Martha Stewart’s "Tragic Flaw":

Posted: August 15, 2007 in Literary Essay

How Classic Literature Might Throw Light on Her Case

I am sure everyone knows this by now, but I’ll put it here for the record. U.S. District Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum gave Martha Stewart a five-month prison sentence to be followed by five months under house arrest. She also imposed a $30,000.00 fine as well as probation for two years. Martha Stewart will remain free while her appeal is pending.

Some people have already criticized her for not showing remorse or admitting guilt. They overlook the fact that because of her pending appeal, she could not have done this, as it would have jeopardized her appeal. Some have also criticized her for sounding up-beat on the chourthouse steps and of having given what sounded like a sales pitch. They also overlooked the fact that she said she was sorry for what has happened to some of the employees of her company. She laid the blame for this – rightly, I think – on the trial itself. She also said that she is ready to endure whatever comes her way and that she “will be back.” I certainly hope so. I also hope that she won’t actually spend time in prison, and I am sure I am not alone in this.

All in all, Judge Cedarbaum gave her the lightest possible sentence under the guidelines imposed on her, which is a “good thing.”]

“The bigger they are, the harder they fall”
– An old saying

Let’s begin by reciting the acknowledged “facts” as of this moment (March 10, 2004). Please note that I put quotation marks around the key word. I am doing this for a good reason. As Nietzsche reminds us in Section 481 of his Will to Power, we never really have “facts,” all we have is interpretations – that is, what the facts mean to different people as they see them.

Let me also say at the outset that I love Martha Stewart. No, I am not in love with her. Nor do I have the fortune of even knowing her personally. All I know is her public persona – that is, what I have seen of her mostly on TV, on her show on Food Network and on her “Martha Stewart Living” show on CBS. I first found out about her many years ago while listening to a Public Radio broadcast on my long drive home from work. She was talking about some recipe or other and ended by saying “I am Martha Stewart.” Since I am an amateur cook, I sat up and took notice. Later, when I began to watch her on TV, I found her demeanor very appealing, she seemed so patient and gentle. It was as though my blood pressure dropped while I watched her ply her trade. She was so calm and collected. Now I hear that she has a temper and lashes out at people, and even that she is – let’s say – rather frugal. If I had her kind of money, I would never worry about a measly $50,000.00 loss. Perhaps that’s why I am not rich. I can’t seem to hold onto money. Rather, I can’t seem to get a hold of lots of it (though I haven’t really tried – perhaps because I have been influenced in my youth by Thoreau, who says that once we have satisfied the “gross necessaries of life,” we should go about enriching ourselves in other ways, like with good books and – nowadays – with good movies. Thoreau would approve of good movies, I am sure).

But let’s get back to the “facts”: On December 27, 2001, Martha sells her stock in ImClone, the day before the Food and Drug Administration rejects the company’s cancer drug. The next day the stock plummets. What happens thereafter is precisely the series of “facts” that remain open to interpretation – to this day, partly because Martha intends to appeal the four-count guilty verdict she has received on March 5, 2004.

Many of the experts whose views I heard on various and sundry TV shows, or whose written accounts I read in papers and magazines, seem to think that Martha has made a number of mistakes along the way. They say that she shouldn’t have talked to the “authorities.” No talk, no lies. They also say that her lawyers didn’t do a good job. This has been obvious to me, too. That short defense on the grounds that Martha is too smart to have been so stupid was ridiculous. The prosecutor was right when she stated in her final rebuttal that smart people do indeed make stupid mistakes at times, too (or words to that effect).

Still, when she was found guilty – and I was riveted to my TV at the very moment – I found myself heart-broken over the fact (this time I use the word without quotation marks), for when someone is found guilty by a jury of his or her peers, the question of guilt is established, is closed, and achieves the status of fact. Yes, but is it necessarily true? I mean, is it not possible for a jury – or judge – to find an innocent person guilty? Yes, and for me the question is still a moot question, which means that I am not satisfied with the verdict and even hope that Martha may yet prevail – though the chances of this might be slim. Furthermore, a great deal of damage has already been done which might never be undone completely no matter what the future might bring.

I don’t quite know what to make of all the details that have led to her guilty verdict. But I do see a tremendous irony (and then a tragic flaw as well, of which more later). She was found guilty on four counts: conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and lying to the authorities twice. Yes, but she was never charged with insider trading (a crime) and the judge threw out the charge of securities fraud (another crime), so that – irony of ironies – she was found guilty of . . . what? Of covering up a non-crime?

One of her jurors mentioned the “fact” that the verdict is a triumph for the “little guys.” Yes, by dumping stocks that were going to lose money, Martha made it possible for the “little guys” to buy it and to lose their hard-earned money in the bargain (which was going to be no bargain, of course). And that’s not a “good thing.” But don’t people who buy and sell stocks all the time do this routinely? That is, don’t they all dump stocks that others – the little guys – might then buy and lose money on? In any case, here’s another big irony: now that Martha has been found guilty, all those “little guys” who held/hold stocks in her empire have now been losing, have since then lost, and are now going to lose some more of their investments. And why? Simply because Martha was found guilty. It seems that the “little guys” can never win for losing. But in this case – and I continue to harp on ironies here – a lot of them are facing losses simply because Martha was – as I just said – found guilty.

And was/is she (really guilty, I mean)? It seems that she did a foolish thing. And it seems that then she added to it when she (apparently) altered a certain phone record. By this act she even indicated – though at the time just to herself, if you will – that what she did was wrong and could get her into trouble. Note though that she undid the alteration of the record in question almost immediately, which seems to me to be an uncover-up of a would-be or almost cover-up she wasn’t thus actually guilty of. Be that as it may, I wasn’t there, so I don’t know whether the story of the 60 dollars per share (at which point, according to a prior agreement with her broker, she was going to automatically sell her stocks) is true.

