Tragic Hero Examples

Traditionally, a tragic hero is the main protagonist of the genre of tragedy. This type of hero was developed by the ancient Greek tragedians – Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, and others. Aristotle developed tragic heroes in his works, as well as the methodological tools of creating them. According to the great philosopher, a tragic hero has to evoke the feeling of pity and fear in the reader. This is a kind of character involved in an insoluble conflict that causes loss or severe suffering. This, in the majority of tragic heroes examples, results in the death of a generally decent and deserving of deep sympathy person. At the same time, Aristotle notes that the tragic hero must be virtuous, but never to the highest degree.

How a Tragic Hero Is Created in Literature

According to the theory of tragedy as a genre, one of the central parts in creating the tragic effect belongs to catharsis, which is the extreme feeling of fear, sadness, and pity evoked in the reader at the moment of the hero’s downfall. Three unities are invlolved in leading to catharsis:

  • the unity of time;
  • the unity of space;
  • the unity of action.

Contrary to the popular opinion, not all the unities were suggested to be an indelible part of any piece of drama by Aristotle. He put forward the unity of action and the limited volume of the dramatic work. The unity of time that shouldn’t exceed 24 hours was first proposed as an obligatory dramatic rule by the Italian researchers of Aristotle’s works Robortello and Maggi in the mid 16th century. However, the rule of three unities can be observed in ancient drama long before it was conceived. It was also adopted by classicists in 17-19 centuries, who imitated ancient models. In this pattern, all the events of a play are to develop according to established rules for a brief period of time and in the same place.

The clash of characters, their inner struggles, and the aspirations of the protagonist lead to a single goal. All their actions are combined into a single action developing during the play. The demand for the unity of time and place was relevant in the ancient drama. The plays were staged in the daylight, and there were neither artificial lighting on the stage nor changing scenery in those days. This requirement retained its importance in the theater of classicism. So, a lot of tragic heroes examples of that times were suitable to these requirements. Later, the unity of time has lost its meaning and a tragic hero has changed.

However, the sources of tragedy in literature remained the same even for modern tragic hero examples. They are:

  • tragic guilt that a hero experiences on the deepest psychological level;
  • the hero’s tragic mistake usually committed unconsciously;
  • or some external circumstances that turn to be insurmountable in this particular situation.
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Tragic Hero Examples in Ancient Literature: Oedipus in Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

In the tragedy of Sophocles, the main character is Oedipus, the ruler of Thebes. We see Oedipus as a virtuous king, as he is worried about the problems of his people and the destiny of each. He sincerely tries to help them the best way he can. All his life, he acts in the strict accordance with the moral virtues he believes in. To prevent the predestined villainy, Oedipus leaves his home and goes far away. He decides to punish himself for the crimes that he committed unconsciously. His punishment is cruel but symbolic. When the hero is blinded physically, he begins to see spiritually. He has nothing to lose and the fate teaches him his lesson: trying to see the invisible, you can completely lose your sight.

Although the character goes through terrible circumstances and the reader sympathizes with him, his image does not seem pathetic, but, on the contrary, majestic and monumental. This, probably, the only thing that differs Oedipus from Aristotle’s definition of this kind of a hero. However, Aristotle himself claimed that Sophocles’ character is a perfect tragic hero. Therefore, Oedipus is one of the perfect hero examples for a heroic essay.

How to Choose Hero Examples for a Heroic Essay

Though it is clear how the examples of tragic heroes are created in ancient and classic literature, it is still difficult for students to choose hero examples for a heroic essay. If you don’t want to write about characters that were discussed numerous times in such essays, you might want to choose a hero yourself. As we have mentioned above, the rule of three unities is not the only thing that the tragedy of a hero is based on. And, as time passed by, it has become unnecessary.

There are more aspects that can help you pick one from the list of tragic heroes in the world literature. One of the main characteristics of a tragic hero is hubris, which is arrogance and pride that leads to breaking the law, either natural or human. As a result, the reader can observe nemesis, a situation inevitably caused by the hero’s hubris or the clash of the hero and his or her enemy (an antagonist, if a hero we describe is the main character.) The hero experiences the life-changing revelation, which is called anagnorisis. A peripeteia in a hero’s life means that his or her life is changed forever and will never be the same. Then, we become witnesses of hamartia, the flow of events that, one way or another, results in the tragic end. Catharsis, the highest point of revealing any of hero examples for a heroic essay, as discussed earlier, may or may not be based on the three unities anymore. But it is always preceded by the aspects described above.

