Top 10 Examples of Tragic Flaw in Literature

From the days of the ancient Greeks, examples of tragic flaw in literature have made stories robust and engaging. Here are 10 examples that are worth studying.

A tragic flaw is a literary device used in classic literature. It is usually a personality trait the main character has that eventually causes their death or downfall. The idea of the tragic flaw, which Aristotle called hamartia, comes from ancient Greek literature. The most common tragic flaw is excessive pride, also known as hubris. However, characters can have other flaws, including stubbornness and emotion, that lead to their downfalls.

This literary device allows the author to create well-rounded characters that appear fully human. Tragic flaws ultimately lead to a tragic ending for the character. Thus, these show up in tragedies. Often, a tragic flaw allows the reader to learn some lesson. The best way to understand this idea is to look at examples of tragic flaws from both classic and modern literature.

Top Literary Examples of Tragic Flaw

1. Oedipus’s Excessive Pride

In the classic Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex, Socrates shows a clear example of hubris as a character’s hamartia. The title character’s excessive pride turns him into a tragic hero. It is pride that drives him to flee his adoptive parents and seek fame, and it is pride that keeps him blinded to the truth that he is a murderer. In the end, Oedipus can recognize the truth in his life. However, at this point in the tale, it is too late to change the path of his story. His guilt causes him to blind himself and head into exile.

Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King) [Translated by E. H. Plumptre with an Introduction by John Williams White]
  • Sophocles (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 66 Pages - 06/01/2016 (Publication Date) - (Publisher)

2. Creon’s Pride

In Antigone, Creon is another Greek hero with pride as his tragic flaw, coupled with his stubbornness. Throughout the play, he is unwilling to listen to anyone else and never admits that he is wrong. Yet, he is superior to all because he is king and even defies the gods at one point. At the end of the play, Creon admits his hubris as his tragic flaw, stating, “I alone am guilty.” As a result, he does not die, but he suffers the tragic death of his wife, niece, and sons due to his actions, which drive all three to take their own lives.

Antigone (Dover Thrift Editions: Plays)
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3. Macbeth’s Ambition

In Macbeth by William Shakespeare, the main character’s ambition is his tragic flaw. At the start of the play, Macbeth appears to have no ambition, yet as the play progresses, it becomes clear that his ambition causes him to make such poor decisions. By the end of the play, Macbeth has let his ambition lead him to murder, including the murder of those he once found to be friends. Eventually, he succumbs to this tragic flaw when Malcomb kills him to stop his murderous behavior.

You might also be interested in these essays about Macbeth.

Macbeth (Folger Shakespeare Library)
  • Shakespeare, William (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 304 Pages - 07/01/2003 (Publication Date) - Simon & Schuster (Publisher)

4. Ichabod Crane’s Superstition and Greed

In The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, the main character, Ichabod Crane, has a pair of tragic flaws. His superstition and greed, fueled by his desire to marry Katrina and inherit her wealth, push him to become preoccupied with ghosts and legends.

Eventually, Ichabod’s greed and pursuit of Katrina lead to his undoing when his rival, Brom Bones, keeps feeding him superstitions and pranks. Eventually, he thinks he sees the headless horseman, and he disappears, never to be seen again. But unfortunately, his greed fueled his proposal to Katrina, and his superstition made him a victim of the stories told by Brom BOnes out of jealousy.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
  • Irving, Washington (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 32 Pages - 02/21/2016 (Publication Date) - CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (Publisher)

5. Frankenstein’s Hubris

In Frankenstein, the novel by Mary Shelley, Victor Frankenstein has a strong desire to create a perfect being. This drives him t create a human, but unfortunately, his creation is not perfect. His hubris becomes his tragic flaw, and it pairs with a lack of responsibility and empathy when he cannot feel any compassion for the monster he created. As a result of these three character traits, Frankenstein rejects his creation and forces the monster into exile. The monster is hurt by this rejection and takes out his revenge, destroying his creation.

Frankenstein: The 1818 Text (Penguin Classics)
  • Shelley, Mary (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 288 Pages - 01/16/2018 (Publication Date) - Penguin Classics (Publisher)

6. Voldemort’s Fear of Death

Sometimes the tragic flaw is not in the protagonist but in the antagonist. These stories are not tragedies, but they can still be an example of tragic flaws. For example, in the Harry Potter series, the antagonist, Voldemort, has a tragic flaw that leads to his demise.

Ultimately, his fear of death causes him to travel an evil path that leads to bad things for all who come in contact with him. Ultimately, he tears his soul and leaves pieces of it in many places, including within Harry Potter. This brings about his defeat because it gives Harry the power to destroy him. If Voldemort had not pursued immortality with such a strong passion, he might not have died at the end of the seven books.

Harry Potter Paperback Box Set (Books 1-7)
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  • J. K. Rowling (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 07/01/2009 (Publication Date) - Scholastic Inc. (Publisher)

7. Achilles Heel

Achilles, a famous character from Greek mythology, has a tragic flaw that is not a character trait but rather a physical characteristic. According to the myth, his mother dipped him into the River Styx to make him strong, but the heel she had to hold him by did not get dipped.

This heel was his only weakness. Thus, it became his undoing. Others have argued that his excessive pride eventually led to his downfall, as he believed himself to be invincible. Still, regardless, Achilles is a classic example of a character with a fatal flaw. This Greek tragedy has become synonymous with this literary device, so much so that the term “Achilles heel” is often used to refer to someone’s fatal flaw.

8. Othello’s Jealousy

In Shakespeare’s play Othello, the main character’s jealousy becomes his fatal flaw. However, this imperfection is more than just a sense of protectiveness. When Iago, his enemy, feeds him lies about his love’s faithfulness, he is driven into a jealous rage. Rather than feel loyal to his lover, he believes the lies and suffers a tragedy. This rage becomes fatal because it pushes Othello to murder Desdemona. After she is dead, he realizes she is innocent. His grief pushes him to take his own life, creating a true Shakespearean tragedy.

  • William Shakespeare (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 314 Pages - 07/01/1993 (Publication Date) - Simon & Schuster (Publisher)

9. Romeo’s Impulsive Emotions

In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo is an emotional man who is also relatively impulsive. While this particular character trait is not always negative, it becomes one when he allows his emotions to make decisions for him. Unfortunately, this causes many of the play’s problems. Ultimately, this impulsivity causes Romeo to kill Tybalt, marry Juliet, and take his own life. In this way, it causes his untimely demise. But, sadly, it also causes the death of Juliet when she finds her lover gone and takes her own life as a result.

Romeo and Juliet (Folger Shakespeare Library)
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  • Shakespeare, William (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 336 Pages - 01/01/2004 (Publication Date) - Simon & Schuster (Publisher)

10. Jay Gatsby’s Love for Daisy

The Great Gatsby is a book with many flaws woven throughout its pages, but the main character’s love for Daisy ends up causing his demise. Throughout the book, despite all the wealth he accumulates, Gatsby never finds happiness because he cannot gain the one thing he wants – Daisy. In the story, Daisy, Gatsby, and Daisy’s husband argue. She chooses her husband and takes Gatsby’s car to leave the argument scene, only to hit an innocent woman. The woman’s husband believes it was Gatsby who killed his wife, and he shoots him.

The Great Gatsby: The Only Authorized Edition
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  • Fitzgerald, F. Scott (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 180 Pages - 09/30/2004 (Publication Date) - Scribner (Publisher)

Interested in learning more? Check out our guide on examples of farce in literature!