Tragic Hero

Definition of Tragic Hero

Tragic hero is a literary device utilized to create a protagonist for a tragic work of literature. A tragic hero is a character that represents the consequences that come from possessing one or more personal flaws or being doomed by a particular fate. Traditionally, the purpose of tragic hero as a literary device is to evoke pity and/or fear in an audience through the protagonist’s flaw and consequential downfall.

Aristotle categorized the characteristics of classic tragic hero in Greek drama as, in general, a male character of noble birth who experiences a reversal of fortune due to a tragic flaw. In addition, the realization of this flaw evokes sympathy from an audience. For example, Oedipus Rex, the title character of Sophocles’ tragedy, is considered a classic tragic hero. Oedipus experiences a terrible downfall due to hubris as his tragic flaw. As a result, the audience is left to sympathize with his tragic fate.

Familiar or Well-Known Examples of Tragic Hero

In contemporary society, examples of tragic heroes are often found among politicians, celebrities, athletes, and other famous public figures. Of course, actual people are far more complex in their motives and experiences than literary characters. Therefore, they can’t literally be considered tragic heroes. However, what we know of their stories can be similar to that of a modern tragic hero. Here are some examples:

  • Lori Loughlin (“Aunt Becky”)
  • Anthony Weiner
  • Lance Armstrong
  • Michael Richards
  • Richard Nixon
  • Paula Deen
  • Louis C.K.
  • Michael Vick
  • Tonya Harding
  • Woody Allen
  • Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker
  • Paul Reubens (“Pee Wee Herman”)
  • Mel Gibson
  • Martha Stewart
  • Jimmy Swaggart
  • Tiger Woods
  • J.K. Rowling
  • Roseanne Barr
  • Charlie Sheen
  • Lindsay Lohan

Classic Examples of Tragic Hero in Shakespeare

William Shakespeare made great use of tragic hero as a literary device in his Shakespearean tragedies. Shakespeare’s tragic heroes demonstrate the presence of fatal flaws within the powerful. Yet, the protagonists in his tragedies often experience moments of realization or redemption that result in compassion from the audience. Here are some classic examples of Shakespearean tragic heroes:

Modern Examples of Tragic Hero in Fiction

The modern usage of tragic hero as a literary device has evolved from the classical characteristics established by Aristotle. For example, most modern tragic heroes are not limited by class or background, and they are not exclusively male protagonists. Here are some modern examples of tragic hero in works of fiction:

  • Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind)
  • Don Draper (Mad Men)
  • Captain Ahab (Moby Dick)
  • Detective Sergeant Alonzo Harris (Training Day)
  • Kurtz (Heart of Darkness)
  • Blanche DuBois (A Streetcar Named Desire)
  • Andy Dufresne (Shawshank Redemption)
  • Bigger Thomas (Native Son)
  • Emma Bovary (Madame Bovary)
  • Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby)

Difference Between Tragic Hero and Anti-Hero

It can be difficult to distinguish between tragic hero and anti-hero in literary works. Essentially, for a character to be a tragic hero, they must have some initial virtue that makes them powerful, charismatic, or heroic in the minds of the audience. In addition, tragic heroes must possess some sort of tragic flaw as part of their internal make-up or nature that makes them at least partially responsible for their own destruction. Finally, a tragic hero should suffer a reversal of fortune from good to bad, often leading to death or punishment that appears to be greater than deserved. As a result, these elements work together to generate a sympathetic response from the audience for tragic heroes.

An anti-hero is also a protagonist in fiction. However, unlike a tragic hero, an anti-hero is lacking in virtues associated with heroism. The anti-hero may be deficient in characteristics such as courage or integrity. However, as a character, the anti-hero still has an audience’s sympathy. Though anti-heroes may do good things for wrong reasons, they are fundamentally flawed and their actions serve only themselves. Therefore, their downfall is deserved and due entirely to their choices and devices.

Writing Tragic Hero

Overall, as a literary device, the tragic hero functions as the main character or protagonist of a tragedy. The characteristics of the tragic hero have evolved since Aristotle’s time in the sense that they are not limited to nobility or the male gender. In addition, a modern tragic hero may not necessarily possess typical or conventional heroic qualities. They may even be somewhat villainous in nature.

