Literature shows many tragic hero examples that are great to study. Here are 17 of them.
A tragic hero is a type of character in literature characterized by heroic or noble traits. However, the tragic hero eventually falls victim to a personal tragic or fatal flaw, and that flaw causes the character’s death or loss of position. The tragic hero often appears in stories that respin the hero’s journey, for example Breaking Bad or The Sopranos.
- What Is The Tragic Hero?
- 1. Oedipus
- 2. Jay Gatsby
- 3. Romeo Montague
- 4. Creon and Antigone
- 5. Hamlet
- 6. Peter Pan
- 7. Macbeth
- 8. Anakin Skywalker
- 9. Severus Snape
- 10. Othello
- 11. Ned Stark
- 12. Scarlett O’Hara
- 13. Hester Prynne
- 14. Victor Frankenstein
- 15. Dr. Gregory House
- 16. The Tree in The Giving Tree
- 17. Elphaba
What Is The Tragic Hero?
The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined the concept of the tragic hero in Poetics, and he used five terms to describe this type of character. These are:
1. Anagnorisis: The moment of realization a character experiences.
2. Catharsis: The feelings of fear or pity a tragedy brings to the audience.
3. Hamartia: The fatal flaw.
4. Hubris: Excessive pride or arrogance
5. Peripeteia: A reversal of fortune, usually a downward turn
To fit the tragic hero model, a character archetype must:
- Be of noble or high birth or hold a position of leadership, e.g. a prince or princess
- Have heroic actions or motives, e.g. to save the kingdom
- Have a tragic flaw, e.g. thirst for power
- Suffer a downfall or death due to their tragic flaw e.g. the downfall of Walter White in Breaking Bad
To understand this character’s role in literature, looking at tragic hero examples can help. Here are some examples worth studying.
In the Greek play Oedipus Rex by Aristotle, the title character is, in fact, a tragic hero. In the play, Oedipus suffers from one of the most common tragic flaws the condition of hubris. It is this pride that draws King Oedipus down a fatal path.
Oedipus sets out to rid the kingdom of a terrible plague. A prophecy tells him he can do so if he punishes the man who killed the previous king. Unbeknownst to him, the previous king, Laius, was someone he had unknowingly killed many years earlier. He punishes himself by gouging out his own eyes, which ends the plague but shows his tragic ending.
2. Jay Gatsby
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby is a young millionaire who wants to find Daisy, a woman he loved before going off to war. Sadly, he finds that she is married, and the tale tells how he works to fashion his life so that he will regain the lass. This unrequited love causes the reader to pity Gatsby, yet it takes him down a tragic path.
Gatsby’s tragic flaw is his unbridled desire to reach the American Dream, including great wealth and a specific woman. His pursuit of these things causes him to put himself and his love interest in danger. It eventually leads to his death.
3. Romeo Montague
In William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, Romeo Montague, the male protagonist, is an excellent example of a tragic hero. Romeo comes from noble birth and has the tragic flaw of being impulsive and having a fair share of hubris. His fast decisions lead him to marry Juliet after meeting her 24 hours earlier. Eventually, it leads to his death and the death of his love.
Everyone can feel compassion for the star-crossed lovers and how their warring families pull them apart, which adds to the fact that he is a tragic hero. The story arouses fear and empathy, which adds to the classic tragic hero paradigm.
4. Creon and Antigone
Antigone, another Aristotelian Greek tragedy, has a tragic hero in Creon. He became ruler of Thebes after Oedipus’s sons died in the war, and Creon took the throne. Antigone, the title character, is Oedipus’s daughter, and she tries to bury her brother against the wishes of Creon.
Antigone’s fatal flaw is not a character flaw, but rather is her fierce dedication to her family. Defying Creon’s orders that her brother not be buried with honor, leading to her martyrdom. Creon is also a tragic hero because he loses his extended family and his son due to his excessive pride.
Hamlet shows the characteristics of a tragic hero because of his royal birth and charming personality. His tragic flaw is his deep emotions and his inability to take quick action. He also struggles with too much introspection, shown in his many soliloquies. As the story progresses and he dives deeper into insanity, this introspective nature eventually leads to his demise.
Because the play Hamlet is a Shakespearean tragedy, these character flaws send Hamlet to a sad ending. Not only does Hamlet himself die, but those closest to him also die, often at his own hand as he falls into the depths of insanity.
6. Peter Pan
Not all tragic heroes come from plays and literature you study in high school. You can also find some in children’s literature, and Peter Pan is one example of this. While he is not a “king,” he is the leader of the lost boys, which gives the royalty aspect of the tragic hero to this boy. His tragic flaw is his forgetfulness and his cruelty.
What is the tragedy in Peter Pan? When the other Lost Boys decide to go home with Wendy and grow up, Peter does not. He ends up on the island without his friends or Wendy and her brothers.
Macbeth, the Thane of Glamis, is yet another Shakespearean tragic hero. He starts off with someone the audience feels an affinity for, especially when he has the three witches provide the prophecies to him. Yet his ambition, his fatal flaw, pushes him toward murder before the prophecies have a chance to come true.
