A Tragic Hero In Gangster Film: Analysis Of The Goodfellas


The characters in gangster films have many similar characteristics to Aristotle’s “tragic hero ideas”. In the 1990s gangster film Goodfellas, the main gangster reached to a very high position in the gang. The superior authority brought the protagonist extreme happiness but also the excess of pride, and hubris. The story ended with the downfall of the gangster through some fatal mistakes he made.

Two Definitions of Tragic Hero

In Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero, a tragic hero must be essentially an admirable and good person or born noble because of a successful person’s downfall could evoke feelings of pity and fear. In the movie Goodfellas, the gangster Henry was not noble birth. He born in a normal family but he becomes enamored of the criminal life in his neighborhood and begins working for one of the mafia members Pauli when he was in high school. After serval years of effort, Henry finally reached a high status in the gang, he was highly regarded by Pauli. He became very powerful and strong in the city. He was the man in the city at that time. In Warshow’s article, “The gangster is the man of the city, with the city's language and knowledge, with its queer and dishonest skills and its terrible daring, carrying his life in his hands like a placard, like a club.” Henry made his life fulfilled by dangers. His actions were always aggression and crazy. The more power he got meaning more dangerous things he did. These powers made him be reached at the top in the city. So, even though the main gangster is not noble birth, he still was very powerful in the gangs at first. Just like the lines in the movie said, “We (gangsters) did whatever we want. We double-parked in front of a hydrant, nobody ever gave us a ticket. We play blackjack all night, nobody would call the police.” Therefore, the gangster Henry did qualify Aristotle’s basic requirement of a tragic hero. Henry was powerful and famous in the gang and nobody can hurt him at first in the story.

Aristotle and Warshow Hubris in Goodfellas Movie

“Hubris” is a Greek word, it means the excess of pride. Aristotle’s idea claims that hubris is the beginning of a tragic hero. Tragic heroes always start at a very high position and this usually makes them have hubris and very strong self-confidence. In Goodfellas, Henry has also had hubris. As in Henry's words said, “those who go to prison are those who go because they can't stand their wives' nagging. Or, to put it another way, the blacks had screwed up by popping drugs and sleeping on their way home. Henry thought he never screwed up, so there was no reason to go to jail.” Henry always believed he was different from others, he thought he won’t make any mistake that would screw his lives. Whenever a robbery succeeds, his confidence gradually strengthens. Yeah, he maybe was smarter than others, but his confidence and pride were literally exceeded too much.

Gangster’s Hamartia

Life has its ups and downs, the highest peaks also herald the craziest declines. However, the declines won't come from nihility. There is always a particular point that would play as a trigger. “Hamartia” is that special point. It represents a flaw, a tragic flaw that would cause a man to the downfall or even to death. As a gangster, Henry also had many hamartia and made a lot of mistakes. The first tragic flaw Henry made was selling drugs secretly with his two partners and “girlfriend”, even though he knew the mafia boss Pauli did not allow them to sell drugs. But, he was still doing it because he needed money to maintenance his family living condition. This was definitely a dangerous move. If the secret was exposed, he would get whacked by Pauli or be arrested by the corps.

The second tragic flaw Henry made was to involve in the biggest heist in American history: The Lufthansa Heist. Jimmy and Tommy, were Henry’s best partners. They always did things together. Robberies, crimes, murderers, they all went through those together. And this time, they were also together and finished this ultimate heist successfully again. They got a total of six million in this heist and that was a really big amount of money in the 1990s. Even this incident also brought them a lot of trouble in the future.

These two incidents were Henry’s hamartia that made his life impossible to turn over again. In Aristotle’s idea of tragedy, hamartia does not include normal mistake. The hamartia is actually a mistake that always has no chances to change, to repair even if the person recognizes the flaw and its consequences after it happened. The downfall was doomed at this time.

A Dommed Downfall

It was another day of “Sell Drugs Day', Henry was hiding the drugs on his nanny as usual, prepared to let her bring the drugs on the plane. Unfortunately, this time, Henry failed. His meth location was found by the police, and his partner also identified Henry. Henry was arrested and can be sent to jail. Henry decided to find Jimmy and asked for help.