I will now invoke classic literature (Aristotle and Shakespeare, too), and look at Martha Stewart’s case from the point of view of a literary critic (albeit a humane one). I’ll do this not because I am trying to conjure up a tempest in a teacup, but because I think that Martha’s case does invoke classic literature – Aristotle and Shakespeare, too. I am thinking here of the concept of “tragic flaw” (sometimes called hamartia). The fifth edition of a Handbook to Literature (Macmillan Publishing Company, 1986) defines hamartia as the “error, frailty, mistaken judgment, or misstep through which the fortunes of the HERO of a TRAGEDY are reversed.”

This concept, which is the reason for the downfall of a tragic hero in the classical sense of tragedy, goes back to Aristotle who, in his Poetics, speaks of “some error or frailty” through which a person who is neither a saint nor a depraved sinner falls from grace (if I may be permitted a Christian metaphor). From Aristotle’s point of view, when in the presence of a true tragedy, the audience experiences “pity and fear.” This couldn’t happen if the hero in question were extraordinarily good or bad. This happens because, as Aristotle puts it, “pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, [and] fear by the misfortune of a [person] like ourselves” (Poetics, XIII).

Please indulge what I am about to do here. In any case, I hope that by going a bit too deep into this issue (of the “tragic flaw” as Shakespeare sees it), I shall not only enlighten those of you who are not avid readers of the classics, but will also delight and entertain you a bit, I hope (also, a modern translation will follow immediately after the quote, so please stay with it). In any case, Shakespeare echoes this concept of the tragic flaw in Hamlet, where he has Hamlet tell us early on in the play that

. . . oft it chances in particular men
That for some vicious mole of nature in them –
As in their birth (wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin),
By the o’ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
Or by some habit that too much o’verleavens
The form of plausive manners – that these men,
Carrying, as I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature’s livery or fortune’s star,
Their virtues else (be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo)
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault. The dram of evil
Doth all the noble substance of a doubt,
To his own scandal.
(Act 1, Scene 4)

Because most people these days are not in tune with Shakespeare’s archaic formulations (which at times are even admittedly a bit verbose), allow me to give you (as per my promise) a modern rendition of this speech as it appears in No Fear Shakespeare, published by Spark Notes LLC. The book in question gives us a contemporary English version of certain of the Bard’s plays (Hamlet included) on facing pages. Here then is a more accessible version of the quote above:

It’s just like what happens to certain people who have some birth defect (which they are not responsible for, since nobody chooses how he’s born), or some weird habit or compulsion that changes them completely. It happens sometimes that one little defect in these people, as wonderful and talented as they may be, will make them look completely bad to other people. A tiny spot of evil casts doubt on their good qualities and ruins their reputations. (Spark Notes, 2003, p. 53)

I hope it’s clear that Martha Stewart didn’t have a fair trial – due, perhaps, to some tragic flaw in her team of lawyers. I hope it’s also clear that her downfall may have had its roots in some “flaw” in her own personality, perhaps her being (as her reputation seems to suggest) a cheapskate or tightwad. The “tragedy” is that she lost so much more by trying to “save” so little. Perhaps she lost millions, and will lose even more. I don’t know for sure, though this is what those who seem to know are saying. And the “tragedy” is compounded by the fact that now that she has been found “guilty” (notice the quotation marks), so many more (of the “little guys” mentioned by one of her jurors) are also going to lose a lot. Who will win in this case? The government? It seems to me that this “victory” is hollow indeed.

I still love Martha Stewart, even though she is still rich (and I am still poor), because it seems to me that “justice” (which is blind) has hardly been served here. Somehow or other the “facts” of the case remain open to more and more interpretation. What this world needs now is more compassion and less passion. More love and less cynical “judgment” on someone mighty who may have fallen because of the kind of “tragic flaw” in the classical sense that most of us probably also possess (if not the same, then something like it). In Aristotle’s words, I think we should pity her because the severity of her misfortune is clearly in excess of her (non-)crime. And we should fear for her and for ourselves because (also clearly) “there but for the grace of God go” we. Forgiveness becomes us as a people and as a nation much more than what in German they call schadenfreude, a word almost impossible to translate. Let’s just say that it’s the malicious gloating over someone else’s misfortune. Something hardly worthy of our humanity.

——————————————————————-
[Final Update: November 2005: She said, on the steps of the courthouse, just after having received her sentence: “I will be back!” She has been true to her words. And I am glad. I never thought she deserved her sentence. She lied to the authorities. Hmm. There is a great moment in Stephen Soderbergh’s movie Kafka, where the following interesting exchange takes place:

Gabriela: “You believe everything the authorities tell you?”
Kafka: “I have no reason to doubt.”
Gabriela: “They are the authorities. That’s reason enough.”

*This article is written by Steven C. Schee. Visit his homepage www.stevencscheer.com

*The writer note: The following essay may no longer be of much interest to my readers since as of midnight tonight – March 3, 2005 (or should it be March 4, since that’s when the new day begins?) – in any case, Martha Stewart will be released from prison. I am, of course, glad. And I wish her the best in recovering from this (in my opinion) unnecessary punishment – though she will still be confined to her house for a specified amount of time.

Those who might disagree with my assessment are, naturally, welcome to read this now perhaps obsolete essay and see if they would or could or should have a change of heart. The next sentence in this “side bar” was written with the essay when I first published it to my site on the net.

This little essay, influenced by my study of literature, is both a defense and an analysis. I hope it will give you an interesting take on Martha Stewart’s case, one that you might not find elsewhere.

Send e-mail to:
scheer@sigecom.net

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