Definition of Tragic Flaw
Tragic flaw is a literary device that can be defined as a trait in a character leading to his downfall, and the character is often the hero of the literary piece. This trait could be the lack of self-knowledge, lack of judgment, and often it is hubris (pride).
The Greek word for Tragic flaw is hamaratia or hamartanein, which means “to err.” It was Aristotle who introduced this term first in his book Poetics, and his idea was that it is an “error of judgment” on the part of a hero that brings his downfall. A tragic flaw is also called a “fatal flaw” in literature and films. This is taken as a defective trait in the character of the hero.
Examples of Tragic Flaw in Literature
Example #1: Oedipus Rex (By Sophocles)
“Aye, and on thee in all humility
I lay this charge: let her who lies within
Receive such burial as thou shalt ordain…
But for myself, O never let my Thebes…
The burden of my presence while I live…
God speed thee! and as meed for bringing them
May Providence deal with thee kindlier
Than it has dealt with me …
His will was set forth fully — to destroy
The parricide, the scoundrel; and I am he…
But I am the gods’ abhorrence.”
Tragic flaw examples are found in tragedies – and Oedipus Rex is the major play that is set as a yardstick.
Oedipus is a perfect example of having a tragic flaw in this famous Greek tragedy. The cause of his downfall was his inadvertent wrongdoings. The hubris of Oedipus is the cause which made him disobey the prophecy of the gods. Ironically, he ended up doing what he was scared of the most, such that he became an abhorrence to the gods, in his own words.
Example #2: Hamlet (By William Shakespeare)
“To be, or not to be–that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep…
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep…”
In Hamlet, the tragic flaw determines his downfall in the play. And his tragic flaw is his indecisiveness, which is due to grave thinking on the topic of whether vengeance is wrong or right, and whether to kill his father’s murderer or not. In the course of time, his relationship with his mother is spoiled, and Ophelia commits suicide. He reveals this indecisiveness in this excerpt.
Example #3: Dr. Faustus (By Christopher Marlowe)
“But Faustus’ offense can ne’er be pardoned;
The serpent that tempted Eve may be saved,
But not Faustus … God forbade it indeed but Faustus hath done it. For
the vain pleasure of four and twenty years hath Faustus
lost eternal joy and felicity … Fair nature’s eye, rise, rise again and make
Perpetual day. Or let this hour be but a year,
A month, a week, a natural day,
That Faustus may repent and save his soul
O mercy, heaven! Look not so fierce on me … I’ll burn my books.”
The character of Dr. Faustus is also one of the best examples of tragic flaw. The tragic flaw of Dr. Faustus is his ambitious nature to learn. He made a contract with Lucifer and sold his soul in this connection. Finally, his soul is taken to hell, and then he realizes his sin and repents but it was too late.
Function of Tragic Flaw
Tragic flaw is used for moral purposes, in order to encourage the audience to improve their characters and remove the flaws which could bring their downfall in life. The readers and the audience can identify themselves with the tragic hero, since it imparts feelings of pity and fear among them, thereby completing their catharsis – or in other words, they are purged of bad emotions. Therefore, they can learn a moral lesson so that they might not indulge in similar actions in future.