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The Evolution of the Tragic Hero

The Evolution of the Tragic Hero - Visions of Pity and Fear...

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Visions of Pity and Fear: A Partial Evolution of the Society’s Perception of the Tragic Hero, and an Evaluation of its Meaning What is a hero? The question seems simple enough; you’d think the answer would be apparent, obvious. Not so. A cursory assessment of world opinion would offer up the solution in the form of a list, not of attributes, but of people real or imaginary dead and living that would include the likes of: Jesus Christ, Superman, Osama bin Laden, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Che Guevara, Charles Manson, Gandhi, John D. Rockefeller, Bill Gates, and Dad. The literal meaning of the word is “protector,” “defender,” or “guardian.” In this sense, in its earliest form it referred to martial courage or excellence before its expansion to today’s more general use. We get it from Greek, so unsurprisingly its suspected etymology is thought to have something to do with the name of the goddess Hera, who was the protector of marriage. It’s also thought to be a cognate of the Latin verb servo (to preserve whole), as well as the Sanskrit verb haurvati (to keep vigil over), though for all practical purposes the original Proto-Indo-European root is unclear. 1 But an etymological background and a highly incoherent list of people don’t really answer the question. And the question remains unanswered, though several—and this is a gross understatement, for there have been countless books written on the subject—have tried. In 1841, Thomas Carlyle published On Heroes and Hero Worship and the Heroic in History . Carlyle contends that the major events in the history of the human race were catalyzed by several “heroes” of political or military power. Carlyle’s history was biography, and those few who made their way into the pages of his book were men like Thomas Cromwell and Frederick the Great, powerful founders and topplers of states, geniuses both good and evil. At the time of the work’s inception into popular critical culture, there were few defenders of Carlyle’s position. 2 1
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Karl Marx, who vehemently opposed such ideas, argued that history was written by the great social forces at play in “class struggles.” Herbert Spencer also disagreed, and his response took the form of his 1873 work The Study of Sociology , writing: “You must admit that the genesis of great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown. . . . Before he can remake his society, his society must make him” (Spencer 34). Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale of 1928 sought to analyze the structure of the Russian fairy tale. Propp concluded that in a typical fairy tale there were eight dramatis personae , one of whom was the hero (Propp 80). He also distinguished between what he referred to as “seekers” and “victim-heroes.” Victim-heroes were characters kidnapped or driven out by the villain, the action serving to initiate the plot or quest.
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The Evolution of the Tragic Hero - Visions of Pity and Fear...

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