Usually, hubris is a choice the character comes to regret. Their demonstration of hubris and the consequences that follow serve a purpose. They’re meant to demonstrate how detrimental disobeying the gods or going against their will can be.
It’s a trait that might appear in a story’s hero or villain or anyone in between. It’s also something that can occur in everyday life, although less-related to gods and heroes than it used to be. Today, the word could be used to describe a young person disobeying a teacher or demonstrating that they think they know more (when they really don’t.)
Definition of Hubris
Hubris is a character trait found in characters throughout history. It occurs when someone demonstrates over-the-top pride of unwarranted self-confidence. This usually leads to some negative consequences. Traditionally, when used in Greek mythology, it was related to the disobedience of the gods. They’d then demonstrate their power in order to ensure that it didn’t happen again. Depending on the character, extreme pride might be a temporary thing or it might be a feature that consumes their personality and every choice they make. They become so convinced of their own strength, wisdom, and decision-making skills that the character starts to believe they can do no wrong and that they’re invincible.
Examples of Hubris in Literature
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Dr. Victor Frankenstein is a wonderful example of how hubris can take over a character’s life. The story follows Victor as he attends medical school and becomes obsessed with the idea that he can bring the dead back to life. Inspired by previous personal losses he’s suffered, he dedicates every waking moment to the pursuit until he succeeds. His creation, commonly known as either the Creature or the Monster, is not what he expected. His disregard and complete hatred for it turn his creation against him and he eventually loses everyone he cares about in the wake of its wrath. Here are a few lines from the famous novel:
A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.
He uses these lines when he’s thinking about creating the Creature and what his relationship with his creation is going to be. He thinks of himself as a father and a god, some new combination of the two that has never existed before.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Throughout The Great Gatsby, readers can find interesting examples of hubris, as well as hamartia and humility. Jay Gatsby has a tragic flaw, pride, and humility, making him a complex character who readers will continue to guess and speculate about. He uses his wealth to entice and control Daisy while at the same it he never forgets his beginnings. Here are a few lines from the novel that demonstrate Gatsby’s character:
The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that – and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.
Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
The play’s full title is “The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus.” It is an Elizabethan word based on German stories. The play was composed between 1589 and 1592. One of the most important characteristics of Doctor Faustus in the play is hubris. His story is compared, within the play itself, to that of Icarus, (who flew too close to the sun with his wings held together with wax) the best example of the character trait in Greek mythology.
Doctor Faustus believes that he’s mastered everything he’s studied and is uninspired and uninterested in everything from medicine to law. His dissatisfaction with traditional knowledge drives him to seek out magic. He learns the black arts and summons a devil. He Asks that the devil make a bargain for him with Satan. He’ll give his soul to Satan if the devil, Mephastophilis, becomes his servant for twenty-four years. Here are some lines from the end of the play:
Cursed be the parents that engendered me:
No, Faustus, curse thy self, curse Lucifer,
That hath deprived thee of the joys of heaven.
My God, my God, look not so fierce on me!
Ugly hell gape not! Come not, Lucifer!
I’ll burn my books—ah, Mephastophilis!
By the time the twenty-four years have passed, Faustus dreads his fate and tries whatever he can to get out of it. But, he’s carried off to hell. His excessive pride got him into that situation and it wasn’t until he actually had to face the consequences of his actions that he realized his mistakes.
Explore Christopher Marlowe’s poetry.
Why Do Writers Use Hubris?
Hubris is a very common, easily-used character trait in literature. It can be a part of many different character’s personalities, separate of whether they play the role of hero or villain. Often, as is the case with Victor Frankenstein, it belongs to characters who fall somewhere in between protagonist and antagonist. It allows writers to explore the consequences of outrageous actions in a way that’s very human and relatable.
Related Literary Terms
- Tragic Flaw: a literary device that is used by writers to complicate their characters. Flaws include pride, envy, and cowardice.
- Anti-Hero: a character who is characterized by contrasting traits. This person has some of the traits of a hero and of a villain.
- Audience: the group for which an artist or writer makes a piece of art or writes.
- Characterization: a literary device that is used to detail and explains the aspects of a specifically crafted character in a novel, play, or poem.
- Genre: a type of art, literary work, or musical composition that is defined by its content, style, or a specific form to which it conforms.
- Prose: a written and spoken language form that does not make use of a metrical pattern or rhyme scheme.