There Are Only Two Tragedies. One Is Not Getting What One Wants, and the Other Is Getting It

Oscar Wilde? George Bernard Shaw? Oliver Onions? Anonymous?

Quote Investigator: The psychology of human desire is paradoxical. The failure to achieve a goal can lead to unhappiness and ever despair. Yet, attaining an objective can produce an aftermath of uncertainty and lassitude. The following adage is humorous and poignant:

There are two tragedies in life—not getting what you want, and getting it.

This notion has been credited to the famous wit Oscar Wilde and the prominent playwright George Bernard Shaw. Did either of these Irishmen really employ this saying? Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Both Wilde and Shaw used versions of this adage, but Wilde deserves credit for coinage. Oddly, the version in Shaw’s 1903 play “Man and Superman” changed over time as shown in the citations given further below.

The earliest close match known to QI appeared in the 1892 play “Lady Windermere’s Fan: A Play About a Good Woman” by Oscar Wilde. The minor character Mr. Dumby asked the character Lord Darlington whether the love he felt for Lady Windermere had ever been reciprocated. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

DUMBY
She doesn’t really love you then?

LORD DARLINGTON
No, she does not!

DUMBY
I congratulate you, my dear fellow. In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. The last is much the worst, the last is a real tragedy! . . .

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1895 the line was selected and placed into the privately printed collection titled “Oscariana: Epigrams”: 2

In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. The last is much the worst, the last is the real tragedy.

In 1896 William Archer assembled a London-oriented overview of theatrical productions during the previous year. The saying under examination was memorable enough to be reprinted: 3

In each of Mr. Wilde’s plays there has been one really profound saying, which serves to mark it in my memory. In Lady Windermere’s Fan it was: “There are only two tragedies in life: not getting what you want—and getting it.” In A Woman of no Importance it was: “Thought is in its essence destructive; nothing survives being thought of.”

In 1903 George Bernard Shaw wrote the drama “Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy” which included the following: 4

RAMSDEN [coming between Malone and Tanner] You are a happy man. Jack Tanner. I envy you.

MENDOZA. [advancing between Violet and Tanner] Sir: there are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it. Mine and yours, sir.

In 1906 British short story writer Oliver Onions published a tale in “Blackwood’s Magazine”. A character in the story employed the adage while disclaiming credit: 5

One of these new writers I don’t pretend to understand says there are two tragedies in life — not getting what you want, and getting it. I know I used to think that if ever I became head of a decent grammar-school; . . . well, I’ve been head of a grammar-school. When I’d got that I wanted something else ; and so on.

In 1917 the columnist Mary Garden writing in a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania newspaper used an instance while crediting Wilde: 6

Wilde summed up life for me when he remarked that there are only two tragedies in life, to get what you want, and not to get it. As I sit and think things over, I am constantly more convinced that the greater tragedy is to get what is wanted, to succeed in the material sense.

In 1920 “The Evening State Journal” of Lincoln, Nebraska printed a filler item crediting Shaw. The word “great” was added: 7

There are two great tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.—George Bernard Shaw.

In 1943 the saying appeared in the reference “Thesaurus of Epigrams” and Shaw received credit: 8

There are two tragedies in life.
One is not to get your heart’s desire.
The other is to get it. —G. B. Shaw

In 1947 the saying appeared in the reference “A Little Book of Aphorisms” and Wilde received credit: 9

In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. The last is much the worse; the last is a real tragedy.
OSCAR WILDE

In 1949 a book review of “The Quintessence of G.B.S.” edited by Stephen Winsten appeared in a Madison, Wisconsin newspaper. The book’s subtitle “The Wit and Wisdom of Bernard Shaw” described its contents. Interestingly, the following instance used the words “lose” and “gain” instead of “get”: 10

There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it. . . We have two tyrannous physical passions: concupiscence and chastity. We become mad in pursuit of sex: we become equally mad in the persecution of that pursuit.

Volume two of the 1954 omnibus collection “Major British Writers” included a reprint of Shaw’s “Man and Superman”. The reprint contained the revised version of the saying which used the words “lose” and “gain”: 11

Mendoza [advancing between Violet and Tanner]. Sir: there are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it. Mine and yours, sir.

In 1957 “The Book of Unusual Quotations” compiled by Rudolf Flesch included the revised version of Shaw’s statement: 12

There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it. George Bernard Shaw

In conclusion, Oscar Wilde deserves credit for the remark he included in the 1892 play “Lady Windermere’s Fan”. George Bernard Shaw included a similar remark in the 1903 play “Man and Superman”. Shaw’s statement was revised in 1949 or before, and modern quotation references often present the revised statement.

Image Notes: A fantasy castle in the sky from peter_pyw at Pixabay. The image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to the anonymous person who inquired about the saying “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.” While investigating the provenance of that quip QI encountered the saying explored in this article. QI recalled a similar quotation from Shaw which prompted an in-depth analysis.)

Notes:

  1. 1893 Copyright, Lady Windermere’s Fan: A Play About a Good Woman by Oscar Wilde, (Performed at St. James Theatre in London on February 22, 1892), Third Act, Quote Page 94, Elkin Mathews and John Lane, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1895, Oscariana: Epigrams, Section: Lady Windermere’s Fan, Quote Page 75, Privately Printed, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1896, The Theatrical ‘World’ of 1895 by William Archer, Chapter 3: An Ideal Husband (Pall Mall Budget, 10th January), Start Page 14, Quote Page 18 and 19, Walter Scott, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  4. 1903, Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy by George Bernard Shaw, Act IV, Quote Page 174, Archibald Constable, Westminster. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  5. 1906 July, Blackwood’s Magazine, Volume 180, The Fairway by Oliver Onions, Start Page 70, Quote Page 73, Column 2, William Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh, Scotland. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  6. 1917 November 25, The Pittsburgh Press, Section: The Sunday Press Illustrated Magazine, Mary Garden Analyzes Men in Their Several Aspects by Mary Garden, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1920 August 24, The Evening State Journal (Lincoln Journal Star), (Filler item), Quote Page 10, Column 5, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1943 Copyright, Thesaurus of Epigrams, Edited by Edmund Fuller, Topic: Desire, Quote Page 85, Crown Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans; HathiTrust)
  9. 1947, A Little Book of Aphorisms, Collected by Frederick B. Wilcox, Section: Happiness, Quote Page 66, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  10. 1949 October 22, The Capital Times, Minority Report by August Derleth, Quote Page 3, Column 8, Madison, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1954 Copyright, Major British Writers, Volume 2, General Editor: G. B. Harrison (University of Michigan), Section: George Bernard Shaw edited by Reuben A. Brower, Man and Superman, Start Page 535, Quote Page 618, Column 1, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  12. 1957, The Book of Unusual Quotations, Compiled by Rudolf Flesch, Topic: Desire, Quote Page 58, Column 2, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans)