack of confidence, a weakness in character that society does not condone. His goals however, to be a provider and take care of his family, as well as his role of underdog in many social situations also make him a sympathetic character with which the audience can relate.

According to Aristotle, we fear what misfortunes occur to the characters that we relate, but we laugh at the misfortunes of a character that we look down on. In that way, Jerry inhabits a gray space where he is relatable but ultimately his weakness in character is his own undoing.

Simultaneously, the audience cheers on the character of Marge. Hardworking and just, but ultimately oblivious to the darker aspects people hide publicly, she is flawed but competent.

Character and Plot

“The Plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy: Character holds the second place… Thus Tragedy is the imitation of an action, of the agents….”

According to Aristotle, Plot and Character are the two most important elements of a story. Thought is the third, and is closely tied to Character. It is through well constructed characters and plot that the film Fargo entertains, both as a tragedy and as a comedy.

Blog Post One

The 1996 film, Fargo rotates its story through comedy, suspense, and violence. The filmmakers took enormous risks and made an original movie that’s universally relatable. Fargo is an Aristotelian tragedy, “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in the language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation-catharsis of these and similar emotions.” (Poetics, P.10)

Tragedy’s aim is to shake up in the soul the impulses of pity and fear, to achieve what Aristotle calls Catharsis. The emotions of pity and fear find a free outlet in tragedy. Their excess is purged, and we are lifted out of ourselves and emerge with a refreshed outlook. The Plot is the most important part of tragedy. The Characters are the men and women who act. Thought is what the characters think or feel throughout their screen time in the development of the plot. Diction is the medium of language or expression through which the characters reveal their thoughts and feelings. The diction should be ‘embellished with each kind of artistic element’. The Song is one of these embellishments. Lastly, The Spectacle is the theatrical effect presented on the stage.

Fargo’s plot begins with Jerry making arrangements to have his wife kidnapped. His intent is to shake his father-in-law of $80,000 to then split the cash with the hired kidnappers. The plot quickly takes a turn, or a reversal, when the hired kidnappers get pulled over and three people end up dead. Due to this reversal, Fargo’s plot is complex, meaning the opposite of what is desired seeks to manifest. Jerry desires to make just enough cash to land him a deal and financial stability at the sacrifice of “pretending” to kidnap his wife and his fathers-in-law’s wallet. However, destiny plays out and Jerry loses his wife, his father-in-law, and his freedom.

We can easily fall short of understanding Fargo’s true message by feeling too much pity for the hardworking car salesman who only seeks to bring financial freedom to himself and the daughter of a wealthy man who he feels pressure from and ends up losing it all. The more meaningful protagonist to discuss is Marge Gunderson. Marge is a highly relatable protagonist whose strength comes from her unwavering loyalty to those she loves. She appears 33 minutes into the movie, but she represents the thesis – innocence can withstand corruption. She immediately deduces the first crime scene, and then never falls far behind in piecing together the criminal’s traces. The Thought, Diction, Song, and The Spectacle of this character are spot on. She is on the hunt for murderous culprits, all the while pregnant, an artistic husband whom she seems to support financially, with a sense of humor that stems from her honest sincerity.

“So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.” Even though she can’t relate to the motives of the corrupt, she proves that innocence can withstand evil.

Blog Post #1 – Fargo as an Aristotelian Tragedy

The Coen Brother’s 1996 film Fargo is an excellent example of an Aristotelian tragedy. Aristotle defines tragedy as:

“an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions” (Aristotle, VI).

In this story, you’ll find several qualities that align with Aristotle’s definition and components of tragedy. The first and most important being the plot. The plot of Fargo carries some severe consequence as one of the main characters, Jerry Lundegaard, makes the horrible decisions to have his wife kidnapped in order to receive a ransom from his affluent, glower father in law. Jerry fits the character of someone who has a small ego but is likable, decent reputation but is not perfect; someone who is the same or might have similar qualities to most viewers.

On the Freytag pyramid, the rising action and first complication in the dramatic structure of the story is introduced when the two kidnappers get pulled over with Jerry’s wife Jean, who is tied up in the trunk of the car. To avoid the state trooper from searching the car, Gaear Grimsrud shot and killed the officer.

At this time, you can now see a moment of reversal in Carl Showalter face (the accomplice).  Aristotle defines reversal as

“a change by which the action veers round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity” (Aristotle, XI).

