Imre Madách’s “The Tragedy of Man”


István Sőtér


The sons of stress periods tend to speak indirectly about their personal or ideological discords. A disguised form of expression renders confession easier, and the mask they choose helps them over issues about which they may still feel uncertain. Indeed, sometimes the writer plays hide and seek, concealing his real emotions from the reader, who must be careful, lest the original meaning be misunderstood.

“The Tragedy of Man” is a dissembling, secretive, enigmatic work of Hungarian literature. The fruit of the critical decade following the suppression of the 1848 War of Independence, it was written in the months between February 1859 and March 1860. This period was marked by equally profound political and ideological crises. Almost ten years had gone by since the failure of the Hungarian revolution when Madách began to write “The Tragedy.” The nation had not yet recovered; on the contrary, under the stress of Austrian oppression its moral reserves began to be depleted.

The revolutionary generation had grown up in an enthusiastic belief in ideas, in an absolute confidence in progress, in the cultivation of virtues and activities for the common weal developed by the enlightenment and nourished, even filled with dreams, by the romanticism and liberalism of the first half of the century. The downfall of the 1848 movements in itself forcibly belied the confidence and the day-dreams of this generation. Grand and inspiring ideas were not realized at a single stroke but, in reality, were seen to turn into their own contradiction; their brilliance was sullied by blood and mud, and man, claimed by romanticism to be a demi-god, was proved to be a feeble, fallen hero by history. History and revolutions are shaped by the will and spirit of the masses, but their motion is like that of the sea: the tide is always followed by ebb. “The Tragedy of Man” was produced at such a low water mark of time. Its poet stood on a deserted shore, feeling hopelessly lonely.


To the bitter historical experience another equally disillusioning experience was added. The generation reared on idealism was faced by a new trend in philosophy, the mechanical materialism triumphant in Germany. Büchner, Moleschott and their associates declared themselves for a crude and extreme materialism (of which Marx and Engels openly disapproved), and this materialism, enraptured by the achievements of the revolution in the natural sciences, had summary, apparently final answers to the most intricate philosophical problems. The soul was an illusion, ideas no more than smoke, morality an invention, and, what was still worse, man, the slave of circumstances, with his fate determined by blind material forces, figures, statistics and natural conditions, could do nothing to alter his lot. The generation of 1848 lost its bearings not only because of political developments; its ideological foundations had also been crushed. It was impossible to disregard the triumphant achievements of the revolution in the natural sciences; and, at first glance, these achievements seemed to confirm the theses of the mechanical materialists.

Hence the historical and philosophical crisis looming in the background of “The Tragedy of Man.” In the eyes of the dramatist it was aggravated by his personal crisis, by the wreckage of his unhappy marriage; happy love was condemned to bitter destruction. Moreover, how many dead, how many victims in his own family: a brother, a sister with her husband and children, all had lost their lives amidst the terrible ordeals and vicissitudes of the War of Independence. “The Tragedy” presents the history of mankind in dramatic vignettes, from the Garden of Eden, the history of Egypt, Athens, and Rome, through the imagined future phalanstery, to the cooling of the earth; behind this series of pictures, however, one must inevitably sense the tension produced in Madách’s mind by his ideological and personal crises. Without it the series of historical pictures constituting “The Tragedy” would wane into a mere scholastic spectacle, because this hidden tension released in the poet deep intellectual, moral forces and a desire to resolve the crises—a desire that imbues the work with a painful, concealed lyricism, a nostalgia for the lost Garden of Eden.

“The Tragedy of Man” consistently presents scenes of failure and downfall. It belongs to the most profoundly pessimistic works. However, its true meaning lies in the poet’s refusal to accept this pessimism, for the more merciless historical facts become, the more desperately he seeks to refute them. Refutation grows almost arbitrary, even senseless, but this only serves to tender the wish for refutation still more violent and urgent. The generation bred on idealism and romanticism had to recognize the bitter lessons of history, the annihilation of dreams, and the doubts assailing beliefs and


ideas. This recognition made the former enthusiasts adopt a contrary attitude: they became unbelievers and sceptics. Yet no more at home in their new scepticism than in their old enthusiasm, they came to wonder whether they should not return to their former happy beliefs, to their unsuspecting daydreams, to their old hopes attached to action. The world around them had changed, and so had they. In looking for something beyond enthusiasm and doubt, they were endeavouring to find something new, some reassuring explanation, some acceptable encouragement and an attainable harmony. This was the dialectical process of thoughts and emotions that took place in the minds of the quondam romanticists and idealists who had lived through the revolution. The same dialectical process animates “The Tragedy of Man” and turns it into a drama.

