Tragedy, Farce, and a Trial: A Literary Analysis of The Trial of God (Part 5)

Part 4

The tragic hero or heroine will attempt to destroy this injustice, but in the attempt they are destroyed themselves – this is the moral lesson of the tragedy.1 They do not exist merely to express human experience in its purest form, but to show the inherent injustice of a system when a small individual, the common man (or woman) cannot regain his/her dignity. The tragedy points its finger at the human condition that prevents humankind from flowering in individual human personality.2 Purely sociological or psychological explanations for events have removed tragedy because most situations are social or psychological; everything happens because of social context or the inner workings of the human mind.3 In effect, there is no personal element or disturbance. It reshapes the world as an unchanging construct; it is the individual who is at fault. What conflict can be had if everything remains immovable and immutable?

It is in the struggle against reality that the tragedy shows its worth. For Miller, “The Greeks could probe the very heavenly origin of their ways and return to confirm the rightness of laws. And Job could face God in anger, demanding his right, and end in submission.”4 These examples do not represent a purely facile formation; these characters are alive and cause tension within the plays themselves. As Miller states, “…for a moment everything is in suspension, nothing is accepted, and in ‘ this stretching and tearing apart of the cosmos…the character gains ‘size.’ The commonest of men may take on that stature to the extent of his willingness to throw all he has into the contest, the battle to secure his rightful place in his world.”5 Thus, a tragedy must show the indestructible will of humanity to regain its own humanity, but victory must be a possibility or the struggle becomes pathos. Miller reformulates and redefines tragedy to expand its capacities, even going against the traditional definitions to affirm his individualist spirit.

This individualist spirit pervades The Trial of God. Berish, as God’s accuser, exists as one man against the universe – his struggle is against ultimate reality, as God, and to regain his personal dignity. The injustice exists in many factors. Berish has been persecuted for being a Jew, and only for that reason. His daughter, Hanna, was raped and abused for being a Jew. His wife was murdered for being a Jew. The pogroms are held only because Jews are Jewish – this is, in itself, enough of a violation of personal dignity to justify Berish’s actions. He has not been judged by reality as an individual but as a race category. This particular point applies to all the Jewish characters in the text, of course, but Berish’s case makes the problem clear. A theodicy must occur, given by God Himself to justify Himself.

What could possibly be the tragic mistake of Berish, or even of the Jews? Thus, the God of the Jews must come into the discussion to justify himself, to justify why the Jews must suffer great evils for a seemingly arbitrary reason. Why does God do nothing to prevent these actions towards his chosen people? In this case, the violation of human dignity is death. Wiesel takes the individualist spirit of Miller to a theological dimension. In fact, this tragedy reveals a fundamental problem in the construction of the metaphysical, wherein good is repaid with evil, and evil repaid with good. As it is said in Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth) 7:14: “In the day of prosperity be happy, But in the day of adversity consider– God has made the one as well as the other so that man will not discover anything that will be after him.”6 Berish, as a Jew, should be familiar with this canonical material, yet he questions anyway like Job. For what purpose, if any, could God allow this system to propagate? Berish, and as a result the Jews, fight to regain their rightful place in the world as both God’s people and as human beings. In context of Wiesel’s writings, the struggle to understanding Israel’s place in the post-Holocaust world rings true as the common theme underlining The Trial of God

However, Berish’s task is countered by Sam’s arrival; this shows a problem in the very structure of reality. How can anyone defend God against the evils perpetrated? Logic and reason, here, are the evils; God’s thoughts are higher than the constructs of the human mind, yet human rationality defends the God of the universe from his accusers. Berish cannot accept arguments in this mode, for they never reach the heart of the Jewish struggle both for and against God. Wiesel puts the inevitable pogrom over the heads of the audience, which makes the death of all the participants inevitable. Berish cannot win against God; he cannot respond successfully. Good and bad come from God, but Berish fights even in the face of inevitable loss because his dignity before God becomes more important than his life. He chooses, rather than escaping, to continue the trial long after it is safe. He simply responds in faith, that he will not accept what God does (or does not do) but he will continue to cry out against God’s injustices until his death.

Thus, The Trial of God seeks justice from God, and to seek God’s response to human concerns about injustice. Although Berish’s struggle and Wiesel’s struggle as well, is an impossible task, this does not make it pathos as God remains a unique force to counter. In the words of Miller, “Pathos truly is the mode for the pessimist. But tragedy requires a nicer balance between what is possible and what is impossible. And it is curious, although edifying, that the plays we revere, century after century, are the tragedies. In them, and in them alone, lies the belief–optimistic, if you will–in the perfectibility of man.”7 However, Wiesel does not affirm the perfectibility of man, but the common man’s struggle against the injustice of reality. Man remains an imperfect creature struggling in an imperfect world, and striving to obey the commands of a perfect Creator – this dichotomous metaphysical structure, however difficult to comprehend, remains the case. As reality is paradoxical, human beings are paradoxical as well. Thus, the tragedy remains essential in revealing the paradoxical nature of human struggle, in accepting faith even when no logical reasoning presents itself.

Part 6


1Arthur Miller, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” 5.

2Arthur Miller, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” 5.

3Arthur Miller, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” 5.

4Arthur Miller, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” 6.

5Arthur Miller, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” 6.

6This quote uses the New American Standard Bible translation.

7Arthur Miller, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” 7.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.