Stories from different cultures may have different details, but many of them share common traits.
They touch our hearts in a specific way, and a lot of the time, the characters are so real that they remain in our hearts and memories long after we’ve finished reading.
What Is a Tragic Hero?
The tragic hero is one of the most common literary archetypes, having its roots in Greek drama. Aristotle defines a tragic hero as a person who commits errors in judgment, which eventually leads to his downfall.
This evokes a sense of fear or pity in the audience, which is necessary for experiencing catharsis, which is the process by which someone releases pent-up emotions thanks to an encounter with art.
Sometimes, the tragic hero in the story may not necessarily be a “hero” in the truest sense. In fact, the tragic hero can even be the antagonist or villain in a story.
In the tragic hero, the main character starts off in the prime of life but makes decisions that cause them to spiral down, either to destruction or death.
The destruction may be external, as in the loss of all his possessions and family, or internal, such as moral decay.
What Are the 6 Characteristics of a Tragic Hero?
Based on the Greek plays, the tragic hero typically has the following characteristics:
1. Hubris : excessive pride
An ancient proverb goes, “Pride goes before a destruction, and haughtiness before a fall.”Excessive pride is a common trait that tragic heroes have before their downfall.
For example, in the children’s book The Wind in the Willows, Mr. Toad thinks so highly of himself, and considers himself invincible in his quest for more adventures with cars. As a result of this pride, he ends up in trouble with the law for stealing a car.
2. Hamartia: a tragic error of judgment that results in the hero’s downfall
Sometimes, the tragedies that happen in the story are a result of natural circumstances. Other times, they are direct consequences of the main character’s actions.
For example, in the story of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Robinson ends up in the fateful storm that gets him shipwrecked because of his own decision to disobey his father’s advice and go to sea.
3. Peripeteia: the hero’s experience of a reversal of fate due to his error in judgment
What makes a story compelling is when the protagonist’s choice has tragic consequences.
For example, in Gone with the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara starts off with an innocent ploy to get Ashley’s attention by flirting with all the boys at a barbecue party. But when Ashley refuses to break off his engagement to Melanie, Scarlett wants to get back at him by marrying Charlie, Melanie’s brother for whom she has no feelings.
This seemingly small decision has repercussions that affect the overall trajectory of her life: she becomes a widow when Charlie dies within a couple of weeks, leaving her a baby boy to bring up. But her widowhood bars her from the life of parties and dances that she longs so much for, and gives her an unexpected tie with Ashley’s wife Melanie as the Civil War begins.
4. Anagnorisis: the moment in the story when the hero realizes the cause of his downfall
Effective stories draw us into the main character’s heart: his motivations, struggles, and the journey of transformation they undergo.
In the story of John D. Fitzgerald’s The Great Brain, Tom always makes sure he gets something better in return for anything he offers people. Towards the end, he helps Andy overcome his peg leg, in exchange of an expensive erector set.
But when he succeeds getting Andy accepted among their peers, he decides not to take the toy, and also ends up returning things he had swindled out of his younger brother JD.
5. Nemesis: an unavoidable consequence that usually comes because of the hero’s pride
Sometimes the consequence comes as a result of the hero’s wrong choices; other times, his pride may be to blame. The term nemesis is used to refer to an enemy, but in the case of the tragic hero, it can refer to his struggle with his hubris, or excessive pride.
For example, in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the young Dorian Gray becomes obsessed with his own vanity and good looks and ends up selling his soul to the devil to retain his youthful appearance. Instead, we find the portrait of himself growing old and ugly, a picture of what is happening inside his heart.
6. Catharsis: the feeling of fear and pity that the downfall evokes in the audience
Despite these ugly characteristics, almost all the time, writers are able to endear us to the tragic hero because he or she starts off just like an ordinary person. We can identify with them, and this identification results in our being emotionally invested in the character, a crucial element in an effective tragedy.
For example, when Anna dies a self-imposed tragic death at a train station in Anna Karenina, we can’t help but feel sorry that her life had to end that way.
Examples of Tragic Hero in Literature
The tragic hero is common throughout film and literature, and it is not just limited to Greek plays, either. In more modern literature, the hero can be a heroine, and he or she doesn’t have to fit the conventional definitions of a hero.
This means that the tragic hero can be a regular person without anything that sets them apart. He may even be a semi-villainous or a villainous person.