The list of tragic heroes was expanded by Seneca, William Shakespeare, Goethe, Schiller, and other artists working in the genre of tragedy. But tragic heroes examples can be found in more than one genre.

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Tragic Hero Examples in World Literature: Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

A tragic hero can commit awful things. One of the most prominent examples of tragic heroes who commits a crime is Shakespearean Macbeth. But the crimes of tragic heroes are usually interpreted as his or her delusions. A hero, therefore, becomes the victim in the end.

If you want to look for tragic hero examples in the works of overseas authors and don’t know where to start, the best option is to turn the famous Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky. The main character is quite easy to reveal as one of the tragic hero examples for a heroic essay.

In the center of Dostoevsky’s novel, there is a poor student Rodion Raskolnikov. Close to the very beginning of the story, Raskolnikov kills an old lady and her half-sister. As the old lady was his money-lender, it seems that he did this for money, but as you read the novel, you can’t see Raskolnikov as a villain. Dostoevsky endowed his hero with excellent human qualities. Raskolnikov is exceptionally handsome, but this, unlike with other characters we know, like Wilde’s Dorian Gray, doesn’t make him vain. In his actions and words, we can sense the highest human dignity, true nobility, and total unselfishness. Raskolnikov feels that someone else’s pain is sharper for him than that of his own. He risks his life, saving children from the fire. He gives all the money he has for Marmeladov’s funeral. In other words, he is not the kind who passes by human sufferings indifferently. So, there are no traits of a villain in Raskolnikov’s nature. He commits a murder embodying an absurd idea born of social injustice and despair. His own poverty and misery and the miseries he sees at every place he goes bring him to the theory that this murder will make the world a better place. As his crime leads the character to catharsis (which, in this case, is a psychological illness), one can add Raskolnikov to the list of tragic heroes which suit a hero essay the best.

Hero Examples for a Heroic Essay in the Literature of the 20th Century: Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby

Today, tragic heroes don’t only manifest themselves in the genre of tragedy given that some of the rules are no longer significant. It doesn’t only concern literature. Media is plentiful with modern tragic hero examples. They are rarely main characters, which is also a deviation from the initial rules. Tragic protagonists, however, were popular in the 20th century. One of the most colorful tragic hero examples of that time is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby. The GREAT Gatsby! The hubris that creates the character is seen right from the title. The novel has all the other aspects of revealing a tragic hero in the protagonist:

Nemesis: The rivalry between Gatsby and Tom.

Anagnorisis: Gatsby understands that he is not satisfied with the relationship he craved for all his life.

Peripeteia: Daisy declines to say that she has never loved her husband. Gatsby understands that all his pains to win her love have been in vain.

Hamartia: Gatsby takes the blame for Daisy and claims that it was him who accidentally killed Myrtle.

Catharsis: He gets shot by George who was desperate both with his wife’s death and her disloyalty. And we do feel pity for Gatsby, mainly, because of the only noble thing he did.

Modern Tragic Hero Examples: Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

One can’t deny that modern tragic hero examples are very different from those in the past. There are almost no books in which all the events take place in 24 hours (like in ancient tragedies) or, at least, all MAJOR events happen in the same place (like in The Great Gatsby.) Plus, apart from evoking the deepest sympathy in the reader, a contemporary tragic hero gets worshiped. One of the main reasons for this is that the majority of books are put on screen. Thus, the passion to the cinema gets mixed with the passion of reading. And, eventually, we don’t see much difference between a literary and a staged character.

One of the most discussed modern tragic hero examples is Severus Snape of Harry Potter book series. But to make your writing more interesting, you can search for some of the less obvious tragic hero examples for a heroic essay even in the same book, like Albus Dumbledore. He becomes a tragic hero in his background story which is revealed in the seventh book. His catharsis is the decision to live a solitary life without any close relationship. This results from the mistakes he committed in his life. His pride blinded him. And Dumbledore trusted a person who he shouldn’t have trusted, as he saw him as the only equal. This all led to the tragic death of Dumbledore’s beloved sister.

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