One hero of “The Tragedy” is Adam, who always believes unconditionally and is therefore invariably doomed to defeat, as were Madách and his generation. The other principal hero, Lucifer, has faith in nothing and doubts everything, therefore his spirit remains barren. Lucifer differs from Adam only in so far as he regards the repeated downfall and failure of Adam as a fixed law of life and its conditions. After suppressed revolutions the two extreme, polarized attitudes are not infrequently encountered: unconditional belief, on the one hand, and absolute scepticism and disillusionment, on the other. In the closing scene of “The Tragedy” the Lord pronounces the moral that mankind needs both views: an abstract creed leads to inertia, because it is immobile and mere conjecture, like a theory that cannot he put to practical test. Doubt and denial may become the motive power, the leaven of a new creed and new activities. All this may, of course, be applied in the reverse order. Human virtue is hampered by fallibility, but the latter is sometimes apt to bring rescue from the blind and destructive exaggerations of virtue. Man is often saved by his own character, or by Nature, from the abstract and speculative, hence negative and harmful, exaggerations of his own ideas.

This escape, this protection conferred by failure, this support offered by weakness, this realism opposed to abstraction, is embodied in Eve, the third figure of “The Tragedy.” From the blind alleys of over-zealous belief and crude denial we can escape only along the path opened by the often underestimated reserves of human nature. In his disappointment and despair Adam wants to commit suicide, but Eve’s motherhood makes suicide senseless and impossible. The personality of Eve thus intervenes in the sterile debate of belief and denial, rendering it fertile. Eden was lost through the frailty of Eve; however, only Eve is capable of recreating something from what has been forfeited. Here lies Eve’s absolute superiority over Adam


and Lucifer, and this was Madách’s final effort to refute history by factors lying outside history.

The dialectical process taking place in the minds of the generation that had lived through the revolution was thus revived in the dramatic dialectics of the three principal figures of “The Tragedy.”


This work could have been written only by a poet who had been taught prolonged, continuous contemplation by his own suffering and solitude.

Imre Madách lived his life (1823‑1864) among the picturesque hills in the north of Nógród County stretching down to the Danube, in Sztregova Manor House on a fine estate inherited from his parents, or rather his money-making grandparents. The Madách family belonged to the foremost gentry of the district, with a traditional insistence on education. Their library still provides evidence of the wide orientation which, for over a century, had made the members of the family at all times receptive to new forms of law, history, philosophy, poetry and natural sciences. Stregova Manor House was surrounded by an English park, the dining room was hung with engravings of Hogarth (among whose figures some scholars have claimed to recognize various motives of the London scene of “The Tragedy”). The book-cases of the study held the works of Dante, Goethe and Gibbon; Humboldt’s Cosmos and Feszler’s Hungarian History were the most frequently read volumes.

In the Manor House life was simple and patriarchal. The real head of the family was the poet’s widowed mother, who survived her son. Madách was educated in the spirit that filled the nobility in the period preceding 1848; without any luxury or waste, but in a social environment where the members knew themselves to be part of a great family. He went to school to the Piarists of Vác, a small baroque town on the Danube, which was to be connected with the capital by the first railway in 1842. During his university years he lived with and looked after his younger brothers, even doing the household accounts. In letters written to his mother as much attention was devoted to asking for money to cover the costs of balls and concerts and to describing his studies as to matters concerning supplies of cabbage from Sztregovar. At the time Pest University was the centre of liberal ideas, and in a valedictory address to a retiring professor, Madách expressed liberal ideas with the ardour that was to mark the character of Adam in “The Tragedy.” Young Madách, took an active part in the political life of the forties as an adherent


of the Centralist Party, which stubbornly fought for the development of a bourgeois Hungary by shaping home conditions after the pattern of French and British institutions and laws. For the time being his name was, however, unknown outside Nógrád County.

