The Significance of Tragic Heroes in Literature

Introduction: Defining Literature and a Tragic Hero

Before discussing the significance of tragic heroes in literature, it is necessary to define a hero. Literature is any written piece of work which encompasses poetry, essay, drama, speech, letter, story, novel and any other writings. Further, literature can be classified according to subject matter, language, national origin, epoch and genre.

A hero can be understood as the main or prominent character in a story or drama who the audience identifies with. This is because his or her life experiences evoke emotions of pity, sadness, anger or fear in the audience. A hero possesses certain unique qualities that make them stand out among other characters in a narrative. Heroes in literature thesis sustain the narrative to the end. The end depends on what the author intends to achieve and can be a victorious end, tragic end, dilemma or modern complex issues in today’s society. Therefore, a tragic hero is a character in literature who commits error in their judgments or assessment in a situation or event causing his or her own downfall.

Qualities of Tragic Heroes in Literature

Greek philosopher Aristotle in his work known as Poetics (335 BCE) pointed out that a man only becomes a hero if he can see the root of his own downfall. He highlighted the below characteristics of a tragic hero;

  1. Weakness or flaw in judgments. This he called hamartia.
  2. A reversal of fortune as a result of misjudgment (peripeteia).
  3. The realization that the hero’s own actions have caused the reversal of fortune, which in Greek is known as anagnorisis.
  4. A tragic hero has excessive pride or hubris
  5. The hero’s fate must be greater than deserved.

In addition to the above characteristics, heroes in literature essay also possess the following qualities;

  • Their story arouses empathy and fear.
  • Their suffering must be more than deserved.
  • They have a weakness, usually pride or ego.
  • The tragedy must be in terms of an experience causing physical or emotional injury, often leading to death
  • Their noble but imperfect nature causes the audience to identify with them.
  • Their fates are tied to their actions and not external things occurring to them.
  • They are faced with dilemma.
  • They are intelligent than other characters and learn from their mistakes and understand their doom.
  • Their tragic path is well laid out as the literature begin and this beyond their control and is not tied to their flaws.

Typical heroes in literature examples must blend the above qualities to evoke emotions and a balance in their characters, leaving the audience with a divided opinion. Examples of tragic heroes in literature of ancient period include; Creon of Thebes, Othello (in Shakespeare’s play), Oedipus, Prince Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, etcetera.

It is necessary to note that tragedy works of literature always have tragic heroes and the onus is on the reader or audience to find one. But how and where can one find tragic hero? One must begin by finding and picking literature. Focusing on characters and determining whether they have flaws and make errors, one identifies with them and is sympathetic to their doom puts one to the correct path of identifying a tragic hero.

How Significant Are Tragic Heroes in Literature?

Understanding the essence of heroes in literature thesis brings about their significance. Below are some of the significances of tragic heroes in literature;

They Make the Literature Interesting

The characteristics of tragic heroes make the audience identify with them. This makes a reader or an audience to develop emotions and sympathy. The ‘hook’ effect of the narration keeps the audience interested or excited.

They Determine the Genre of the Literature

Tragedies contain heroes whose lives end in ruin due to mistakes and errors emanating from their actions. This type of literature leaves an audience with sympathy towards the hero or a feeling that they got what they deserved.

They are Educative

One of the objectives of literature is to educate readers or audience. Tragic end of heroes in deed provide important lessons which can be applied in day to day life and relationships. Throughout the story or play heroes embody certain values or ideologies. The author seeks to bring out certain morals or virtues in their artwork through the tragic heroes.

They are Central to the Literature

Tragic heroes are the main characters, therefore, the narration or drama revolves around them. Their unique qualities make them stand out among other characters. In most cases, heroes in literature examples appear all over the piece and feature prominently throughout.

They Determine Roles of Other Characters

Typical literature contains multiple characters. Since a hero is a main character in a story or play, he or she determines the roles played by the other characters. The other characters are given life depending on how they relate or interact with the hero.

They Enable Experience of Catharsis

The tribulations and the tragic life of a hero whip up emotions of pity, sadness and/or fear in the audience. Through catharsis, the audience is relieved from the pent-up emotions.


Literature is a piece of art that ranges from written artwork to drama and plays. Tragic heroes in literature are the main characters who blunder or make mistakes leading to their tragic end or fall. They suffer more than any other person due to their actions. They possess certain attributes, and above all, they should evoke sympathy, sadness and/or fear in a reader or audience.

Tragic heroes in literature examples are significant in many ways. They are the main characters and determine the roles of other supporting characters. Moreover, tragic heroes in literature are significant in distinguishing genre of the literature.

The following tragedy gives us an illustration to complement our understanding of tragic heroes and their significance in literature.

