Definition of Hubris
Hubris is character trait that features excessive pride or inflated self-confidence, leading a protagonist to disregard a divine warning or violate an important moral law. As a literary device, hubris is commonly exhibited by a tragic hero as their tragic flaw, or hamartia. The extreme pride or arrogance of hubris often consumes a character, blinding them to reason and resulting in their ultimate downfall.
For example, in Aesop’s fable The Tortoise and the Hare, the hare exhibits hubris before and during the race with the tortoise. The hare is excessively proud of his speed and has inflated self-confidence that he will win against the tortoise. This leads him to decide to take a nap during the race, while the tortoise moves slowly but steadily and crosses the finish line first. The hare is subsequently humiliated at being beaten by the tortoise, which is the consequence of his hubris.
Common Examples of Characters with Hubris in Greek Tragedies
In his work “Rhetoric,” Aristotle defined hubris as a “form of slight.” In other words, in Ancient Greece, hubris was manifested in an action that would cause shame to a victim simply for the perpetrator’s own gratification. Aristotle believed that the source of this character trait was disrespect and/or insolence towards others, especially the gods.
Many characters in Greek tragedies demonstrate hubris, resulting in serious consequences and their downfall. Here are some common examples of characters with hubris in Greek tragedies:
Examples of Hubris in Fictional Characters
Hubris is a common literary device applied to fictional characters whose excessive pride, self-importance, or arrogance leads them to negative consequences. Here are some examples of fictional characters that exhibit hubris:
- Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind)
- Gaston (Disney’s Beauty and the Beast)
- Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby)
- Prince Humperdinck (The Princess Bride)
- Emma Bovary (Madame Bovary)
- Troy Maxson (Fences)
- Willie Stark (All the King’s Men)
- Victor Frankenstein (Frankenstein)
- Doctor Faustus (Doctor Faustus)
- Blanche Dubois (A Streetcar Named Desire)
Famous Examples of Hubris in Public Figures
Of course, it’s not just fictional characters that exhibit hubris. Many public figures have demonstrated this character trait, often with real-life negative consequences. Here are some famous examples of hubris in public figures:
- Lance Armstrong
- Richard Nixon
- Kanye West
- J.K. Rowling
- Harvey Weinstein
- Al Capone
- Lori Loughlin
- General George Custer
- O.J. Simpson
- Kevin Spacey
Difference Between Hubris and Pride
Though pride is often used as a synonym for hubris, there are differences between the two. Hubris indicates an excess of pride, confidence, and self-importance. Pride, in its authentic nature, is considered positive and desirable. Pride is associated with healthy self-esteem, self-evaluation, and self-confidence. The outcome of authentic pride as a character trait is generally an individual who is considered conscientious, emotionally stable, and agreeable.
However, hubristic pride is considered negative and undesirable as a character trait. Hubris is characterized by low internal self-esteem, arrogance, egotism, aggression, disagreeableness, and even shame. In addition, the outcomes associated with hubristic pride are recklessness, impulsiveness, disregard for the well-being of others, and heightened attention to the individual’s image or persona.
The character trait of hubris has changed, especially since Aristotle’s definition. However, there are several aspects of hubris applied as a literary device to characters that have remained constant. For example, hubris is consistently viewed as a negative trait. It’s also considered voluntary, and if a victim is involved then the consequences tend to be greater. In addition, though this trait isn’t associated with religion, there is often a “karmic” outcome in the form of negative consequences or a downfall for those who exhibit this excessive pride or arrogance.
For writers who wish to incorporate hubris in a character, it’s important to remember some key elements of this literary device. For example, hubris generally stems from over-confidence which blinds a character to their own limitations or the potential collapse of their stability. In addition, this trait is generally attributed to characters who put themselves first and are self-aggrandizing at the expense of the feelings or honor of others.
Another important distinction of hubris as a literary device is that it’s a complex character trait. Writing a character who is simply mean, rude, or aggressive is not effectively applying hubris. For a character to exhibit this trait, they must, in a sense, demonstrate their arrogance or inflated confidence as a means of intentionally leveraging power over another due to their own feelings or self-impressions of superiority.
