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The tragedy is perhaps one of the oldest and most captivating forms of literature. While each is unique, nearly all tragedies exhibit certain traditional similarities in content and structure. One of the most defining of these similarities is the presence of a “tragic hero,” always accompanied by some form of “tragic flaw,” which ultimately leads to their downfall. In Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, the eponymous protagonist in many ways identifies with the traditional tragic hero, particularly with regards to the presence of his own tragic flaw. Cyrano’s insecurity about his physical appearance – his nose in particular – forms the tragic flaw that increasingly propels him toward his own kind of downfall.
From Cyrano’s first appearance in Act I, his insecurity concerning his nose quickly becomes evident. Cyrano instantly carries himself with great bravado, and then goes on to begin a bit of a public disturbance, starting various arguments with those who attempt to contest him. In the midst of one such argument, Cyrano somewhat gratuitously accuses his opponent of “…staring at [his] nose” (18). Cyrano raises this accusation seemingly only for the purpose of then having reason to defend it, which he does by claiming:
“I’m proudly wedded
To this nose I’ve got. A big nose is the sign
Of a good, courteous, intelligent, benign,
Liberal, courageous man” (19).
In making these vast, sweeping assertions that clearly cannot have any logical basis, Cyrano is noticeably overcompensating for his lack of confidence. He then goes on to vehemently attack his opponent, saying, “That inglorious face on the top of your neck / …is as utterly devoid / Of aspiration, lyricism, pride… / As those other cheeks, which now will feel my boot!” (19). In unnecessarily leaping to the defense of his own looks and attacking those of his opponent, Cyrano does little to distract from his insecurity. Rather, he merely manages to make his own vulnerability and obsession with physical appearance glaringly obvious.
With the introduction of Cyrano’s love interest – Roxane – Cyrano’s insecurity causes deeper conflict within the play. It initially seems however, that the tragic flaw that separates Cyrano from the object of his affections is his nose itself, as Roxane clearly presents a distinct obsession with physical beauty. She displays this many times throughout the play, such as in Act II, when – faced with the proposition that the object of her own affections, Christian, may be unintelligent – she refuses to entertain the possibility on the basis that, “He couldn’t. His hair is as golden as Apollo” (47). Cyrano recognizes this, and laments that because of Roxane’s preoccupation with physical appearance, he can never truly win her love, grieving: “What hope can I ever have / With this protuberance pointing to my grave?” (28). Here, Cyrano himself expresses the belief that his nose is, if not a “tragic flaw”, at least the source of his struggles.
As the plot continues to develop, it eventually becomes clear that Cyrano’s tragic flaw is not his nose in and of itself, but rather Cyrano’s own insecurities regarding that feature. After Roxane falls in love with Christian – based on what is truly the words and personality of Cyrano – she is able to declare, in Act IV, that she would “love him even–… ugly” (123). This assertion encourages the idea that, despite his ill appearance, Cyrano would still have had a fair chance with Roxane from the beginning. This realization gives Cyrano brief hope of achieving his love, however he is prevented by the untimely death of Christian. Nonetheless, Cyrano is once again given the opportunity to declare his love – albeit fourteen years later – in Act Five. However, even when Roxane discovers the truth of her own accord and solidifies the realization that she does and has in fact loved Cyrano, he continues to deny it, finally citing as a reason the idea that, “When Beauty said ‘I love you’ to the Beast / The prince in him was instantly released. / But, you see, I remain just as I was…” (143). Even though Cyrano is finally in full possession of the love he so desires, he goes to his death refusing it on the grounds that he does not deserve it because of his appearance. Therefore, the true tragedy of the play is not that Cyrano failed in his attempt to win Roxane’s love, or even in his death itself, but rather that he cannot accept the coveted love of Roxane because of the depth of his own insecurity. Hence, this latter weakness proves to be Cyrano’s true tragic flaw, as it leads to his ultimate downfall.
Cyrano de Bergerac was in many ways a unique – if not wholly revolutionary – work for its time. In mixing elements of tragedy and comedy, Rostand created a distinctive and original addition to the literary landscape. However, even this singular work is not lacking in many traditional concepts of the literary tragedy. Although Rostand does create some lack of clarity with regards to the exact of nature of Cyrano’s tragic flaw and even his exact downfall, he does eventually yield to the literary convention and ultimately defines them both. Even amidst the numerous individual qualities of the work, Rostand cannot avoid the all too familiar tragic hero, always followed by the daunting presence of his tragic flaw.
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