In the end, his ambition makes him a murderer. While he becomes king of Scotland as a result, his continued violence costs him the throne when his enemy, Mcduff, ends his life.
8. Anakin Skywalker
In the Star Wars universe, Anakin skywalker is a classic tragic hero. His potential is clear when he is introduced to the world as a young boy in the prequels. The force is strong with the boy, and he has a great mentor ready to teach him to use it well.
Yet the Dark Side is out to get the boy and his power, too. Eventually, he gives in to the Dark Side and suffers a tragic accident that transforms him into Darth Vadar, one of the most feared villains in movie history. This transformation eventually costs him his relationship with his children and his life. He is a hero, not just a villain, because he sacrifices himself, in the end, to save his son Luke from the fatal actions of Emperor Palpatine.
9. Severus Snape
Harry Potter himself is the hero of the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling, but another unexpected hero emerges throughout the tales. Severus Snape appears to be Harry’s enemy at the start of the story, but he eventually shows a good side. His leadership role in the school helps him fit the definition of a tragic hero, and his heroic actions towards the end of the series show that he is, in fact, a hero.
Severus Snape is particularly effective in this role because he appears so antagonistic toward the main character. He doesn’t particularly like Harry, but he loved Harry’s mother and promised to protect the boy. It was his love for Lily Potter that served as his tragic flaw. Thus, his actions, though they seem cruel at first, were all to protect young Harry. In the end, he dies at the hands of Lord Voldemort, allowing Harry to come out victorious.
Othello, the title character from the Shakespearean play by the same name, is yet another example of a tragic hero. He is of noble birth, and he suffered tragic flaws of jealousy and insecurity. His jealousy caused him to be quite suspicious, and his enemy Iago, capitalized on that suspicion.
In the end, Othello’s jealousy drives him to kill his own wife. He takes his life, too, making him a classic example of a tragic hero who meets an unwanted demise.
11. Ned Stark
Ned Stark from Game of Thrones is a more modern tragic hero example. This character’s tragic flaw is his trust that others are acting from a sense of honor like he is, when in fact many around him are acting in selfishness. His honorable character can also be seen as a tragic flaw, because it is this that pushes him to accuse Joffrey Baratheon of not being the rightful heir to the throne, and that action leads to his death.
Because Ned Stark is noble-born, has good character, attempts a heroic action, and eventually dies due to his tragic flaw, he is a good example of a tragic hero.
12. Scarlett O’Hara
In Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, the main character, Scarlett O’Hara, serves as the tragic hero. Her innocence and coy nature pull in the reader at the start of the story, but her tragic flaw, her obsession with Ashley Wilkes, causes her to make many poor choices. Even through her many marriages, she never finds what she feels would make her truly happy.
The tragedy in Scarlett O’Hara is not the character’s death. Rather, it is her husband, Rhett Butler, walking out of her life for good, leaving her alone.
13. Hester Prynne
In The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorn, Hester Prynne suffers from peripeteia. When she gets convicted of adultery, her fortunes reverse, yet her noble character and loyalty cause her to never reveal her lover’s name. This, along with her adulterous relationship, turn into her fatal flaw and cause her shame and isolation from the community.
This story creates pity and fear in the audience. It culminates in a reveal of who the real father of her child is, and this creates a sense of catharsis.
14. Victor Frankenstein
In Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, the character suffers from hubris as his ambition pushes him to try to conquer death using science. As he ignores natural order and starts to create his monster, he fails to see the danger he is creating for both himself and his community.
When Frankenstein’s monster starts to kill people, he realizes his mistake. The audience has pity for him, but in the end, he dies as he tries to escape the consequences of his actions and his creation.
15. Dr. Gregory House
In the television show House, Dr. Gregory House is an example of a tragic hero. He has a jaded and pessimistic view, and this creates his fatal flaw of drug addiction and refusal to own his own personal issues. Yet his wit and compassion keep audiences engaged.
Unlike most tragic heroes, Dr. House does not die in the end of the series. He fakes his own death, which creates the feeling of catharsis in the audience, but the show eventually reveals that he is, in fact, alive. He spends his last days traveling the world with his friend Wilson and abandoning his medical practice.
16. The Tree in The Giving Tree
in Shel Silverstein’s story The Giving Tree, the tree serves as the tragic hero. As a young boy falls in love with the tree, the tree also loves the boy. Every time he asks for something, she willingly gives it.
Unfortunately, the boy grows up, and his demands become larger and larger. Eventually, he demands all she has, and she gives it. Her tragic flaw was her love for the boy, and she gives without any expectation of return. This eventually leads to her total destruction when the boy wants a boat and she gives up her trunk.
In Wicked, both the book by Gregory Maguire and the play, Elphaba is an example of a tragic hero. She is born with green skin, which causes her to be rejected by society, but she has a strong amount of idealism. However, this ends up being her tragic flaw, as it forces her into defiance against the status quo.
Even though Elphaba means well, her actions are misconstrued, especially when she stands up against the Wizard. Eventually, this leads to her death in the book and her supposed death in the play. Her defiance did not directly cause her death or near death, but it started the chain of events that turned her into the Wicked Witch of Wizard of Oz fame.
If you like this article and still want more examples, check out our guide to movies that follow the hero’s journey.
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