However, all tragic heroes must have sympathy from the audience for their circumstances. Additionally, all tragic heroes must experience a downfall leading to some form of ruin as a result of a tragic flaw in their character.

Here are some ways that writers carefully incorporate tragic hero into their work:

Hamartia

Hamartia, sometimes known as tragic flaw, is a fault or failing withing a character that leads to their downfall. For example, hubris is a common tragic flaw in that its nature is excessive pride and even defiance of the gods in Greek tragedy. Overall, a tragic hero must possess hamartia.

Peripeteia

Peripeteia refers to a sudden turning point, as in a reversal of fortune or negative change of circumstances. Therefore, a tragic hero must experience peripeteia for their downfall.

Catharsis

Catharsis is the necessary pity and fear that the audience feels for tragic heroes and their inescapable fate. As a result, this sympathetic feeling indicates a purge of pent-up emotions in the audience, released through the journey of tragic heroes.

Examples of Tragic Hero in Literature

Many great works of literature feature tragic hero as a literary device. Here are some examples of tragic hero in literature:

Example 1: Hester Prynne (The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne)

She had wandered, without rule or guidance, into a moral wilderness… Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places, where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods… The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers—stern and wild ones—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.

This passage from Hawthorne’s novel indicates the hamartia and peripeteia experienced by the protagonist Hester Prynne. Hester Prynne has been convicted of adultery in a Puritan community. She remains loyal to her lover by refusing to reveal the paternity of her daughter Pearl. This results in Hester’s isolation from society and a punishment of wearing a scarlet “A” on her chest, indicating her crime and shame.

Hester Prynne is a tragic heroine due to her tragic flaw of fidelity outside her marriage to a weak man who doesn’t grant her the same sense of loyalty. For this, she suffers a consequential reversal of circumstances through imprisonment and public ridicule. Additionally, she is a tragic heroine in that her journey as a protagonist generates catharsis in readers. As Hawthorne’s novel progresses, readers feel both pity and fear for Hester. By the novel’s end, reader sympathy for her character results in a release of pent-up sadness and despair, mirroring Hester’s own experience.

Example 2: Victor Frankenstein (Frankenstein by Mary Shelley)

It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world.

Victor Frankenstein is the tragic hero of Mary Shelley’s novel. Frankenstein’s statements regarding learning the physical secrets of the world demonstrate his character’s hamartia in the form of hubris. Frankenstein succumbs to blind ambition, believing that he can conquer death with science. Therefore, by recklessly playing the role of creator and ignoring natural order, Frankenstein feels he has unlocked the mysteries of nature and defeated death. This results in over-confidence and pride to the point that Frankenstein does not believe his actions will have detrimental consequences. However, he only believes this until the “monster” begins killing people.

The audience is witness to this hubris as Frankenstein’s tragic flaw. Therefore, because of this hubris, Frankenstein’s fate is tied to the monster and his promising life and career are ruined. His downfall is clear in the novel, yet the audience retains their pity for this tragic hero.

Example 3: Othello (Othello by William Shakespeare)

When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely, but too well.
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought,
Perplexed in the extreme. Of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe
As mentioned in the section above, the title character of “Othello” is a classic example of one of Shakespeare’s most tragic heroes. At the beginning of the play, Othello’s circumstances are very fortunate. He is newly married to a wife who loves him. He has wealth and power, and his military leadership has earned him the highest ranks and honors. Overall, though Othello is subject to racial slurs from some characters, he is respected and embraced as a true hero by many.
It is Othello’s inner flaws that make him a tragic hero. He succumbs to jealousy and invests his trust in those characters that do not deserve it. In turn, he reviles those who are loyal and loving towards him. As a result, he destroys the very people he loves and falls to ruin himself.
The featured passage above indicates Othello’s moment of realization that his tragic flaw has led to his downfall and reversal of fortune. His own “hand” has thrown his “pearl” away. This remorse inspires compassion and sympathy in the audience, making Othello a tragic hero.