Greek Tragedy and Freud: Auden on the Detective Story

Opening image is Syracuse Greek Theatre via

In Harper’s Magazine in 1940, W. H. Auden wrote an essay called “The Guilty Vicarage”.  in which he confessed to an addiction to detective stories.

He compares them with Greek tragedy.


“The interest in the detective story is the dialectic of innocence and guilt. As in the Aristotelian description of tragedy, there is Concealments and Manifestation.”

As in Classical Greek tragedy,  a classical detective story starts in a place of apparent innocence, then reveals some hidden guilt, punishes and removes it, and returns the world to a state of true innocence.

The Garden Of Eden by Nicolas Poussin copy
Spring, Nicolas Poussin via Wikipedia

“The magic formula is an innocence which is discovered to contain guilt; then a suspicion of being the guilty one; and finally a real innocence from which the guilty other has been expelled.”

For Auden this is a timeless idea, which appears in Classical, Christian and Freudian thought.

A murder mystery plays out our eternal fantasy – that we can be returned to the Garden of Eden, to a state of innocence.

Rousseau the-dream-1910_Wikipedia.jpg
The Dream by Henri Rousseau (1910) via Wikipedia

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