Their tragic flaw leads them to make mistakes, eventually bring out their downfall, and usually their death. But, these characters also have characteristics that endear them to the audience, balancing out the good with the bad. They’re usually brave, sometimes selfless, determined, or loyal. Due to their multifaceted nature, these characters are usually quite relatable. They are a reminder that even in literature, men and women do not lead perfect lives. It should be noted that sometimes antagonists are tragic heroes as well.
Explore Tragic Hero
Definition of Tragic Hero
The concept of a tragic hero dates back to the time of Aristotle, one of the most important Greek philosophers. During his time, Aristotle suggested that tragedies should evoke a variety of emotions in the audience, the most important being fear and pity. It was this experience that led to catharsis. He believed a tragic hero should be virtuous and have a serious flaw that leads to a reversal in fortune. For example, a character’s single-mindedness might mean they overlook a threat and therefore lose someone important to them. Or, in another instance, a tragic hero’s belief in their own invincibility might mean they run into a situation they aren’t prepared for and lose their life.
Today, tragic heroes come from a wide variety of backgrounds and can feature in different genres of literature. Many of these characters do not fit the guidelines that Aristotle set out. But, they usually evoke sympathy from the audience (meaning that the audience should like the character), and they bring about their own demise through their best intentions.
Examples of Tragic Heroes in Literature
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Jay Gatsby is a great example of a modern tragic hero. He’s young, rich, with a complex background the remains a mystery throughout much of the novel. He’s in love with daisy, someone who is married to another man. His life is dedicated to winning her affections in an incredibly unhealthy, although darkly romantic way. When they meet again, disaster ensues. His downfall is a result of his single-minded pursuit of the woman he loved. His affection for her blinds him to the fact that they are ill-suited for one another. Here are a few famous lines from the novel that are used to describe Jay:
He had one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced, or seemed to face, the whole external world for an instant and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself.
Nick is learning about Jay and his character. He notes how theatrical his life seems. He puts on a very obvious mask with a purpose.
Othello by William Shakespeare
In Shakespeare’s Othello, a tragic play, the main character is a perfect example of a tragic hero. Othello is a good person, a man of honor and integrity. But, his pride leads him astray when he allows himself to be convinced that his wife, Desdemona, is cheating on him. The antagonist in this play, Iago, spends the various acts planting a seed of doubt in Othello’s mind that his wife loves and respects him. Othello, finally driven to the belief that he’s being disrespected and made into a fool by his wife, decides to kill her. He says:
I kissed thee ere I killed thee, no way but this, Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.
This line appears in Act V Scene 2. They are the last Othello speaks to Desdemona. He kissed her before he smothered her and kisses her once more before taking his own life.
Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Victor Frankenstein from Frankenstein is another good example of a tragic hero. He, too, has a single-mindedness about his character that leads to his downfall. Victor’s intentions to end death are noble, but the way he goes about it is destructive and irrational. He creates the Monster, someone he believes should be eternally grateful for his life, but things do not go to plan. He’s reckless in his creation and ignores the natural order of life and death. His over-confidence leads to the deaths of everyone he loves. When thinking about his new creation he says:
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’s determined that what he’s done was in the best interests of the creation and the world. He doesn’t take the time to consider that his actions might have consequences out of his control.
Tragic Hero or Anti-Hero
These two types of heroes are related to one another, but they have some distinctive differences. The antihero does not have the qualities of a traditional hero or protagonist. They might be unlikeable, do things for the wrong reason, lack courage, integrity, and more. But, the audience still likes them due to the circumstances of their life and their struggle against forces out of their control. Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights is a classic example. An anti-hero can also be a tragic hero, depending on the circumstances. Readers might also be familiar with a Byronic hero (named or the poet Lord Byron – read Byron’s poetry here), someone who is intelligent but also cynical and charismatic. These heroes are flawed on a deep level and tend to go against what’s generally considered appropriate in society.
Related Literary Terms
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- Climax: the point at which the main character is forced to contend with the central conflict of the story.
- Foreshadowing: refers to the hints a writer gives a reader about what’s going to happen next. It’s a common literary device that’s used every day.
- Cliffhanger: a narrative device that’s used to end a story abruptly before an action or segment of the plot is concluded.
- Flashback: a plot device in a book, film, story, or poem in which the readers learn about the past.
- Read: 77 Fearless Female Heroes
- Read: 50 Greatest Action Heroes of All Time
- Watch: What makes a hero?