(Sort of but Not Really) Reviving the “Tragic Flaw”

Being (I guess) a morose kind of person, I spent a large chunk of my time in graduate school researching tragedy. I was specifically interested in the concept of gendered tragedy in George Eliot’s novels—a kind of tragedy in which the protagonist’s agency is always already radically curtailed by virtue of her sex. What would hamartia—the “error” made by the prototypical tragic protagonist—look like in such cases?

Of course, one of the first things I discovered while researching was the fact that the pop culture understanding of tragedy—and of hamartia in particular—is grossly misinformed. Most of us, I think, were told sometime in junior high that a tragic hero has a tragic flaw—some kind of moral failing that precipitates his downfall. This, as it turns out, is almost certainly not what Aristotle had in mind when he wrote the Poetics; though hamartia can refer to an error in moral judgment, it can just as easily refer to an error with no readily discernable moral dimensions. And even if we do take Aristotle to mean the former, it strikes me that this is not quite the same as a character flaw: the emphasis is on a discrete moment in time in which the character made a mistake rather than on an inherent tendency (or, at the very least, a pattern of behavior).

(A side note: it occurs to me that some people might be appalled to learn that I labored under a middle-school understanding of tragedy well into graduate school. I can only say, in my defense, that since my area of focus was not classical or Renaissance literature, tragic theory was not high on the list of things I was required to know.)

In any case, I’ve recently revisited tragic theory as part of my work for Shmoop, and I still find myself fascinated by the concept of hamartia, as well as by tragedy in general. The unit I’m currently working on deals with Oedipus Rex, so I’ve spent the last couple of weeks attacking the “tragic flaw” theory on multiple fronts and generally trying to persuade students to expunge it from their brains. I’ve also learned that someone else has already done that far more eloquently than I ever could—specifically, the classicist E. R. Dodds, who wrote an insightful (and at times hilariously snarky) paper on the misconceptions surrounding Oedipus Rex.

Dodds argues that the entire notion that Oedipus “deserved” his fate can be chalked up to the ever moralistic Victorians, who felt that art needed to represent the world as a fundamentally just place. This, Dodds says, is completely foreign to Sophocles’ worldview, which entailed a set of laws that were at once divinely absolute and incredibly alien (if not indifferent) to human experience:

Certainly the Oedipus Rex is a play about the blindness of man and the desperate insecurity of the human condition: in a sense every man must grope in the dark as Oedipus gropes, not knowing who he is or what he has to suffer; we all live in a world of appearance which hides from us who-knows-what dreadful reality. But surely the Oedipus Rex is also a play about human greatness. Oedipus is great, not in virtue of a great worldly position—for his worldly position is an illusion which will vanish like a dream—but in virtue of his inner strength: strength to pursue the truth at whatever personal cost, and strength to accept and endure it when found. ‘This horror is mine,’ he cries, ‘and none but I is strong enough to bear it’ (1414). Oedipus is great because he accepts the responsibility for all his acts, including those which are objectively most horrible, though subjectively innocent.

To me personally Oedipus is a kind of symbol of the human intelligence which cannot rest until it has solved all the riddles—even the last riddle, to which the answer is that human happiness is built on an illusion (48)

Grim stuff, definitely, but it rings true to me where Oedipus is concerned, and captures both the grandeur and the grief of tragedy.

In one respect, though, I have to part ways with Dodds, if only because I tend to prefer my tragedy modern (in the loose, post-medieval sense). Dodds, one senses, not only prefers classical tragedy but looks somewhat askance at anything else:

[The theory that the tragic hero must have a grave moral flaw] was gratifying to Victorian critics, since it appeared to fit certain plays of Shakespeare. But it goes back much further, to the seventeenth-century French critic Dacier, who influenced the practice of the French classical dramatists, especially Corneille, and was himself influenced by the still older nonsense about ‘poetic justice’—the notion that the poet has a moral duty to represent the world as a place where the good are always rewarded and the bad are always punished. I need not say that this puerile idea is completely foreign to Aristotle and to the practice of the Greek dramatists; I only mention it because on the evidence of those Honour Mods. papers it would appear that it still lingers on in some youthful minds like a cobweb in an unswept room (40)

Granted, Dodds does not quite go so far as to condemn all non-classical tragedy as itself “puerile,” but it’s a close thing.

