The Tragic Hero

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The tragic hero is a staple of literature. From the earliest Greek authors we learn of individuals whose feet of clay lead them down paths of destruction. Somehow we are taken by such characters, wanting to love them while hating their actions. Shakespeare mastered the art of creating sympathetic but flawed protagonists, like Hamlet. With a grave foreboding our stomachs clinch as we watch his descent into a hell of his own making. Thus it is with one story after another.

We know the literary formula, but even though we have seen it again and again we find ourselves hoping and praying that such tragic figures will somehow see the light before it’s too late. We pray for their redemption even as we helplessly watch them slide into a kind of evil that need not happen. There are no happy endings for them either in the realm of fiction or real life.

I’m addicted to Better Call Saul, a spinoff from the critically acclaimed Breaking Bad series. It is the story of a likable soul named Jimmy McGill. Jimmy got into a scrape when he was a teenager, much to the chagrin of his older brother, Charles, a highly respected and successful lawyer. Over time Jimmy seemed to get his act together. He worked in the mailroom of his brother’s law firm while earning a law degree from a questionable but legitimate school in Samoa. He’s a cheerful and impish sort who seems to be naturally loved by the people he encounters including his girlfriend, Kim, so when he finally becomes a lawyer he fully expects to work in his brother’s law offices. When his bid for a position is denied because Charles does not trust him, we get our first hint of trouble. Our since of foreboding, well trained as it is from previous forays into tragedies, tells us that things may not work out as well for Jimmy as he and we may have initially thought.

Of course those of us who watched Breaking Bad already know that Jimmy McGill will somehow morph into Saul Goodman, a sleazy lawyer working for clients who represent the underbelly of society. Even as we enjoy seeing Jimmy as an affable fellow our stomachs clinch at the thought of what he will become. As the series progresses we want to warn him to beware, and he disappoints us with his slow decline, all the while blaming everyone but himself for his woes. It’s the kind of thing that all tragic heroes do.

We’ve all seen the same kind of individuals in real life which is what makes the artistic inventions of authors, screenwriters and movie directors seem so accurate. These tortured souls are people with so much potential who somehow believe that their bad behaviors are justified by the unfairness of their lives. Instead of taking the high road, they take shortcuts and bend laws and morality. The ultimate tragedy of their lives is the waste of what might have been a truly good person, and all too often they leave wreckage in the wake of all of their relationships. They don’t seem to realize the pain and suffering that they cause for those who truly love them. Often they don’t seem to realize how broken they actually are. They are the adulterers who won’t stop their philandering, the addicts who are unable or unwilling to fight their demons, the abusers who think everyone else is the problem. Sadly, not only are their lives miserable, but so is everyone else caught in their horrid world until they find the courage to make a clean break.

I have had students who were amazingly lovable, but totally irresponsible and dishonest. They disappointed again and again, even when they appeared to be headed for a change of heart. I’ve had friends who married people who were quite wonderful as long as things went their way, but as challenges entered their lives they wandered from the straight and narrow. It is emotionally crushing to be around people that we want so badly to trust, knowing that to do so would defy common sense. Walking away from our tragic heroes is even harder to experience than watching their downfalls. Our hearts tell us to give them one more chance, while our heads remind us that they have failed us so many times before.

I’m not certain what causes a seemingly wonderful person to lose his or her way. Often there is great tragedy in the background, but sometimes they have had what most of us would consider to be a good life. There are sociopaths among us and we have yet to understand how to help them to change. Few efforts in this regard have been entirely successful. The question becomes who most deserves our compassion, and the best answer is usually that we must help the innocents that they harm. We might still love them, but there comes a moment when we can’t accept their bad behavior. We have to push them out of our lives, lest we become unwilling collaborators in their deviant behaviors.

We find characters like Jimmy McGill AKA Saul Goodman all too realistic. We love and hate them all at once. Art is sometimes brilliant at imitating life. The truth is that they are not heroes at all.

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