Examples of Hubris in Literature
As a literary device, hubris is a common trait among protagonists and heroes in literary narratives. Though most heroic characters in literature feature strengths such as courage, perseverance, and honor that allow them to meet challenges, their weaknesses often include over-confidence and inflated pride. Here are some examples of hubris in literature, exhibited by well-known literary characters:
Example 1: Moby Dick (Herman Melville)
Is, then, the crown too heavy that I wear? this Iron Crown of Lombardy. Yet is it bright with many a gem; i, the wearer, see not its far flashings; but darkly feel that i wear that, that dazzlingly confounds. ‘Tis iron –that I know–not gold. ‘Tis split, too –that I feel; the jagged edge galls me so, my brain seems to beat against the solid metal; aye, steel skull, mine; the sort that needs no helmet in the most brain-battering fight!
In Melville’s novel, Captain Ahab obsessively pursues Moby Dick, the White Whale, as a means of exacting revenge for biting off his leg. Though Ahab claims that his motive is to rid the world of evil by destroying Moby Dick, his hubris is evident in his pursuit. Ahab puts his own interests and self-importance ahead of his entire crew on the Pequod, and his arrogance becomes an affront against God and nature. In fact, as Ahab alludes to wearing the Iron Crown of Lombardy in this passage, his hubristic pride grows so great that he behaves as if he is king of Christendom.
In addition, Captain Ahab’s hubris blinds him to the warnings and prophecies he receives regarding his mortal fate if he persists on the path of revenge. Fedallah reminds Ahab of the predictions regarding his death and the circumstances under which he will die. Rather than heeding Fedallah’s warnings, Ahab believes that he is invincible to such a fate. This over-confidence and arrogance leads to Ahab’s downfall and his hubris results in the demise of all but one of his crew.
Example 2: Macbeth (William Shakespeare)
There is none but he
Whose being I do fear: and, under him,
My Genius is rebuked; as, it is said,
Mark Antony’s was by Caesar. He chid the sisters
When first they put the name of king upon me,
And bade them speak to him: then prophet-like
They hail’d him father to a line of kings:
Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown,
And put a barren sceptre in my gripe,
Thence to be wrench’d with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding.
In Shakespeare’s play, the title character is a tragic hero and his tragic flaw is hubris. Though Macbeth initially appears to have a conscience at the outset of the play, he is eventually overcome by ambition and the desire for power. This and the prompting of his wife, Lady Macbeth, leads his character to put himself above all others and demonstrate excessive arrogance regarding his “destiny” to rule. For example, in this passage, Macbeth has killed Duncan to take his place as king. He refers to his “Genius” as being “rebuked,” indicating his inflated pride and over-confidence in his behavior and intellect.
Macbeth’s hubris leads to his downfall, and blinds his character to reason. By ignoring warnings of his fate, Macbeth faces his own mortality as he is defeated, abandoned, and hopeless as a result of his tragic flaw, hubris. Shakespeare does allow Macbeth some redemption at the end of the tragedy in the sense that his character is aware of what he has sacrificed and lost at the hands of his all-consuming pursuit of power through deception and murder. However, this limited redemption is not adequate enough to remedy the consequences of Macbeth’s hubristic actions.
Example 3: A Good Man Is Hard to Find (Flannery O’Connor)
The old lady settled herself comfortably, removing her white cotton gloves and
putting them up with her purse on the shelf in front of the back window. The
children’s mother still had on slacks and still had her head tied up in a green kerchief,
but the grandmother had on a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets
on the brim and a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print. Her collars and
cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a
purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing
her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady
In O’Connor’s short story, the grandmother demonstrates an inflated sense of self-importance and arrogance. She consistently acts out of hubristic pride, from manipulating her son into taking detours on the family trip to making judgments about society and the people she meets along the way. The grandmother’s hubris builds until she is confronted with death and her own mortality, as foreshadowed by this passage. The grandmother is far more concerned that she appear as a lady, even “dead on the highway,” rather than appear as a flawed or empathetic human being. This emphasis on her own self-importance puts everyone in the grandmother’s family at risk, and her hubris is the direct cause for her own demise.