Classic Tragic Heroes
Classic novels wouldn’t be the same without their remarkable characters. There is no doubt that some of the greatest characters of our time are found in them. This week's feature is dedicated to exploring tragic heroes. A tragic hero is often the protagonist, whose hamartia causes an internal conflict. This creates a sense of pity but the tragic fate of the character is often their own doing. Simplified, the character has redemptive qualities but their own fatal flaws cause their downfall.
Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
In Tennessee Williams’ acclaimed play, A Streetcar Named Desire, we follow the experiences of Blanche DuBois, a fading Southern belle who is desperate to reclaim her former desirability whilst trying to escape the skeletons of her past life. When Blanche moves in with her younger sister, Stella, and her abusive and dominant brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski, it is evident that she is an outsider in the emerging 1940s society. It is a culture of misogyny, assault and violence which women either tolerate in order to survive, like Stella, or in which they fall victim to its oppression, like Blanche. When Blanche arrives in New Orleans, she is already a vulnerable and broken woman, and her stifling environment with the Kowalskis exacerbates her eventual decline. Motifs of light, decay and dreams all haunt Blanche as she loses her grip on reality and her sense of identity. Despite being the central character, Blanche is flawed – she can be manipulative, cruel and immature, yet the reader sympathises with her futile attempts to secure a better fate for herself in a society which favours male success and supremacy.
Oedipus from Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
Sophocles’ ancient Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex, is a play exploring themes of destiny, self-fulfilling prophecies and truth. The protagonist of the story, Oedipus, tries to escape the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother but ends up fulfilling it instead, bringing about the play’s tragic ending.
Oedipus is a classic example of a tragic hero because he is a noble and overall ‘good’ man with a fatal flaw, which ultimately brings about his misfortune. At the beginning of the play, King Oedipus vows to find the person responsible for murdering the previous King and supposedly bringing about the plague currently devastating the land of Thebes. The audience sees the character undertake a noble and well-intentioned quest for truth.
However, in seeking this truth, Oedipus discovers that he was, unwittingly, responsible for murdering his father, the former King of Thebes, and has now married his mother. Oedipus’ story ends in tragedy – he has killed his father, his mother takes her own life and Oedipus himself gouges his eyes out.
Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Upon Heathcliff’s arrival, he is faced with oppression, violence and hatred. This leads to Heathcliff vowing revenge on all who contributed to his pain and suffering – the ambitious Heathcliff ultimately causes his own downfall by being fuelled by hate. Heathcliff follows the journey of a tragic hero as he leaves Wuthering Heights and returns a wealthy nobleman. In order to achieve revenge, he is determined to own both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, angering both inhabiting families and ruining their lives. Heathcliff gains power in the process and succumbs to ambition. He does not stop at any lengths and exploits many of the other characters’ weaknesses along the way – his conniving and strong temper ensuring his plan is a success.
It is not just hatred and revenge that mark Heathcliff as a tragic hero, however. The pain and suffering the character faced was also a product of forbidden love. Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff have a strong connection but the status of Heathcliff means the pair cannot marry. This despair further drives Heathcliff towards his tragic end.
Hamlet from Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is one of the most famous tragedies ever written, and remains deeply rooted in popular culture. The play is full of action and psychological complexity, and Hamlet, one of literature’s most prolific tragic heroes, is an enigmatic character who continues to mesmerise audiences.
Hamlet’s fatal flaw is his inaction; a trait which is accentuated by his tendency to self-analyse and overthink his decisions. In his mission to avenge his father and exact retribution on his murderer, King Claudius, Hamlet isolates himself from those he loves, neglects his responsibilities as Prince of Denmark and becomes increasingly overwhelmed by his plan to kill Claudius. This revenge tragedy is less about revenge itself, and more about unpacking whether vengeance can be justified and the corrosive impacts vengeful thoughts can have on a person. Hamlet is immature but noble, self-aware to the point of being self-destructive and brooding yet also playful. It is this layered psychological complexity which continues to make him such a compelling tragic character to watch.