It was in this period that he first undertook the composition of poetry, but in the literary life of the country no notice was taken of him. At this stage Madách may be regarded as an amateur, a sort of literary gentleman; such eccentrics, trying their hands at literature, could at the time be found in large numbers in the remote Hungarian manor houses of the nobility, In that age poetry was regarded as a sort of patriotic duty, and those who endeavoured to spend their leisure time profitably composed poems or dramas, even in hope of ever seeing their works published.

In this period literature played the most important role in maintaining and preserving national existence. Industrialization and the development of bourgeois mentality were still to come, and it was in national education that public opinion saw the principal pledge of national existence. There was nothing to distinguish Madách from the secret lyricists and dramatists of the country; his literary efforts were written for the drawers of his writing-table, and they still attract only the attention of scholars. It is all the more astonishing that in “The Tragedy of Man” he created a mature masterpiece and, through this one work, came to be ranged among Hungarian classics as a single-work poet.

Madách’s attempts as a dramatist display the features of the romantic school, most of them being historical plays. However, one deals with a contemporary problem, staging the usual Wertherism of the romantic generation, with a somewhat melodramatic theme of dissension and maladjustment. Another of his dramas treats the Heracles theme, with crude emphasis on a woman’s failure to understand a man. Among the lyric poems there are a few that may be regarded as forerunners of the concept and lyric material of “The Tragedy.” In 1845, at the age of twenty-two, he married Erzsébet Frater, with whom he had become acquainted at a traditional county ball. Such balls represented highlights in the social life of the county nobility. The occupants of distant estates and manors met on such occasions where the network of human and social connections was renewed. His mother was against the marriage, which may have been one of the reasons why it turned out badly. A delicate and high-strung boy, Madách had been very dependent on his energetic mother all through his childhood, which helps to explain why he felt a stranger in the world that surrounded him. The first years of his marriage were filled with undisturbed bliss.

The lyrical poems of this period from the young husband’s pen allude,


as an ever-recurring motif, to the Garden of Eden that may be recreated on earth in exceptional moments by love, by a child or by poetry. These rugged, clumsy poems of the youthful Madách expressed the memory of, and desire for, the undisturbed happiness of a golden age. The same desire was to well forth with both dramatic and lyric power in “The Tragedy.” It was to be Eve who could recreate Eden for fleeting moments, she alone possessing the capacity to bring back some of its warmth and innocence.

1848 brought a grave trial to the Madách family; owing to illness Imre could not fight in the army but remained a staunch adherent of Kossuth to the end. His brother Paul acted as a courier during the worst of the winter campaign, and fell victim to pneumonia contracted while on active service. His sister Maria, her husband and children, fleeing after a lost battle, were murdered with brutal cruelty by bandits. After the suppression of the War of Independence Madách soon found himself in an Austrian military prison for having concealed one of Kossuth’s secretaries. He is said to have been flogged, and after his release he was still interned by the Austrian authorities of Pest. It was during this time that his marriage broke up; on returning from prison Madách put his wife in a coach and sent her away. He remained alone in his empty garden of Eden, and several years later began to write “The Tragedy.” Two years elapsed between his imprisonment (1852) and his divorce (1854), but it was only five years later (1859) that his sufferings and contemplation brought him the maturity that enabled him to write his masterpiece.

“The Tragedy” created a country-wide sensation; the greatest poet of the nation, János Arany, presented it to the first literary society of the country, and Madách soon became famous. Madách wrote another drama, Moses, intending to represent in his hero the figure of Kossuth, and in the history of the Jewish people that of the Hungarian people. At this time he was already severely ill, the physicians of his day having been unable to grapple with the disease they termed a tubercular affection of the heart. All the same, the poet took part in the parliament of 1860 which was fighting for the rights forfeited in 1848. He lived to see the publication of “The Tragedy of Man” in 1862, and in 1864, a hundred years ago, he died at the age of forty-two at the Manor House of Sztregova, where he lies buried in the family vault.



In all probability Madách did not intend “The Tragedy” for the theatre; his work was nevertheless staged, and it has been played over a thousand times at various theatres and in open-air performances throughout the country (it has become a traditional feature of the annual Szeged Summer Festival). It has also been played in other countries (at Prague, the Burgtheater of Vienna, Hamburg, Berlin, Munich, etc.).

