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An Analysis of Fatal Flaw in Literature

Updated on October 30, 2015

What is Fatal Flaw?

Bibliophiliacs all over the world will agree that a lot of books often portray heroes who have many wonderful qualities making them the great characters that they are. But they will also all agree that heroes tend to have flaws that keep them from being too perfect. There are many different types of flaws heroes suffer from but the most tragic flaw they can have is the aptly labeled “fatal flaw.” This device can be seen to have originated from Greek tragedies, but is also often employed in modern literature.

A fatal flaw is that thing which prevents a tragic hero from succeeding in his quest. It may serve as the main cause of his tragic mistake. The fatal flaw is oftentimes a sort of character deficiency like the ones listed below:

  • Wrath
  • Sloth
  • Self-reliance
  • Selflessness
  • Selfishness
  • Pride
  • Pettiness
  • Perfectionism
  • Lust
  • Hypocrisy
  • Greed
  • Gluttony
  • Envy
  • Cruelty
  • Ambition

Reading that list, you will get an idea that fatal flaws tend to have a connection with the 7 deadly sins from the Bible. It does make sense that fatal flaws that lead to destruction would be the “deadly” kind.

Why Have a Fatal Flaw in the First Place?

One question that is often asked of these tragic and flawed heroes is why do they have to have fatal flaws in the first place? The answer to that is simple: fatal flaws are essential to heroes because they need to undergo some kind of suffering if they are to experience triumph at the end of the tale. Although it has to be said that some heroes never really triumph over their fatal flaws but suffer eternally from it or die. Most authors add fatal flaws to their characters because there needs to be a conflict that comes from the characters’ own traits and not necessarily from the situations they are in.

Famous Characters in Literature and Their Fatal Flaws

There is no shortage of famous heroes in literature who suffered or failed immensely in their goals—all due to their fatal flaw(s). Below are some examples of heroes with fatal flaws that show they failed towards the end of their stories.

  • Achilles – Achilles played a major role in the fall of Troy which was sadly the very place of his demise. Some have stated that Achilles’ fatal flaw was not necessarily his heel but it was perhaps his ego. In this instance, it can be said that Achilles had fatal flaw in his ego but he also had a literal fatal flaw in his heel which was the only vulnerable part of his body.

  • Dr. Faustus – Dr. Faustus was a brilliant man who was perhaps too puffed up with wisdom and price. In his desire to gain infinite knowledge, he turns to necromancy and sells his soul to the devil thinking that he could find a way out of it and master evil. Instead, he ends up wretched and cursed. His tragic flaws—pride and hubris—lead to his most tragic mistake of dealing with the devil.

  • Captain Ahab – In the story “Moby Dick”, Captain Ahab was the obsessed captain of the Pequod and he represents both a quintessentially modern hero as well as an ancient hero. Just like the heroes of Shakespearean and Greek tragedies, the captain suffers a fatal flaw which was also the downfall of other famous names in literature: Odysseus and Dr. Faustus. This fatal flaw was hubris (overconfidence) and it is this very thing that leads him to abandon common sense. It led him to believe that he was god-like and he can do as he wishes and therefore defy the laws of nature. Unlike Odysseus and other heroes of older tragic tales, Ahab’s fatal flaw was not inborn; rather, it was brought about by the damages he had suffered in life which were both psychological and physical.

  • Annabeth Chase (Percy Jackson series) – Annabeth, the daughter of Athena, is another character who suffered from hubris. In one part of the book, Annabeth decides to insult the question posed to her by a Sphinx. In the end, the creature of legend attacks her and her friends. It does seem like hubris is a flaw shared by a lot of demigods. It also shows that it is not just heroes of old that come with a fatal flaw—even modern heroes in modern tales have it. It is interesting to note though that in the series Annabeth Chase is presented as the daughter of Athena, and she mentions that most people in their special camp of half-bloods have fatal flaws.

Positive Traits Turned Fatal Flaw

It seems like hubris is the fatal flaw of choice in classic literature and mythology. But not all fatal flaws stem from bad attitudes because there are some heroes with positive traits that resulted in their downfall eventually. For instance, in the Percy Jackson series, you have the hero Percy Jackson who suffers from a fatal flaw that is in the form of excessive loyalty to his friends. Now being loyal isn’t exactly considered a bad trait, but due to its excessive nature, Percy Jackson places himself in constant danger and makes flawed decisions based on his loyalty. Another modern series that shows heroes with good traits becoming their fatal flaw would be the Starks in A Song of Ice and Fire. The Starks tend to put honor before reason and, just like Percy Jackson, end up making very hasty decisions that lead to their demise. If there is one modern series that epitomizes a tragedy, it has to be Game of Thrones which is coincidentally a series of tragedies.

Fatal Flaw vs. Hamartia

There are times when you will find people arguing about fatal flaw and hamartia. Some say they are the same thing while some argue that they may be related but not the same. In modern times and modern literature, some people state that hamartia is one and the same with fatal flaw but that is perhaps not true, at least not in the way Aristotle used hamartia.

Aristotle was the creator of hamartia. He popularized it in his tragedies to draw motion from the audience. While fatal flaw is described as a flawed personality trait that leads to the demise of the hero, hamartia is something that is used to describe an error in judgment made by the hero that leads to his downfall. Take a look at examples below to understand the difference between the two:

  • Harry Potter – According to J.K. Rowling, Harry’s fatal flaw is that he has a martyr-complex and can get a tad bit arrogant. This makes it easier for his enemies to manipulate him, and therefore he gets in trouble nearly all the time. This is a fatal flaw.

  • Odysseus – Some say that it was his ego that did him in, but hamartia happened when his ignorance of his parentage led him to kill his own father. It wasn’t his ego that led him to kill his father; it was hamartia caused by the gods. It is forced error, so to speak, and had nothing to do with his ego which was considered to be his fatal flaw.

It is worth nothing that while the gods of ancient myth seemed to have the most number of fatal flaws, this is a trope that continues in modern times. In fact, fatal flaw is not exclusively for literature because it has made its way to countless dramas on television and movies, too.

Would you be interested in reading literature whose main character dies from tragic flaw?

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    IDK 2 years ago

    Hamartia the very word in Greek means "to miss the target" so error of judgment is a better explanation i think.. Although fatal flaw also applies in some cases.

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    Geri MIleff 4 years ago from Czech Republic

    @DDE - Thanks for the vote! I agree with your comment. This Hub brought a lot of memories of Literature classes. :)

  • DDE profile image

    Devika Primić 4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

    I enjoyed literature at school and this hub brought back many memories about various texts. I voted yes.