Exploring the Best Example of a Tragic Hero in Literature

Exploring the Best Example of a Tragic Hero in Literature

In literature, few characters incite the same intense emotions and discussions as those who fall under the label of a “tragic hero.” The allure of these characters hinges on their complexity and the tragic nature of their story, drawing readers and viewers alike into their lives. However, not every character fits the mold of a strong tragic hero. In this article, we’ll define the traits of a tragic hero and compare various characters to determine the best example of a tragic hero in literature.

Traits of a Tragic Hero

Aristotle defined the concept of a tragic hero, stating that a character is doomed to fail if they have a tragic flaw, which is their hamartia, or error in judgment. This fatal mistake often leads to their downfall, even if they possess admirable qualities.

A tragic hero should display a mix of noble and flawed qualities that the audience can identify with and sympathize with, yet see the inevitability of their downfall. These qualities include their fatal flaw, their tragic realization or reversal of fortune, their morality, and their hubris, which is excessive pride.

Characters who embody these traits are often the most memorable and poignant in literature. From Shakespeare’s Macbeth to Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, the tragic hero archetype is prevalent across many works of literature and storytelling.

Comparison of Tragic Heroes

When comparing tragic heroes from different works, it’s vital to evaluate which ones meet the criteria for being strong examples of this label. Literature is full of tragic characters, ranging from Hamlet to Okonkwo. To determine the best example, we must analyze which tragic heroes display the essential qualities of the label and stand out in their representation.

One strong comparison lies between Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Sophocles’ Oedipus. Both display hubris, leading to their tragic ends. However, Oedipus is more favorable as a tragic hero because his downfall is more inescapable and less influenced by individual character flaws. In contrast, Macbeth’s downfall is more influenced by his excessive ambition and willingness to compromise his morals.

A Focus on a Specific Character

Taking a closer look at the qualities of a strong tragic hero in literature, we can focus on individual characters’ analyses. One example of a strong tragic hero is Willy Loman from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Throughout the play, Loman displays hubris, believing that he is more important than he is and that his dreams can become a reality even after years of laboring in mediocrity. His realization of his mistakes is too late, leading to his downfall.

Willy Loman is a perfect example of a tragic hero because he embodies the qualities synonymous with the concept. He’s a complex character with admirable qualities who ultimately is undone by his innate fatal flaw, showcased in his constant lies and illusions. These traits raise him above similar yet less critical characters in other works of literature.

Cultural and Historical Context

The cultural and historical context of a work of literature plays a crucial role in developing the tragic hero’s traits and highlighting the society’s concerns or values at that time. Shakespeare’s Macbeth’s depiction, for example, is heavily influenced by the tension between Scottish and English cultural identities.

A tragedy like Willy Loman’s is indicative of a capitalist society that relies heavily on work ethic and individual success. He embodies the virtues of a capitalist society, such as hard work and determination, yet is undone by those very values after being unable to achieve them.

Fate, Free Will, and Societal Pressures

The role of fate and free will is a recurring theme in works of literature featuring tragic heroes. The tragic hero is often undone by their circumstances outside of their control, yet they also make decisions that contribute to their downfall. Societal pressures and expectations also play a role in the tragic hero’s story, such as Okonkwo’s experience in Things Fall Apart.

Okonkwo’s admiration of his father’s legacy and desire to achieve societal success in his tribe drives him towards violent actions ultimately leading to his downfall, resulting in the loss of his family and reputation. Characters like Okonkwo showcase how personal choice and society’s expectations can create a tragic path in life.

Impact on Other Characters

The tragic hero’s downfall not only impacts their lives but also the other characters and the world they live in, reflecting the worldview of the society in which the literature was created. For example, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the tragic hero’s downfall leads to the death of several characters, ultimately disillusioning the world they lived in.

Willy Loman’s story is similar in that his death impacts all of those around him. His family, friends, and loved ones must deal with the reality of his illusion even after he has passed, highlighting the darker aspects of the American Dream, in contrast to the notion of upward mobility and success.


In conclusion, the concept of a tragic hero has existed throughout literature. The qualities embodied by these characters make them both complex and fascinating to the reader. Through careful analysis of individual characters, historical and cultural context, and the impact of their downfall, we can determine the best example of a tragic hero. In the end, the perfect representation of a tragic hero in literature is one with a mix of admirable and flawed qualities undone by their own beliefs, desires, and society’s expectations, showcasing the destructive possibilities of the human experience.

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