Of the fifteen scenes of “The Tragedy,” * the first three and the last constitute the framework, with the three principal characters (Adam, Eve and Lucifer) appearing in a Biblical background. The first scene, in “Heaven”, opening with a debate between the Lord and Lucifer, is undoubtedly reminiscent of one of the prologues to Faust; superficial readers have therefore shown a tendency to regard the whole Tragedy as an imitation of Faust. As a matter of fact, “The Tragedy of Man” fundamentally differs from Goethe’s great work in conception and characterization alike. In form it certainly belongs to the populous family of verse dramas which, evidently inspired by Faust, flourished in the romantic period of the 1830’s and even earlier in the works of Byron, then Lamartine and de Vigny, Andersen and Mickiewicz, etc.; this series was continued by Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt,” written a few years after “The Tragedy of Man” (in 1867).

In the scenes constituting the framework of the drama, Lucifer steps on the stage as the personification of denial and doubt. Madách put into his mouth the ideas of mechanical materialism, so much so that in the London setting, the phalanstery and the Eskimo scenes, several ideas and passages of Ludwig Büchner’s popular book on mechanical materialism entitled “Power and Substance” (1855) can be clearly discerned in the stage tirades. In the so-called historical sequences the dramatic nature of Lucifer’s figure loses vigour; he appears only as the companion of Adam, volunteering malicious comment on the events, since the failures of history furnish sufficient confirmation to vindicate his attitude.

The simple action of “The Tragedy” consists of eleven dream pictures evoked by Lucifer to show Adam the whole fate and history of Humanity with the intention of making him turn away from God in despair. These historical scenes incorporate all the ideas that had thrilled the young and liberal Madách and his generation to enthusiasm, ideas that had failed one

* I. Heaven; II. Paradise; III. A rich Landscape outside Paradise; IV. Egypt, in Pharaonic Times; V. Athens, in Miltiades’ Time; VI. Rome, in St. Peter’s Time; VII. Constantinople, Age of the Crusades; VIII. Prague, Kepler’s Time; IX. Paris, the Revolution; X. Prague, Kepler’s second Scene; XI. London, Time of the Industrial Revolution; XII. The Future: Phalanstery Scene; XIII. In Space; XIV. The Arctic; XV. The “Rich Landscape outside Paradise” (of Scene III) again.


after the other, either in earlier centuries or in the poet’s own lifetime. Belief, disenchantment, disgust and flight, then again a new creed: successive dramatic situations, with Adam in the centre, reborn in every age, as historical periods follow one another.

In Egypt Adam appears as a Pharaoh who burns for freedom as did the Hungarian liberals, giving his slaves their release as did the latter their serfs. In the Athens scene he steps forward as Miltiades, who recoils both from the fickleness of the crowds and from demagog, as Madách may have recoiled from the passions and excesses of the 1848 revolution. Adam, disappointed, reappears in imperial Rome as Sergiolus; disillusionment here seeks forgetfulness in hedonism, as did the generation beset by the mal du sičcle, to which Madách belonged. Idealism is unable to do without illusions for any length of time and Adam pins his new hopes to christianity, again to be disappointed at Byzantium as Tancred. It is here that Eve, made unattainable to him by the grimly austere religiosity of the age, conjures up the memory of Eden with irresistible force. Their conversation is one of the most lyrical parts of “The Tragedy,” tersely summing up the emotions that animated Madách’s earlier poems.

“Dost not thou fear to gaze into the night

That like a mighty heart with love does beat,

When we, we only, are forbidden to love?” *

The stakes at which heretics are burnt reflect a lurid light on the tragedy of love associated with historical tragedy, and these stakes still blaze in the next scene, Prague, where we see our disillusioned Adam as Kepler, at the court of the emperor Rudolf. In Rome disappointment had plunged him into a life of pleasure, here it leads him to the asceticism of science. However, the age has no need of science and yearns after superstition instead. The future is revealed to the embittered Kepler—a dream within a dream—with the promise of the French Revolution, and Adam appears as Danton. From here too Adam must flee, back to the dream picture of Prague; this is the only historical scene which Madách does not make his hero reject.

