Definition of Hamartia

Hamartia is the fatal flaw in a protagonist or hero that leads to this character’s downfall. Aristotle first used the term hamartia in his essay Poetics, the first known treatise on literary theory. Aristotle described the function of hamartia in Greek tragedy as that aspect of the protagonist, or perhaps an error that the protagonist makes, that sets into motion a chain of unavoidable events that change the protagonist’s fortune from good to bad. The hamartia can be anything from an error in judgement to an error made out of ignorance to a character flaw to a sin. The definition of hamartia can also be expanded to refer to something that at first seems like the best part of a character, but which, in excess, leads to the flaw. We will see examples of this with Oedipus Rex and Romeo and Juliet.

The word hamartia comes from the Greek word ἁμαρτάνειν hamartánein, which means “to fail one’s purpose” or “to err,” originally, “to miss the mark.”

Common Examples of Hamartia

The concept of hamartia is familiar in regular life, as the downfall of national and international heroes comes to light. Many politicians and sports stars especially are susceptible to this kind of downfall, as people put so much hope in them and thus their descents are all the more public, and dramatic. Here are some common examples of hamartia:

  • Lance Armstrong—Cyclist Lance Armstrong was famous for his strength and endurance, and the odds-defying way he won so many Tour de France titles after undergoing a battle with testicular cancer. In retrospect, it’s easy to see how someone who so defined himself by the characteristic of strength would get into doping. This fatal flaw led to his downfall, perhaps one of the most epic downfalls in the history of sports, which included Armstrong being stripped of his 7 Tour de France titles.
  • Bill Clinton—One of countless politicians to be involved in an extra-marital affair and a subsequent scandal, Bill Clinton’s impeachment was one of the most public scandals to date. Again, the relation of power and the abuse of power is perhaps unsurprising, though tragic. The notable aspect of Bill Clinton’s story is that he has been able to move beyond the scandal; it was not, ultimately, his downfall.
  • Greg Mortenson—Greg Mortenson is a famous American mountaineer and humanitarian, and is the co-author and subject of the best-selling book Three Cups of Tea. This book, and his work of building schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan, inspired many. However, in 2011 it was alleged that Mortenson had fabricated stories in the book, including a capture at the hands of the Taliban, and had later mishandled funds. His characteristic of wanting to help others had perhaps morphed into him believing himself to be a savior and therefore entitled to funds from his charity.

Significance of Hamartia in Literature

While hamartia was first applied to characters in Greek tragedies, it is relevant to and present in famous characters throughout the history of literature. Most writing teachers advise that a hero with no flaws is, actually, quite a boring character and unworthy of being written about. It is indeed more difficult for the reader to relate to a protagonist with no flaws, because that simply isn’t realistic or common in ordinary life. The presence of a flaw or error in the main character makes the fate of that character unavoidable, but also that much more tragic. When the character cannot blame anyone outside of him- or herself, we as the audience feel much more pity and the process of catharsis can proceed.

Examples of Hamartia in Literature

Example #1

Lost in the night, endless night that nursed you!
You can’t hurt me or anyone else who sees the light—
you can never touch me.
TIRESIAS: True, it it not your fate
to fall at my hands. Apollo is quite enough,
and he will take some pains to work this out.
OEDIPUS: Creon! Is this conspiracy his or yours?
TIRESIAS: Creon is not your downfall, no, you are your own.

(Oedipus Rex by Sophocles)

Oedipus the King is one of the primary characters that come to mind when talking about hamartia examples. Oedipus expresses a certain hubris about his own intelligence and decision-making that, taken too far, leads to his downfall. Oedipus was made a fatal mistake in his understanding of vital information—he kills his own father and marries his mother out of ignorance. He has set a curse on the man who kills his father, not knowing that it is he who has done so. The blind prophet, Tiresias, makes Oedipus aware of his tragic error and asserts that it is Oedipus himself who leads to his own downfall.

Example #2

JULIET: (aside) My only love sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown, and known too late!
Prodigious birth of love it is to me,
That I must love a loathèd enemy.

(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

Juliet does not realize the boy she has fallen in love with at a party is a Montague until her nurse tells her so. Unfortunately, her family, and the Capulets, are bitter rivals with the Montagues and she immediately understands the gravity of this situation. However, Romeo and Juliet are young lovers and believe their love will solve everything. Unfortunately for them, that which is greatest leads to their downfall. The fates are against this union and ultimately the young couple dies due to their own flaw of loving too much.

Example #3

CHARLEY: Nobody dast blame this man. You don’t understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there’s no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out their in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple spots on your hat and your finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream boy, it comes with the territory.

(Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller)

Arthur Miller’s drama Death of a Salesman is a modern-day tragedy that centers around the American dream. The main character, Willy Loman, never stops believing in the American dream. His friend Charley here eulogizes him, and says that being a salesman necessitates this dream never dying. Willy Loman’s greatest hopes and passion lead to his death, because he can’t accept failure.

Example #4

MARY: There ought to be a law to keep men like him from practicing. He hasn’t the slightest idea – When you’re in agony and half insane, he sits and holds your hand and delivers sermons on will power! […] He deliberately humiliates you! He makes you beg and plead! He treats you like a criminal! He understands nothing! And yet it was exactly the same type of cheap quack who first gave you the medicine – and you never knew what it was until too late!

I hate doctors! They’ll do anything – anything to keep you coming to them. They’ll sell their souls! What’s worse, they’ll sell yours, and you never know it till one day you find yourself in hell!

(A Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill)

In another modern-day example of hamartia, the mother-figure Mary in A Long Day’s Journey into Night is addicted to morphine. The character at fault here is her husband James Tyrone, who is too cheap to hire a good doctor. Instead, he hired an incompetent doctor who creates and supports Mary’s addiction, which then leads to the downfall of the whole Tyrone family. James’s miserly flaw has repercussions much greater than he could have imagined.

Test Your Knowledge of Hamartia

1. Which of the following statements is the best hamartia definition?

A. Something that changes a character’s fortune from bad to good.
B. The best characteristic that a protagonist’s possesses.
C. An element of the protagonist that, through flaw or error, leads to the character’s downfall.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: C is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following situations is not an example of hamartia?

A. A character’s tragic flaw leads to his downfall.
B. The villain in the story does something cruel to the protagonist that unfairly leads to the protagonist’s downfall.
C. The protagonist commits an error because she didn’t full understand the circumstances, and this error leads to her downfall.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: B is the correct answer. Hamartia only occurs when the downfall of a person comes from something that the person directly does, and not what others do to him or her.[/spoiler]

3. Consider this passage from William Shakespeare’s prologue to Romeo and Juliet:

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.

From the above excerpt, does this play posit hamartia to be an act of fate or is the downfall of Romeo and Juliet due to their own free will?

A. Fate
B. Free will
C. Neither
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: A is the correct answer. Just as the ancient Greeks believed, hamartia is a sign of the fates in the lives of humans. The “star-cross’d lovers” cannot escape their fate.[/spoiler]