Example #1. Prince Hamlet from Hamlet by William Shakespeare
The prince of Denmark, Hamlet starts off in the play as having high social status. But his father’s tortured ghost almost drives Hamlet to madness by convincing him that Claudius committed treachery by plotting Hamlet’s father’s death.
This leads Hamlet to plan out revenge on Claudius. Hamlet’s hamartia, in the form of constant brooding and contemplation, blinds him and causes him to neglect the other important people in his life. It eventually causes a delay that results in his downfall.
Example #2. Romeo from Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Another example of a tragic hero is Romeo from Romeo and Juliet. When the character is introduced, he has a high social standing. But his falling in love with Juliet, whose family hates his family, blinds him to reality: he believes they are destined to be together.
Because of the choices they make to pursue their relationship, Juliet ends up faking her own death, which Romeo mistakenly believes to be true. Because of that, he decides to kill himself. Here we can see that his tragic death is a result of his own choices.
Example #3. Anna from Anna Karenina of Leo Tolstoy
At the start of the story, Anna Karenina has everything that any girl would want: beauty, charm, beautiful children, and an overall happy life. She starts off being the person that helps Dolly forgive her husband for his affair, helping them keep their marriage intact.
Another scene portrays Dolly’s sister, Kitty, admiring and envying Anna, shown in the excerpt below:
Immediately after dinner Kitty came in. She knew Anna Arkadyevna, but only very slightly, and she came now to her sister’s with some trepidation, at the prospect of meeting this fashionable Petersburg lady, whom everyone spoke so highly of. But she made a favorable impression on Anna Arkadyevna—she saw that at once. Anna was unmistakably admiring her loveliness and her youth: before Kitty knew where she was she found herself not merely under Anna’s sway, but in love with her, as young girls do fall in love with older and married women. Anna was not like a fashionable lady, nor the mother of a boy of eight years old. In the elasticity of her movements, the freshness and the unflagging eagerness which persisted in her face, and broke out in her smile and her glance, she would rather have passed for a girl of twenty, had it not been for a serious and at times mournful look in her eyes, which struck and attracted Kitty. Kitty felt that Anna was perfectly simple and was concealing nothing, but that she had another higher world of interests inaccessible to her, complex and poetic.
But soon, Anna develops her own affair with Count Vronsky, and from then on, her life spirals out of control. It ends with Anna’s tragic death at the railway of a train.
Example #4. Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Scarlett O’ Hara from Gone with the Wind is a classic example of a tragic heroine: she starts off endearing us to her coyness and innocence as a 16-year-old girl in the high society South.
But her obsession with childhood friend Ashley Wilkes leads her to one wrong choice after another: first, to marry someone she didn’t love, only to end up widowed; and later, to take care of Ashley’s wife while he went off to war.
When the war impoverishes Scarlett and her family, she vows to do whatever it takes never to be poor again. This compounds her problems as she makes one morally questionable choice after another, until she could barely feel her conscience.
She contemplates becoming Rhett Butler’s mistress, then marries another man for his money, and proceeds to build the life she wants while simultaneously destroying her family’s reputation.
When her second husband Frank dies, she marries Rhett, but her continued devotion to Ashley stands in the way of their intimacy, which eventually destroys her marriage.
Towards the end of the book, Scarlett makes one realization after another. But it turns out to be too late: the book does not end in Scarlett’s death, but instead in Rhett giving up on her and walking out of her life.
Example #5. Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
In The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby enters the scene as a mysterious millionaire, with one obsession: to be reunited with Daisy, the woman he loved before he left to fight in World War I. Daisy has since gotten married, but that doesn’t stop Jay from doing whatever it takes to lure her back.
The story ends in a series of twists and turns: Jay and Daisy end up having an affair, but a tragic car accident that kills another woman further complicates everything.
Myrtle, the woman killed in the accident, was the mistress of Daisy’s husband. Although Jay claims responsibility, Daisy leaves him and goes back to Tom, and Myrtle’s husband kills Jay.
Significance of a Tragic Hero
A tragic hero story is one tool that writers can use to help readers process the consequences of a character’s choices and actions.
In fact, people might make references to the characters in these stories to highlight something that they would want to avoid.
Do you have a favorite tragic hero from film or literature? Share it with us in the comments below!