What Is Tragic Flaw?
Tragic flaw, also known as hamartia, from the Greek term "to miss the mark," is a weakness that contributes to the downfall of a protagonist in a tragic play. Yet another term for tragic flaw is "Achilles heel," from the myth of Achilles, whose death was foretold as a baby. His mother tried to prevent this occurrence by washing him in the River Styx, but she missed his heel, and after great success in the battlefield, Achilles died from being shot in the heel by a poisonous arrow.
In order to understand why the tragic protagonist must have a flaw, you have to understand Greek tragedy. When some random bad thing happens, like a plane crash, people call it "a tragedy,” but the Greeks would have disagreed. In order for there to be tragedy, special conditions must be met. The protagonist must be complicit in his downfall and have foreknowledge of the event. Although the character’s fate is certain, he battles against it anyway. This battle, in face of certain destruction, is what makes a work tragedy.
For instance, in Oedipus Rex, the prophets foretell that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Pride, Oedipus’s tragic flaw, causes him to ignore the prophecy and feel he can outwit fate. In the end, he blinds himself, showing that he is aware of how ignorant and shortsighted pride made him.
How Do You Identify Tragic Flaw in Writing?
In Greek drama, the chorus’s role, among other things, is to explain to the audience what the protagonist’s tragic flaw is. But characters outside of Greek drama have tragic flaws as well, and works that are not even tragic employ this device as well. Superman’s tragic flaw, for instance, is kryptonite.
The most common tragic flaw is hubris, or pride. There is even a famous saying, "Pride goeth before the fall." This saying comes from the story of Adam and Eve, who felt shame about their nakedness after eating from the tree of knowledge. Their pride comes just before their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, their fall. Many characters, like Victor Frankenstein from Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and Doctor Faustus from Marlowe’s Faust, demonstrate hubris as a tragic flaw because they want to be immortal or to play God, a circumstance that can only lead to a tragic outcome.
Examples of Tragic Flaw
1. Walter White, in the television show Breaking Bad, shows many of the elements of a tragic hero with hubris as his tragic flaw.
2. Lucifer, the fallen Angel in Milton’s Paradise Lost, also has the tragic flaw of hubris, thinking that he can become divine by breaking away from Heaven.
3. Hamlet’s tragic flaw is his indecisiveness, which makes him put off taking action until it is too late.
4. Ahab’s tragic flaw is his obsession with the white whale.
5. In Henry James’s novel Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer’s tragic flaw is her belief that she should marry someone "special" — i.e., a particular kind of hubris.
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