“Though it be dimmed with foulness and with blood

How mighty was the virtue and the sin”

* This and the further quotations are taken from ‑T11e Tragedy of Man", published by Corvina Press, Budapest; translated by J. C. W. Horne


sighs Kepler, awakening from his dream. These words of Madách’s may be applied as aptly to the French Revolution as to the Hungarian revolution of 1848.

From history “The Tragedy” now steps into the present of Madách. A bustling fair is seen outside the Tower of London, presented as a symbol of established capitalism. The heart that has known Eden cannot experience happiness here either, and the dance macabre episode round the grave closing the fair echoes some of Madách’s most personal lyric poetry. Eve is the only one to pass unharmed over the grave, for the power of “Love, poetry and youth” is not vanquished by death. Now we come to the future: in Fourier’s phalanstery Michelangelo carves legs for chairs, and the scientist leading the phalanstery professes the same views as does Mr. Gradgrind in Dickens’ “Hard Times,” published a few years before (1854). Adam flies into space to get away from earth, the scene of his torments and disappointments, but he is called back by the Spirit of the Earth, to face fresh torture and disappointment. In the next-to-last scene he sees the cooled globe with its last, remaining inhabitants who live the indigent lives of Eskimos. This is followed by the final scene of attempted suicide, the revelation of Eve’s motherhood, and the enigmatic encouraging oration of the Lord, closing the depressing series of failure and disappointment by calling on Adam:

“O, Man, strive on, strive on, have faith; and trust!”

After such a uniform sequence of defeats this encouragement sounds almost like mockery. There have been critics who maintained that this last line was added by Madách to the words of the Lord as an afterthought, quite arbitrarily. However, it closely follows from the fundamental idea of “The Tragedy” and is actually prepared by the series of failures. Madách was unable to accept either natural or historical determinism. In “The Tragedy” the three principal figures represent three attitudes. Belief, denial and fallibility each separately may exercise useful as well as harmful functions: all that draws Adam away from the abstract quality of his ideas at the same time saves and preserves him. Belief both lends him strength and becomes his greatest weakness. However, in “created” reality, represented by the Lord, the three attitudes coincide, completing, balancing and aiding one another. The beginning of “The Tragedy” was dominated by monotonous celestial harmonies; this harmony, disrupted by Lucifer and mankind, is restored in the last scene: belief is as necessary as doubt, but the peculiar, “independent view” of Nature (Eve), serving its own ends, is still more important. This interdependence implies a modest encouragement,


Drawing by Béni Ferenczy


a carefully concealed confidence, which, owing to its dim, latent nature, may be pronounced only in the last words of the Lord, as if he himself had been hesitating, but could finally not resist pouring into words that which he only permitted to be guessed at before.


By the time “The Tragedy of Man” was published Hungarian literature could look back on a long and continuous line of development. From the close of the 18th century, the period of enlightenment, Hungarian literature unfolded in several waves, and “The Tragedy of Man” may be conceived as the summit of one of these waves. As with the literatures of many other small peoples, the aim of Hungarian literature was to establish a national bourgeoisie. To become modern, to express the ideas pervading the educated world, as did the literatures of the literate peoples of Europe, to tell of mankind all that could be told only by a Europe with a conscious and refined civilization, such were also the objectives of Hungarian literature. It might have expressed all this by resorting to mere imitation, adoption and borrowing: the spread of bourgeois mentality was an international phenomenon, and the centres which fostered it were to be found in not a few capitals of Europe. These centres were built by the concentrated efforts, preserved traditions and conscious demands of a nation. The Hungarian people cherished similar aspirations. They wished to develop a national literature, which meant that it had to draw upon its own resources, to rely and concentrate on its own character and traditions. This implied choosing the more arduous path. Many achievements, forms, methods and views were borrowed from more advanced literatures, but all these were transformed to suit the Hungarian character and traditions. Such a transformation was made possible by ancient Hungarian poetry, a tradition beginning with the 16th century, but still more by folk song.

