There’s a saying–I have no idea where from–that every story is either a tragedy or a comedy. Though “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” is very comedic (often hilarious), it is ultimately a tragedy.
The thrust of the story is that magic returns to England after a long absence. That is the ultimate point of the plot. Many characters emerge from this transition in high positions, having been changed for the better. Slaves are freed, lands are conquered, and power seeps into the bones of the land.
But the two protagonists–Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell–are ultimately tragic figures. Norrell is a tragedy from the very beginning, a man entirely unable to function in society, unable to accomplish his aims without lying and cheating. It isn’t just that he is most happy when he is alone with his books: it’s that he is only happy when he is alone with his books. Jonathan Strange is just a way of deepening his knowledge, a person with whom he can talk about books.
Strange, in contrast, starts out as a very comic figure. He is young, in love, and in possession of good fortune. And over the course of the novel, all of these are consumed by his increasing devotion to magic.
Strange’s wife is captured by the fairies as a direct result of Strange and Norrell’s actions. Strange, though grieved by her death, is contemplating marriage within a year. Yet when he finds that his wife is a captive, he is consumed by the need to save her–why?
“He will see his dearest possesion in his enemy’s hand.” Posession. The King of Lost Hope took something away from Jonathan. Jonathan’s pride, his oft-neglected duty as a husband, his skill as a magician–all are challenged by the king of Lost Hope. A man would seek to rescue his wife. A magician would seek to show the world of magicians and fairies that he can rescue his wife. And Strange is now a man second–only second.