On the one hand, this is to be expected. Dodds was a classicist; naturally he prefers classical tragedy. Not being a classicist myself, I do not. And not being an expert on seventeenth-century French drama, I can’t really comment on Dacier’s understanding of Aristotle.

All that said, I think Dodds is painting in too-broad strokes here and misunderstanding the kind of pathos found in many non-classical tragedies. In particular, I take issue with the idea that a tragedy with moral underpinnings necessarily reflects a “puerile” idea of poetic justice. As Dodds himself says, the idea of poetic justice hinges on the idea that the nominal protagonist “deserves” to be punished, and that the audience is happy to see that punishment carried out. But surely tragedies exist in which the protagonist behaves in immoral ways and yet emphatically does not “deserve” his fate?

A couple of illustrative examples: Michael Henchard from The Mayor of Casterbridge, and T. E. Lawrence from Lawrence of Arabia. Hardy consciously modeled The Mayor of Casterbridge on his (admittedly imperfect) understanding of Aristotle, so perhaps it is not surprising that of the two, Henchard comes closest to having a tragic “flaw.” Henchard is quick-tempered and proud, and through a lengthy and roundabout process those flaws do in fact lead to his downfall. One could probably make a case for the existence of a tragic flaw in Lawrence of Arabia, but by and large, Lawrence’s downfall strikes me as situational. The character may be flawed, but circumstances also snowball so quickly out of control it’s hardly surprising that he goes a little crazy.

Still, I think it would be seriously misguided to describe either of these storylines in anything but moral terms—“moral” not in a sense that implies judgment on the part of the audience/reader, but in a sense that simply reflects the complexity and fallibility of human thoughts and feelings. What interests me about these cases—what makes them poignant—is precisely the fact that we root for the characters even as they commit horribly destructive and self-destructive acts. That their punishment does not seem fair, even as the result of their actions, because we can still see so much that’s good in them. What is tragic is the fact that all those good qualities come to nothing because badness (in the form of either a stable “trait” or simply a questionable decision) is so inevitable.

In a certain sense, then, I agree entirely with what Dodds says late in his essay—that part of the horror of tragedy is the sense that there is in fact an “objective world order,” but that it is one that we “cannot hope to fully understand” (47). For Dodds, this world order is essentially external; Oedipus’ story frightens us because we feel that crimes committed in ignorance should be pardonable, but it appears that they are not. I think, though, that there is a way in which one can make a similar point about the more modern psychological tragedies. It is simply that in these cases, that sense of wrongness—that sense that there is something frightening and implacable that we can’t fully understand—is entirely internalized. What strikes us as “unfair” in these later tragedies is simply the fact that people are the way they are—that is to say, flawed and irrational at some very fundamental level.

Tragedy has been a contentious field of study, and I certainly don’t want to claim that I’m advocating some fully fleshed-out theory here (in any case, I highly doubt I’m saying anything that hasn’t already been said). It does, however, occur to me that this particular application of Dodds’ ideas explains some otherwise puzzling phenomena—for example, the fact that we tend to find an almost thoroughly immoral character like Macbeth at least somewhat sympathetic. Under Dodds’ rubric, as Dodds explains it, there’s no real way to account for this. Macbeth is not a noble truth-seeker; if he nobly faces up to the indifference of the world, the fact that he does so is largely incidental to the details of his fall, which is caused simply by the fact that he is a paranoid, power-hungry murderer…which is precisely the point. At some level, aren’t we appalled by Macbeth’s story because we feel that he shouldn’t have to be flawed at all? Murderer or not, he is still a human being with the capacity to suffer, and it feels deeply unfair that anything with the capacity to suffer should be morally and psychologically capable of (and even likely to?) cause its own suffering.

That, to me, is a far cry from the kind of “moralizing” play that Dodds seems to have in mind. As I said, I would have reservations about claiming that all tragedies somehow “should” conform to this model, if only because I’m not sure how it jibes (or doesn’t?) with the observation I began with: namely, that there are certain kinds of tragedy predicated precisely on the impossibility of individual agency. Still, Dodds ultimately speaks of Oedipus Rex simply as a text that “enlarges one’s sensibility.” I think there is a way in which extending Dodds’ argument to this internalized form of tragedy could do much the same thing.


Works Cited:

Dodds, E. R. “On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex.” Greece & Rome 13.1 (1966): 37-49. Print.

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Filed under Thoughts, Criticism, and Other Informal Ramblings

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