Carl Showalter thought he would be able to talk and bribe his way out of being searched by the state trooper, contrary to his expectations, he was unsuccessful and has now rendered himself an accessory to murder. This is an example of how the plot escalated, evolved and continued as a complex story; a complex action is one in which the change is accompanied by such Reversal, or by Recognition, or by both (Aristotle, X).

-Ceenan Calzadilla

Blog Post One

The movie Fargo can certainly be classified as an Aristotelian tragedy. Plot is usually seen as the most important element in a tragedy, so we will start there. Aristotle says that, “Plots are either Simple or Complex” (Aristotle, X). A simple plot is defined as a story without a reversal of the situation, while a complex story is one with a reversal. Aristotle defines a reversal of the situations as, “a change by which the action veers round to its opposite” (Aristotle, XI). This simply means that a character’s actions lead to the opposite results they intended. This is the core of the movie Fargo’s plot. Our primary protagonist is Jerry Lundegaard, who finds himself in desperate need of money, so he hires a couple men to fake kidnap his wife so he can squeeze money out of his father-in-law. This decision leads to the death of his wife, father-in-law, and half a dozen innocent strangers. This reversal of the situation is also apparent in one of the men Jerry hires, Carl. At the end of the movie, Carl manages to get the ransom money (which is far more than he planned), but instead of skipping town immediately, he gets greedy and tries to swindle his partner out of a new car. This leads to his unstable partner murdering him. Another important element is the recognition. The recognition is, “is a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune.” (Aristotle, XI). This can be demonstrated by two different characters, Jerry and Marge. With Jerry, the moment of recognition happens when he discovers his father-in-law’s body. Before this moment he was unaware of how dangerous Carl and Gaear are. After this moment, he flees the area, eventually leading to the bad fortune of being arrested in a motel room. Marge’s moment of recognition comes after Jerry dodges the second interview with her. She goes from thinking Jerry is an annoying car salesman to a suspect. This later leads to bad fortune for Jerry and good fortune for her. These clear reversals of the situation and moments of recognition show that Fargo is a tragedy with complex plot.

-Ryan Mariotti

Blog #1 June 25th

In the short work Poetics, Aristotle describes every tragedy possessing six parts, plot, character, diction, thought spectacle, and song (1997:VI). The plot is described as “the soul of the tragedy,” while the characters imitate the action of the tragedy (1997:VI). Diction represents “the expression of the meaning of words,” and thought is “something proved to be or not to be” (1997:VI). Finally, song is described as instrumental in enhancing in a tragedy, while spectacle is viewed as dependent on the power of the tragedy (1997:VI). 

The 1996 film Fargo can best be described as a complex plot, in which “its actions are accompanied by reversal, recognition, or both” (1197:VI). Reversal of the situation, or “a change in which action veers round to its opposite,” is demonstrated in Fargo by its central characters Jerry, Carl, and Gaear (1997:XI). Jerry attempts to swindle his father in law out of one million dollars, but in the end, his wife and father in law are both killed, he looses all of the ransom money, and ultimately is taken into police custody. Carl and Gaear are hired to kidnap Jerry’s wife for eighty thousand dollars; however, after a series of unplanned events, Carl is killed by Gaear after almost getting away with more money than he bargained for, and Gaear is hauled away by police in connection with numerous murders. All three of these characters represent a reversal of the situation by unintended and unplanned circumstances, inevitably lead to their arrest or death. 

Recognition is “a change from ignorance to knowledge and combined with reversal will produce either pity or fear” (1997:XI). Recognition is illustrated by Fargo‘s characters Jerry and Marge. After Jerry becomes aware that his kidnapping plan could possibly be avoided, he internalizes much regret and fear as he attempts to stop the kidnapping. Once Jerry becomes aware that his kidnapping scheme is in motion, he struggles to cover his tracks only to be arrested kicking and screaming at the end of the film. Marge demonstrates clear recognition by stellar police work that allows her to solve the murder cases in her town and identify her suspects. 

Finally, Aristotle also describes tragedy’s as having a distinct beginning, middle, and end, in which the beginning “does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be” (1997:VII). Fargo begins by instantly divulging Jerry’s plan to Carl and Gaear in the tavern, and then concludes with the exciting incident of the kidnapping followed by the murder of three civilians. The middle opens with Marge getting involved in the case and concluding with Jerry becoming a suspect. The end described by Aristotle is “that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or a rule, but has nothing following it” (1997:VII). Fargo‘s ending act stems from the film’s previous events and concludes with Marge in bed with her husband unwinding following an eventful day at work and concluding the story for all of the characters. 

-Michael Cortez