Do you remember the story of Icarus in Greek mythology? His father fashioned wings for him out of feathers and wax to help him escape from Crete. Warned by his father not to fly too close to the sea or the sun, Icarus started off fine. Then hubris got the better of him, and he flew too close to the sun. The wax melted, and Icarus plunged to his death in the sea.
What is hubris?
Hubris is that all-consuming pride that leads a protagonist to think he is better than anyone else. He feels the rules don’t apply to him, which leads to his ultimate downfall. LiteraryDevices.net describes hubris as:
- "a typical flaw in the personality of a character who enjoys a powerful position; as a result of which, he overestimates his capabilities to such an extent that he loses contact with reality. A character suffering from hubris tries to cross normal human limits, and violates moral codes."
Shakespeare was fond of hubris. Consider Macbeth, perhaps the greatest example of an astonishing amount of hubris. His over-inflated ego eventually destroys him and everyone around him. As Shakespeare writes, "Let not light see my black and deep desires," showing Macbeth knows the lay of the land, but he’ll still do anything to serve his ambitions.
Who here remembers Mel Gibson’s abhorrent fall from grace? Or how about the American demi-god Tiger Woods? He tumbled much like Icarus. If you started reading this post thinking hubris in today’s society is dead and gone, all you need do is scan the daily headlines to find a world leader who suffers from massive hubris.
While it’s still rampant today, has it virtually disappeared in literature? Here are a few twentieth-century and current examples to mull over.
The Great Gatsby
Jay Gatsby is a dichotomy of humility and hubris. He doesn’t forget his humble beginnings, yet he invented the character Jay Gatsby who felt he was far above the class into which he was born. And he used his position of power and wealth to entice Daisy into an affair, the downfall of which costs him his life.
Things Fall Apart
Another excellent example of a modern-day Macbeth, Chinua Achebe’s Okonkwo is extremely arrogant and full of himself. Even after his exile, he’s still plotting ways to rise to power again. He dreams of coming back bigger and better than ever: "Okonkwo saw clearly the high esteem in which he would be held, and he saw himself taking the highest title in the land."
Patrick Bateman in American Psycho lives for his decadent lifestyle. He’s fueled by cocaine, expensive food and drink, rampant consumerism, and oh yeah, murdering a few people here and there. Clearly full of hubris, Bateman thinks he is above the law and well above the rest of society thanks to his lavish lifestyle and his status as an investment banker.
The Percy Jackson series
Several books in the series discuss the fatal flaw of hubris in main characters. For example, in The Sea of Monsters, Annabeth Chase discovers from the song of the sirens that her deadly pride will be her downfall. Other characters in the series who show hubris are Thalia Grace in The Titan’s Curse and Michael Varus in the Prophecy of Seven. In fact, Rick Riordan gives each of his characters fatal flaws, some of which suffer from excessive hubris. In fact, of all the fatal flaws that Riordan uses, hubris seems to be the most common.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Speaking of fatal flaws, how about The Picture of Dorian Gray? Could we agree that Dorian suffered from both vanity and hubris? Admittedly, that's dipping back into the Victorian era. Can you think of any more recent examples of hubris leading to a character’s downfall?
Maybe there is a gap. If so, perhaps it’s time to bring hubris back to mainstream literature. How can you create a mesmerizing tale of hubris in today’s world that results in your main character’s downfall?
If you want to create something that others talk about, consider using hubris to fuel your next manuscript. Maybe make a statement about today’s political climate… you wouldn’t have to go far for examples. I’d definitely read that.