Cruelty and Empathy in Théodore Agrippa d’Aubigné’s Les Tragiques: The Gaze of and on the Reader
Théodore Agrippa d’Aubigné’s representations of cruelty in his epic about the Wars of Religion in France, Les Tragiques, function within the frame of a relationship between the authorial persona and a reader based on manipulation and even interrogation of the reader’s motives. While this cruelty might function as a spur to empathy, forcing the reader to face and at least try to understand the suffering of the victims of war and of religious persecution, it also evokes the possibility of vengeance and thus of continued violence. This strategy is supported by calculated perversion of some of the most cherished literary forms of the period, in particular Petrarchan poetry and classical epic. Agrippa d’Aubigné creates certain expectations by the use of well-known Petrarchan and epic images and forms, and then destroys those expectations by twisting the images and forms to very different uses. In this way, the reader is continually kept off balance, shocked, and perhaps even distressed by what she reads. In the end, by acting in what seems to be an inhumane manner toward his reader, Agrippa d’Aubigné may be revealing an “ethics of affect” in his reader, inculcating empathy through shared suffering and vulnerability. Nonetheless, in the context of the Wars of Religion, the limitations of this empathy must be recognized. The reader is thus left with the choice to be cruel or to be kind.