After the Lufthansa heist was posted on the newspapers and television. Jimmy was very nervous. He was afraid the heist would come out because there were too many people involved in the robbery this time. His minds started going in eight different directions at once. The stress finally was overwhelmed, Jimmy was pissed and started to kill everyone involved in the case and also this included Henry because Henry was getting pinched at that time. Henry wanted Jimmy to save him but Jimmy decided to send him to Mexico for killing another partner and also to hide for a period of time. Henry suddenly knew Jimmy wanted to whack him this time and right now he had no choices to choose. No matter he was going to ask Pauli or followed Jimmy’s opinion which ways he will die!

In the end, Henry became the witness to identify Pauli and Jimmy in order to be in the protection program. Henry survived in the game. He didn’t go to jail but he was sent to a safe house in the wilderness. He was under house arrest and can’t even get decent food for his whole life. In his own words, “I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook”. The ending was cruel to Henry. He lived his whole life in danger of excitement, like a colorful movie. These excitements and successes had already brought him astonishing wealth and status, which had made him became a spendthrift and extravagant man. Locking him in a cage in the wilderness for a whole life was worse than death for him in some ways. It is interesting to see these downfalls come up one by one. As an audience, I knew the end of a tragedy is coming closer and closer. Use the words in Warshow’s article, “the gangster is doomed because he is under the obligation to succeed, not because the means he employs are unlawful. In the deeper layers of the modern consciousness, all means are unlawful, every attempt to succeed is an act of aggression.”

Anagnorisis in Goodfellas

Before Henry’s downfall happens, he did realize his mistakes and he knew these mistakes were fatal and could lead him to “big trouble” if become discovered. This tragic recognition and insight are called “Anagnorisis” in Aristotle’s idea. The tragic hero might have an increase of self-awareness and self-knowledge after they made their tragic flaws. It is also the implication of the tragedy. In Goodfellas, as Henry took more and more drugs, he knew he could not turn back. His hands and feet began to paralyze and almost caused him to crash while he was driving. When he went to the hospital to pick up his nephew, the doctor saw that his face was pale and asked him to hospitalized immediately. Henry said that he just did not eat breakfast and refused, but at that moment he knew that he might die because of drug-used in the end or be wracked by Pauli.

Introleable Dilemma

If we look at the whole story from Henry's aspect, we can find out that the plot is actually the process of “establish a rule, then break them. Establish a rule again, then break it again.” At first, Henry was breaking his father's rules and accepting the rules of the gang. Later, the first court trial established the rule 'never rat on a friend', and in the end, Henry was a witness to identify his partner. Paulie determined the 'no white powder' rule with him, and then in order to make more money, Henry chose to sell it secretly, which was to break the rule again.

At this time, the gangster’s life was already determined. They just keep struggling in the “intolerable dilemma” and can’t escape. According to Warshow’s article, “This is our intolerable dilemma: that failure is a kind of death and success is evil and dangerous, is ultimately impossible. The effect of the gangster film is to embody this dilemma in the person of the gangster and resolve it by his death. The dilemma is resolved because it is his death, not ours. We are safe; for the moment, we can acquiesce in our failure, we can choose to fail.” Gangsters are doomed because of the way they choose to succeed is illegal. No matter how high the position they reach, they would be finally down. They would be arrested in one day, this is their destiny.


After watching the whole movie and analyze the plots, we can conclude that the main character in a gangster movie is a tragic hero. In Aristotle’s idea, a tragedy is a downfall of a typically successful person through some fatal flaws and mistakes. In Warshow’s article, “The gangster movie, which no longer exists in its 'classical' form, is a story of enterprise and success ending in precipitate failure.” Finally, in the gangster film Goodfellas, Henry is a typical tragic hero. He has all the characteristics and qualifications of a tragic hero. Hubris, Hamartia, Anagnorisis, and a standard downfall. His life and story actually can be defined as a gangster edition of Aristotle’s tragedy.                 

16 December 2021
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