The family business of crime

In this narration, the Bradley’s are a famous family headed by Rich Bradley and Carmela. They have three sons and a daughter; Mike, Donny, Dredo and Katie. Tommie is an informal adopted son. Mike decides to pursue a straight forward life, away from the Bradley’s criminal dynasty, contrary to his brothers Donny and Dredo. His father Bradley, hopping to be influential, prefers his second son Mike joining politics. When the second World War breaks out and America joins, he enlists in the Navy after dropping out from college.

Mike is inured in battle as the war rages on. He becomes a war hero when he is given an award for his bravery and is promoted to a higher rank in the Navy. In 1946, he is discharged from the Marine Service without knowing that his father Bradley was the one who arranged for all this. He comes home to attend Katie’s wedding, accompanying him is his longtime girlfriend Becky. After a short period he decides to go back to college, a decision which he makes without involving his family.

An assassination attempt by Vin Salazo, a drug lord leaves Bradley badly wounded. Mike goes to the hospital where his father is admitted and finds him alone and unprotected. This marks the beginning of Mike into the world of mafia he has for a very long time been avoiding. At the hospital he averts a second attempt murder of his father by Salazo, proving that he is loyal to his father Bradley. The confrontation between Mike, McClaren (a corrupt police officer) and Bradley henchmen turns ugly; Donny okays the killing of the son of Salazo’s ally Tapglia.

A request by Salazo to reach truce with Mike becomes a plot by the Bradley’s which would ignite underworld mafia war in New York which has not been witnessed in many years. Mike kills both Salazo and McClaren. He runs to Venice where under the protection of his father’s ally Don Tomson he spends a few years. He marries Apollonia who later die from a bomb meant to kill Mike which was planted in their house by his former bodyguard Fabio who loyalty now lies with the Bradley family enemies.

Donny (Bradley’s heir) is murdered. In 1953 Mike returns to the America to assume the family enterprise leadership. He reunites with Becky and assures her that the Bradley family business will be legitimate in six years times. He attempts to convince his father to move from the mafia world. Becky would later give birth to a boy and a girl.

After Bradley takes a back seat in day to day operation of the family business, Mike takes over. His attempt to legitimize the Bradley business gets a setback when his offer to purchase Lacasa Casino is rebuffed by Morata Greene. When senior Bradley dies in 1956, Mike hatches plan to eliminate all the other New York mafia kingpins; they include, Barco, Philip Tapglia, Carrice Crumeo, Vic Streo and Morata Greene.

Apollonia’s murder is avenged when Fabio is killed in Venice. The very day he goes to see Katie’s newborn child, he orders the execution of Tesslo and Carlos Rizzo (who was Katie’s husband), two individuals who conspired in Donny’s killing. Mike manages to put back the Bradley family as America’s most powerful underworld family, thereby becoming the smartest, cunning and most ruthless person.

Katie later confronts Mike accusing him of killing Carlos. He denies even when confronted by his wife, Becky. Becky would then leave Michael after realizing that it was Mike who killed Katie’s husband and that he has in true sense become his father’s successor.

Despite being New York’s most powerful mafia, Mike still puts in place plan to remove the family business from crime. However, this does not succeed because the many enemies he has made and the ever-growing number of people who want to revenge against him keeps him in the underworld business. When Dredo (Mike’s brother) confesses that he has all along been the mole in the family because he never became the head of the family business, Mike disowns him.

The story goes on but ends sadly with the death of Mike in 1998 in Venice alone in the same place where he had married Apollonia. Before that, a bullet fired by Bosca had pierced through Mike’s body, hitting and killing his daughter Mercy. His daughter’s death had left him in distraught and agony.

In many ways, The Family Business of Crime is a tragedy, and its tragic hero is Mike. He starts by setting out to pursue a life away from the mafia enterprise his father has established in New York. He even joins a college and later enlists to Navy, clear indication that he is determined to lead a normal life. Even when he takes over as the operations head of his family’s business empire, he still makes an attempt to legitimize the business and expresses the will to stay on the right side of the law. Herein lies his dilemma, of either continuing and expanding the dirty business associated with his family, or leading a clean and lawful life. However, his fate would take a new twist, actions and decisions leading to his tragic end. So what is the significance of Mike in the story?

  • Mike’s life makes the audience to easily identify with him. He keeps the story interesting through actions, decisions and circumstances out of his control.
  • Mike’s tribulations and mistakes exemplify his tragic hero character. We are able to sympathize, get angry and fear whenever he acts. We are able to identify with him throughout the novel. His later life became quiet sad, clearly distinguishing the story as a tragedy
  • We are able to learn much from the life of Mike and the entire Bradley family. Mike’s life experience is educative.
  • The Family Business of Crime story is built around the life of Mike. He is the main character and he features prominently in the novel.
  • Through Mike we are made aware of the other characters and their roles in the novel. These other characters define Mike’s circumstantial aspects and operating environment. It is how they relate and interact with Mike that we are able get the full picture of the story.
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