Relating to the Tragic Hero

9 Feb

The tragic hero is “a literary character who makes an error of judgment or has a fatal flaw that, combined with fate and external forces, brings on a tragedy” ( This definition could be ascribed to most protagonists of any story, since rarely is a hero depicted as perfect, with events stacked against him. A tragic hero is usually good, but makes bad decisions that lead to his or her demise, associated with a tragic flaw that haunts the character throughout the narration. The tragic flaw is “a flaw in the character of the protagonist of a tragedy that brings the protagonist to ruin or sorrow” ( It can also be referred to as a “fatal flaw,” since the outcome is usually death. Since a tragic hero must always have a tragic flaw, it is usually assumed that there must be an unhappy ending. However, it is possible for a tragic character to be redeemed just in time, and in that scenario, we can find hope for our own tragic flaws.

What is an example of a tragic hero? We can look to the Iliad for such an illustration. Of all the characters in the epic, Achilles is the one best described as the tragic hero. He is a great warrior, respected by his society, and yet, he repeatedly makes the same mistakes. His pride and arrogance get in the way of his ability to resolve conflicts peaceably. He is stubborn, at the expense of others’ lives. In addition, “his tendency to go to extremes out of anger makes it almost impossible for this story to end well” ( Even the god Apollo describes Achilles as murderous, “that man without a shred of decency in his heart…his temper can never bend and change…Achilles has lost all pity!” (Norton 206)

Although Achilles follows the classic model for tragic heroes, there is one difference between him and the usual tragic figure: “Achilles is able to change, reverse his downfall, and actually prove himself as a true hero” ( With this change of events, we can see in ourselves our hindrances, and hopefully make a change for the better to avoid a disastrous ending. A tragedy is designed to show us the consequences of our actions, so that we may avoid repeating the same sorrow. The Iliad goes a step further: it shows us how we can change, to become better, how to make things right. After all, isn’t that the way it should be? As humans, can we expect to get it right all the time? We are flawed creatures, therefore it makes sense that we should need to be shown a right way. There is mercy in the story, a mercy for the character Achilles, and for the people he affects. There is hope for a future, one where the hero can avoid what he deserves for his actions.

There are many stories that can provide that feeling of hope for humanity. The story of King David in the Old Testament in the Bible is another account of a tragic hero who is granted forgiveness and is able to change his ways. In addition, if we consider the “tragic dimensions of Christian theology, as manifested in its conceptions of evil and its vision of a fallen world…such elements are ultimately sublated in a narrative of redemption at the end of time” (Felski 16). A turn of events in the arrival of Jesus as the Messiah changes this account from a tragedy to a story of deliverance.

The attraction for us, in reading a story of internal struggle, is that we can identify with the hero’s tragic flaw. It is most often, a trait we ourselves have struggled with, and perhaps are continuing to struggle with. It could be the issue of pride, or lust, or any number of behaviors that cause us harm or to do harm to others, but in the end, it’s all the same. The tragic hero must decide to change, to do something different, and that is the biggest obstacle of all. Change is inevitable, but is something we fight against. It is fear of the unknown that drives us. What if we cannot change? What if the change is not better? Even worse, what if we don’t recognize that fatal flaw which threatens to destroy us? Like Achilles, sometimes the flaw must be revealed, a painful process that no one wants to see.

If then, we find a tragic hero that we can identify with, what about one that is admirable? Since the flaw is often a great source of anguish for all involved, it is unlikely we can feel anything but distaste for the hero’s actions. Therein lies the value of a protagonist like Achilles, or Oedipus, or even Gilgamesh. Their actions cause them and others great sorrow, ultimately leading to remorse. In the case of Achilles, he is able to right some of the wrongs he has done, avoiding a potentially disastrous ending. This makes him easily identifiable; a god-like champion who has human qualities, yet manages to still come out on top. A great tragic hero “will be accepting responsibility, exerting oneself to a moral purpose, sacrificing, and demonstrating courage and moral insight to the highest degree. It should be no surprise, then, that such a person should seem admirable and awe-inspiring to us” (Meriav 271). It is important the tragic figures realize his or her own guilt, and therefore show some remorse. In this way, we are shown a “greatness of character associated with responding in this way that the person accepts responsibility for the horror committed” (Meriav 271).

The important lessons to be learned in the tragedy are many. The tragic flaw to be avoided may open our eyes to destructive behaviors that we ourselves may possess. We may recognize it in another and help them to change for the better. We also can find comfort in the possibility of change for the better, and that we have hope for a brighter future.


Works Cited

“Tragic hero.”’s 21st Century Lexicon., LLC. 02 Oct. 2010. . Web.

“Tragic Flaw.” The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 02 Oct. 2010. . Web.

Lawall, Sarah N., and Maynard Mack. Norton Anthology of World Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2002. Print.
Bookrags Staff. Achilles: a Tragic Hero (Iliad). 2000. 2 Oct. 2010. . Web.

Rita Felski and Herbert F. Tucker. “Introduction.” New Literary History 40.4 (2009): vii-vii. Project MUSE. Shapiro Library, Manchester, NH. 21 Sep. 2010 . Web.

Meirav, Ariel. “Tragic Conflict and Greatness of Character.” Philosophy and Literature 26.2 (2002): 260-272. Project MUSE. Shapiro Library, Manchester, NH. 2 Oct. 2010 . Web.


7 Responses to “Relating to the Tragic Hero”

  1. Mr.Kefe January 7, 2016 at 6:04 pm #

    Why do you do this to me I have HW from my teacher to read this AHHH but nice esaay

  2. Rebel Sowell February 11, 2012 at 4:03 pm #

    Another good one! I need you to email me and tell me how you got those graphics on there. Write on!

  3. Beth February 11, 2012 at 12:01 pm #

    Nice essay, Jen! Keep ’em coming.

    • jboissonneault February 11, 2012 at 12:04 pm #

      Thanks Beth. I hope it’s entertaining and not too boring, lol.

  4. jboissonneault February 10, 2012 at 2:21 pm #

    @ Kelly, I feel the same way.
    @ Suzi, thank you. : )

  5. Kelly Gamble February 9, 2012 at 8:14 pm #

    I love tragic heroes. They seem so much more real to me than those that have just one or two minor flaws.

  6. Suzi February 9, 2012 at 8:12 pm #

    wow… great blog and great graphic organizer.

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