What is a tragic hero? Here’s a quick and simple definition:
A tragic hero is a type of character in a tragedy, and is usually the protagonist. Tragic heroes typically have heroic traits that earn them the sympathy of the audience, but also have flaws or make mistakes that ultimately lead to their own downfall. In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Romeo is a tragic hero. His reckless passion in love, which makes him a compelling character, also leads directly to the tragedy of his death.
Some additional key details about tragic heroes:
Here's how to pronounce tragic hero: tra-jik hee-roh
Tragic heroes are the key ingredient that make tragedies, well, tragic. That said, the idea of the characteristics that make a tragic hero have changed over time.
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle was the first to define a "tragic hero." He believed that a good tragedy must evoke feelings of fear and pity in the audience, since he saw these two emotions as being fundamental to the experience of catharsis (the process of releasing strong or pent-up emotions through art). As Aristotle puts it, when the tragic hero meets his demise, "pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves."
Aristotle strictly defined the characteristics that a tragic hero must have in order to evoke these feelings in an audience. According to Aristotle, a tragic hero must:
To sum up: Aristotle defined a tragic hero rather strictly as a man of noble birth with heroic qualities whose fortunes change due to a tragic flaw or mistake (often emerging from the character's own heroic qualities) that ultimately brings about the tragic hero's terrible, excessive downfall.
Over time, the definition of a tragic hero has relaxed considerably. It can now include
Nevertheless, the essence of a tragic hero in modern times maintains two key aspects from Aristotle's day:
There are two terms that are often confused with tragic hero: antihero and Byronic hero.
According to the modern conception of a tragic hero, both an antihero and a Byronic hero could also be tragic heroes. But in order for a tragic hero to exist, he or she has to be part of a tragedy with a story that ends in death or ruin. Antiheroes and Byronic heroes can exist in all sorts of different genres, however, not just tragedies. An antihero in an action movie—for instance Deadpool, in the first Deadpool movie—is not a tragic hero because his story ends generally happily. But you could argue that Macbeth is a kind of antihero (or at least an initial hero who over time becomes an antihero), and he is very definitely also a tragic hero.
The tragic hero originated in ancient Greek theater, and can still be seen in contemporary tragedies. Even though the definition has expanded since Aristotle first defined the archetype, the tragic hero's defining characteristics have remained—for example, eliciting sympathy from the audience, and bringing about their own downfall.
The most common tragic flaw (or hamartia) for a tragic hero to have is hubris, or excessive pride and self-confidence. Sophocles' tragic play Oedipus Rex contains what is perhaps the most well-known example of Aristotle's definition of the tragic hero—and it's also a good example of hubris. The play centers around King Oedipus, who seeks to rid the city he leads of a terrible plague. At the start of the play, Oedipus is told by a prophet that the only way to banish the plague is to punish the man who killed the previous king, Laius. But the same prophet also reports that Oedipus has murdered his own father and married his mother. Oedipus refuses to believe the second half of the prophecy—the part pertaining to him—but nonetheless sets out to find and punish Laius's murderer. Eventually, Oedipus discovers that Laius had been his father, and that he had, in fact, unwittingly killed him years earlier, and that the fateful event had led directly to him marrying his own mother. Consequently, Oedipus learns that he himself is the cause of the plague, and upon realizing all this he gouges his eyes out in misery (his wife/mother also kills herself).
Oedipus has all the important features of a classical tragic hero. Throughout the drama, he tries to do what is right and just, but because of his tragic flaw (hubris) he believes he can avoid the fate given to him by the prophet, and as a result he brings about his own downfall.
Arthur Miller wrote his play Death of a Salesman with the intent of creating a tragedy about a man who was not a noble or powerful man, but rather a regular working person, a salesman.
The protagonist of Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman, desperately tries to provide for his family and maintain his pride. Willy has high expectations for himself and for his children. He wants the American Dream, which for him means financial prosperity, happiness, and good social standing. Yet as he ages he finds himself having to struggle to hold onto the traveling salesman job at the company to which he has devoted himself for decades. Meanwhile, the prospects for his sons, Biff and Happy, who seemed in high school to have held such promise, have similarly fizzled. Willy cannot let go of his idea of the American Dream nor his connected belief that he must as an American man be a good provider for his family. Ultimately, this leads him to see himself as more valuable dead than alive, and he commits suicide so his family can get the insurance money.