In the first half of the 19th century Hungarian lyric poetry was inspired by the great trends of European literature, classicism and romanticism, as well as by old Hungarian poetry and folk song. The lyric poetry of the early 19th century poets, Csokonai, Berzsenyi and Vörösmarty, arose from an exceptional fusion of these elements. However, the " grim beauty of the first Hungarian tragedy, József Katona’s “Bánk Bán,” was also the fruit of this fusion.

By the middle of the 19th century, before the 1848 Revolution, the demand for a national character and a modern bourgeois message became


still more urgent. In this period literature exhibited a deeper desire to become national and popular than it had in earlier eras, together with the wish to appeal to humanity. A union of the nation and of mankind, a simultaneous treatment of these two elements, was the highest ambition of the poetry of this period. This ambitious effort was personified by the poetry of the two greatest Hungarian poets of the mid-century, Petőfi and Arany. Madách was their contemporary, and he profited from them as much as from their romantic predecessors, particularly Vörösmarty, who also endeavoured to be national while addressing himself to humanity. The starting point of “The Tragedy of Man” was the national crisis; but the horizon embraced by the work reaches out to the fate of mankind. Madách’s work is a great synthesis of the doubts, meditations and hopes of an epoch; it summarizes all the concepts and creeds that were alive in the writer’s age. It also represents the achievements of over half a century’s progress in Hungarian literature. The demand for a national character and the appeal to folk poetry sometimes resulted in isolation. To be national occasionally involved turning one’s back on the wider world; indeed, there have been periods when Hungarian poetry and Hungarian culture showed a tendency to wrap themselves up in outworn jingoism. Such an isolation is fraught with deadly dangers: the smothering of forces, a sinking into indolence and self-satisfied, smug provincialism.

Madách cut through the isolating wall which a narrow populist and national cult might have raised around Hungarian poetry. He voiced the persevering and unselfish endeavours of Hungary’s best writers in addressing himself to the whole of mankind.

SOURCE: Sőtér, István. “Imre Madách’s ‘The Tragedy of Man’,” The New Hungarian Quarterly, no. 16 (vol. 5, Winter 1964), pp. 56-66 [+ 1 illus.].

Imre Madách kaj La Tragedio de l’ Homo” de István Sőtér

The Tragedy of Man by Imre Madách, translated by George Szirtes
Scene 13

The Tragedy of Man: Essays About the Ideas and the Directing of the Drama:
Full Text of the Drama

M. Szenczi on Imagination & Nature according to Coleridge, Wordsworth, Blake, Bacon, & Kant

Interview with Lajos Kassák
(Edit Erki)

La Tragedio de L’Homo kaj Imre Madách” de Kálmán Kalocsay

La Tragedio de L’Homo (Kritiko) de Sándor Szathmári

Al horizonto de la historio de la homaro — pri “La Tragedio de L’ Homo”
de SHI Chengtai

La Tragedio de l’ Homo: Kovrilo
de Imre Madách, tradukis Kálmán Kalocsay, bildo de Mihály Zichy (1924)

Kompara analizo de tri tradukoj el La Tragedio de l’ Homo de Márton Fejes

Adamo kun Madách de Oszkár Gellért

La tragedio de l’ homo—la eterna lukto” de Vilho Setälä

Futurology, Science Fiction, Utopia, and Alienation
in the Work of Imre Madách, György Lukács, and Other Hungarian Writers:
Select Bibliography

Johannes Linnankoski (Pseudonym of Johannes Vihtori Peltonen, 1869-1913):
Literature in English & Esperanto

From Eden to Cain: Unorthodox Interpretations & Literary Transformations:
Selected Bibliography

De Edeno al Kaino:
Malkutimaj Interpretoj & Literaturaj Pritraktoj en Esperanto:

Sándor Szathmári (1897-1974): Bibliografio & Retgvidilo / Bibliography & Web Guide

Pessimism as Philosophy: A Jaundiced Selected Annotated Bibliography

Science Fiction & Utopia Research Resources: A Selective Work in Progress

Sciencfikcio & Utopia Literaturo en Esperanto /
Science Fiction & Utopian Literature in Esperanto:
Gvidilo / A Guide

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Imre Madách - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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The Tragedy of Man by Imre Madách
translated by George Szirtes

The Tragedy of Man by Imre Madách
translated by J. C. W. Horne

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