Examples of Hamartia in Literature

What is Hamartia?

Hamartia is a tragic flaw in judgment that brings about the downfall of a tragic hero in a literary work. In Greek tragedy, hamartia represents the mistake or moral weakness of the protagonist.

Hamartia is often related to poor discernment and ignorance that is intertwined with their own character flaws. The external factors also contribute in that downfall. The essential error stems from some internal blemish and human frailty within the hero. The tragic choice and action serves as an essential element that catalyzes the reversal of fortune from happiness to suffering. It is due to misguided behavior, intentions, decisions and characteristics.

Importance of Hamartia

Hamartia generates drama and emotional impact as readers witness the protagonist wrecking themselves. The outcome often evokes pity and fear since the hero appears helpless in avoiding their unhappy destiny.

Moreover, the protagonist’s downfall elicits catharsis as readers gain insight into human frailty and the nature of tragedy. Hamartia emphasizes how a single misstep can topple even the mighty when the flaw aligns with external forces.

Examples of Hamartia in Literature

Example#1

“Macbeth” by William Shakespeare

In the novel, the title character’s hamartia emerges through his excessive ambition. Though noble and brave initially, Macbeth says upon hearing a prophecy he will become king:

“My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical, Shakes so my single state of man that function Is smother’d in surmise, and nothing is But what is not.”

In the excerpt, Macbeth describes his thoughts after hearing the prophecy that he will become king. Macbeth says the idea of killing the king to take the throne “shakes” his inner state.

Though the murder plan is “fantastical” (imaginary), entertaining it makes his moral judgment become clouded and uncertain. This moral wavering foreshadows Macbeth’s hamartia or tragic flaw – giving in to blind ambition that leads him to ruin.

Example#2

“The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer

“He never yet no vileynye ne sayde
In al his lyf unto no maner wight.
He was a verray parfit gentil knyght.”

The Knight is described as never having “said anything improper to anyone” and as a “very perfect gentle knight”.

However, later in the tale, the Knight displays the hamartia or tragic flaw of boastful pride in his reputation and noble status.

Specifically, when the Knight is defeated in battle, his refusal to accept loss leads him on a destructive path to regain victory at any cost in order to save face. This excessive pride represents his fatal error in judgment that contributes to negative consequences.

Example#3

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“And I had done an hellish thing,
And it would work ’em woe:
For all averred,
I had killed the bird That made the breeze to blow.”

The Mariner describes killing the albatross that was guiding the ship. He says he “had done a hellish thing” by killing the bird that brought the good breeze.

By killing it, he says it “would work ’em woe” meaning it would bring his crew misery. This random, senseless act serves as the Mariner’s hamartia or fatal flaw, dooming his crew to suffering and almost death.

Example#4

“Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

“My name is Ozymandias,
King of Kings;
Look on my Works,
ye Mighty, and despair!”

The arrogant inscription boasts of Ozymandias’ power and commands others to “despair” at his mighty works. However, the surrounding desert wasteland and shattered statue ironically undermine this claim, as his kingdom has been reduced to rubble.

Ozymandias’ tragic flaw is his excessive pride and belief in his own permanence despite mortality. The hamartia of hubris in the inscription highlights the ultimate fragility of human achievements over time. Once a mighty ruler, Ozymandias and his works now lie in ruins, his boastful words meaning nothing.

The poem suggests even the greatest leaders eventually fade into oblivion. But Ozymandias’ arrogance blinds him to the ravages of time and limits of human ambition. His boast comes across as ironic and empty rather than impressive. This hamartia makes his legacy’s erasure all the more tragic.

Example#5

“Moby Dick” by Herman Melville

“All my means are sane, my motive and my object mad…I will dismember my dismemberer.”

Captain Ahab’s hamartia is his insatiable quest for vengeance against the white whale who took his leg. Despite warnings, this monomaniacal flaw leads him to his death after forcing his crew on an increasingly irrational hunt.

Example#6

“The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde

“How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young…If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old!”

Dorian Gray envies that his portrait will stay beautiful while he grows old. His tragic flaw is wanting eternal youth for himself at any cost.

This obsession with preserving his appearance and indulging in pleasure regardless of morality leads to his fall from grace.

Specifically, Dorian sells his soul so his portrait ages instead, allowing him to pursue a hedonistic lifestyle without consequence. But his physical perfection masks inner decay. Dorian’s hamartia is excess vanity, desire for immortal youth and fear of aging’s toll. This motivates his vicious downward spiral.

Examples of Hamartia in Literature
Examples of Hamartia in Literature

Related Terms

I- Hubris

Hubris refers to excessive pride, overconfidence, or arrogance that often motivates the protagonist’s hamartia or tragic flaw in a literary work. Hubris usually portends the character’s downfall.

For example, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macbeth’s vaulting ambition and hubris in believing the witches’ prophecy blinds him to the disastrous consequences of murdering the king.

II- Peripeteia

Peripeteia refers to the reversal of circumstances or turning point that result from the protagonist’s hamartia or error in judgment. Usually the hero’s fortunes dramatically shift from good to bad due to their hamartia. ]

For instance, in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Oedipus’ refusal to accept the truth about his origins brings about peripeteia as he loses his kingdom, wife/mother, and eyesight due to his tragic flaw.

Function of Hamartia

Hamartia is crucial for setting tragedy in motion in a literary work. The protagonist’s fatal flaw or error triggers events that seal their downfall. By showing the protagonist sabotaging themselves through their own mistake, hamartia makes them complicit in their own destruction.

The protagonist’s collapse conveys a moral lesson in understanding the consequence of unchecked ambition, denial of truth, obsession, etc. based on their hamartia. Despite noble qualities, hamartia implies a moral frailty haunts even heroic characters, making them relatable in their imperfections.

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