Willy is a modern tragic hero. He's a good person who means well, but he's also deeply flawed, and his obsession with a certain idea of success, as well as his determination to provide for his family, ultimately lead to his tragic death.
Tragic heroes appear all over important literary works. With time, Aristotle's strict definition for what makes a tragic hero has changed, but the tragic hero's fundamental ability to elicit sympathy from an audience has remained.
The protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, is Jay Gatsby, a young and mysterious millionaire who longs to reunite with a woman whom he loved when he was a young man before leaving to fight in World War I. This woman, Daisy, is married, however, to a man named Tom Buchanan from a wealthy old money family. Gatsby organizes his entire life around regaining Daisy: he makes himself rich (through dubious means), he rents a house directly across a bay from hers, he throws lavish parties in the hopes that she will come. The two finally meet again and do begin an affair, but the affair ends in disaster—with Gatsby taking responsibility for driving a car that Daisy was in fact driving when she accidentally hit and killed Tom's mistress (named Myrtle), Daisy abandoning Gatsby and returning to Tom, and Gatsby getting killed by Myrtle's husband.
Gatsby's downfall is his unrelenting pursuit of a certain ideal—the American Dream—and a specific woman who he thinks fits within this dream. His blind determination makes him unable to see both that Daisy doesn't fit the ideal and that the ideal itself is unachievable. As a result he endangers himself to protect someone who likely wouldn't do the same in return. Gatsby is not a conventional hero (it's strongly implied that he made his money through gambling and other underworld activities), but for the most part his intentions are noble: he seeks love and self-fulfillment, and he doesn't intend to hurt anyone. So, Gatsby would be a modernized version of Aristotle's tragic hero—he still elicits the audience's sympathy—even if he is a slightly more flawed version of the archetype.
Javert is a police detective, obsessed with law and order, and Les Misérables' primary antagonist. The novel contains various subplots but for the most part follows a character named Jean Valjean, a good and moral person who cannot escape his past as an ex-convict. (He originally goes to prison for stealing a loaf of bread to help feed his sister's seven children.) After Valjean escapes from prison, he changes his name and ends up leading a moral and prosperous life, becoming well-known for the ways in which he helps the poor.
Javert, known for his absolute respect for authority and the law, spends many years trying to find the escaped convict and return him to prison. After Javert's lifelong pursuit leads him to Valjean, though, Valjean ends up saving Javert's life. Javert, in turn, finds himself unable to arrest the man who showed him such mercy, but also cannot give up his devotion to justice and the law. In despair, he commits suicide. In other words: Javert's strength and righteous morality lead him to his destruction.
While Javert fits the model of a tragic hero in many ways, he's an unconventional tragic hero because he's an antagonist rather than the protagonist of the novel (Valjean is the protagonist). One might then argue that Javert is a "tragic figure" or "tragic character" rather than a "tragic hero" because he's not actually the "hero" of the novel at all. He's a useful example, though, because he shows just how flexible the idea of a "tragic hero" can be, and how writers play with those ideas to create new sorts of characters.
Above all, tragic heroes put the tragedy in tragedies—it is the tragic hero's downfall that emotionally engages the audience or reader and invokes their pity and fear. Writers therefore use tragic heroes for many of the same reasons they write tragedies—to illustrate a moral conundrum with depth, emotion, and complexity.
Besides this, tragic heroes serve many functions in the stories in which they appear. Their tragic flaws make them more relatable to an audience, especially as compared to a more conventional hero, who might appear too perfect to actually resemble real people or draw an emotional response from the audience. Aristotle believed that by watching a tragic hero's downfall, an audience would become wiser when making choices in their own lives. Furthermore, tragic heroes can illustrate moral ambiguity, since a seemingly desirable trait (such as innocence or ambition) can suddenly become a character's greatest weakness, bringing about grave misfortune or even death.