Tragic Flaw

Definition of Tragic Flaw

A tragic flaw is an attribute of a character that ultimately leads to their demise. Not surprisingly, this literary device is commonly found in tragedies. Some definitions of tragic flaw maintain that this characteristic must be a weakness or a failing. However, some tragic flaws can instead be elements of someone’s personality that force them to act a certain way, and in a given situation a character’s desire to stick to his or her principles causes their downfall.

The definition of tragic flaw is very similar to that of the Greek concept of hamartia. Indeed, most Greek tragedies had at least one character, whether major or minor, who had a tragic flaw. We also sometimes equate the concept of tragic flaw with that of Achilles’ heel, the one place where the powerful warrior Achilles was vulnerable.

Common Examples of Tragic Flaw

There are many stories of celebrities, politicians, and athletes who are brought down by their tragic flaws. We feel that their deaths are tragedies because we can see how things could have turned out otherwise. Here are some examples of celebrities who died because of their tragic flaws:

  • Marilyn Monroe: Marilyn Monroe likely committed suicide, which is often attributed to her being hounded by the press. She was such a beautiful actress that the media couldn’t get enough of her, which seemed to lead to her depressions and mood swings. Her desirability, a positive thing at first, led to her destruction.
  • Amy Winehouse: A similar case to Marilyn Monroe’s, Amy Winehouse never seemed all that comfortable in the spotlight. She was an incredible singer, but she was famous at a time when the paparazzi attention was even more intense than in Monroe’s day. Winehouse had problems at times with drugs and alcohol, which was probably intensified by her celebrity. She also placed faith in men who didn’t treat her well. She died of an overdose, which appeared accidental, and was tragic as she had tried to live a more normal life in the months leading up to her death.
  • Paul Walker: Star of the “Fast and the Furious” film series, Paul Walker died at the age 40 in a car crash. It was speculated that the car was going between 80 and 93 miles an hour in a 45 mph zone. It seemed that his love of speed and belief in his own invincibility tragically led to his death.

Significance of Tragic Flaw in Literature

Tragic flaws have been an important part of character development ever since the time of Greek mythology and drama. Aristotle described the function of tragic flaws in his treatise on literary theory, Poetics. In Greek mythology and drama, tragic flaws were often given to mortals by the gods. They allow a reader both to sympathize more with a character, as flaws are what make use human (this is especially the case with the Greek gods, who wanted to show the difference between mortals and themselves). Tragic flaws also therefore create more emotional connection when something bad happens to a character. Though the presence of the flaw could lead to blaming the character, we as readers understand that the character is more a victim of both circumstance and their own essential nature.

Examples of Tragic Flaw in Literature

Example #1

CASSANDRA: Not, I swear, that he and I shall die without retribution from the gods: there will come another in turn to avenge us, a child born to kill his mother, one to exact penalty for his father. A fugitive, a wanderer, an exile from this land he will come home to put a coping-stone on these ruinous acts for his family; his father thrown on his back on the ground will bring him back. Why then do I lament so piteously? Now that I have seen Ilion’s city faring as it fared, and those who took the city getting their outcome like this in the gods’ judgment, I shall go and do it: I will submit to death.

(Agamemnon by Aeschylus)

Cassandra is a very interesting character from Greek mythology. The god Apollo wanted her for himself, yet when she resisted him he cursed her with the tragic flaw of being able to predict the future, yet being consistently not believed by anyone. Apollo gave her this tragic flaw as punishment for thinking that she, a mortal, could defy a god. Aeschylus used Cassandra as a minor character in his play Agamemnon, and in the above quote Cassandra recognizes that her tragic flaw has not just led to her being misunderstood. Instead, there are people who are so angry at her for predicting the truth they want her dead. Tragically, she resigns herself to this death.

Example #2

OTHELLO: Then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well,
Of one not easily jealous but, being wrought,
Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinable gum. Set you down this,
And say besides that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog
And smote him thus.

(Othello by William Shakespeare)

Othello is one of William Shakespeare’s many protagonists who exhibit tragic flaws. Othello is a very trusting man, and he is full of pride and love. In an ordinary situation, this would be an excellent combination of characteristics. However, the villain Iago subverts the situation so that Othello’s own good nature is used to thwart him. Othello trusts Iago, who poisons Othello’s love and pride both by accusing Othello’s wife of cheating. In his tragic final words, Othello famously says that he is “Of one that loved not wisely but too well,” which ultimately leads to his demise.

Example #3

JOHN PROCTOR: Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!

(The Crucible by Arthur Miller)

Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible centers around the Salem witch trials in the late 17th century. The main accuser of witches, Abigail, has recently had an affair with John Proctor. John Proctor gets embroiled in the witchcraft trials, and is himself accused of tempting the girls into becoming witches. He is forced to confess to the witchcraft to save his life, but has too much pride to let this confession be circulated as the truth. In the famous emotional end to this play, Proctor goes to his own death, saying that his reputation is more important than his life. His pride is the tragic flaw which leads to his death.

Test Your Knowledge of Tragic Flaw

1. Which of the following statements is the best tragic flaw definition?
A. Something about a character which is so amazing that other people envy it and want to destroy them to gain it themselves.
B. Something that only occurred in Greek mythology and ancient literature.
C. Something that is an essential part of a character’s nature and 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 an example of tragic flaw?

A. The villain in the story frames the protagonist, which leads to that character’s downfall.
B. A supporting character has a tendency to act in a certain way which ultimately leads to her demise.
C. The main character is a blameless person who does nothing wrong, yet still has bad things happen to him.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: B is the correct answer. Tragic flaws must always be on the part of the character, whether major or minor, and not be an external force.[/spoiler]

3. William Shakespeare’s famous protagonist Hamlet can be said to have more than one tragic flaw example. Which tragic flaw does Hamlet exhibit in the following quote?

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

A. Hesitation to act
B. Extreme and irrational anger
C. Pride and vanity
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: A is the correct answer. Though at times Hamlet can be irrational and prideful, in this quote he shows that he struggles with resolution, and can easily “lose the name of action.” By not acting more quickly at the beginning of the play, Hamlet sets in course other events that lead to his own death.[/spoiler]