I. What is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?
A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that somehow causes itself to come true. The characters may try to prevent their fate, but in the end their actions simply cause that fate to come about. It’s one of the most common plot devices in mythology and literature because it makes for a highly compelling narrative.
II. Examples of a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
One scene from The Matrix perfectly captures the meaning of self-fulfilling prophecy. When Neo visits the Oracle, she tells him soothingly, “Don’t worry about the vase.” Confused, Neo flinches and looks behind him, inadvertently knocking over a vase in the process. As he looks up to apologize, the Oracle smiles and says, “What’s really going to bake your noodle later is: would you still have broken it if I hadn’t said anything?” In this scene, the Oracle causes Neo to break the vase by predicting that he will do so.
Self-fulfilling prophecies are common in Greek tragedy. The story of Oedipus is one especially famous example. In this story, Oedipus’s parents are told that the young boy will grow up to kill his father and marry his mother. Horrified, the parents leave their child by the roadside to die. But Oedipus becomes a powerful hero and, because he does not know who his parents are, he inadvertently does exactly what the oracle prophesied he would do. If his parents had simply kept him safe at home, it might never have happened!
Self-fulfilling prophecies also occur in real life. Think of the phenomenon of bank runs: customers are afraid the bank will collapse, so they pull out all their money to protect themselves. But this causes the bank to become unable to pay debts and fail! Even if the bank was perfectly healthy at the beginning, the prediction of its failure can (indirectly) cause it to fail.
III. The Importance of a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
As the above examples show, a self-fulfilling prophecy can be a very effective way to build a plot. It’s compelling, because the prophecy at the beginning casts a narrative shadow over the whole story – we know what is going to happen but, like the characters, we’re still hoping to prevent it. This makes the story both unified (because the prophecy at the beginning is mirrored by the result at the end) and relatable.
Stories built around self-fulfilling prophecies are also believable, because we have an innate understanding that such things happen all the time in real life. Even if there are fantasy elements like oracles in the story, the situation itself seems completely real.
IV. Examples of a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in Literature
Shakespeare loved the self-fulfilling prophecy. In Macbeth, the action begins when three witches tell Macbeth that they have foreseen him becoming the King of Scotland. This vision fills Macbeth and his wife with ambition, and as a result they set out on a course of betrayal and murder to try and make the prediction come true. If Macbeth had never heard of the prophecy, he might have stayed happily in his appointed station and never become corrupted by this ambition.
In the Hindu epic Mahabharata, Krishna’s mother is imprisoned because King Kamsa has heard a prophecy that her child will kill him. But Krishna escapes, and because of the hardship suffered by his mother he believes that the king is evil and must be destroyed. This ultimately leads to Krishna destroying Kamsa, which might have never happened if Kamsa had left Krishna’s mother alone.
V. Examples of a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in Pop Culture
Black Sabbath’s song Iron Man tells the story of a mad scientist who travels into the future and sees terrible destruction everywhere. He tries to get back to his own time and warn everyone of what is coming, but in the process he is horribly disfigured. As a result, no one listens to his predictions. Frustrated and humiliated, the disfigured man sets his machines against mankind, causing the very apocalypse that he predicted.
The plot of the video game Mass Effect is based on robots who begin asking their masters whether machines have souls. The masters are terrified that the machines will rise up against them, and so they begin shutting the robots down. The robots suddenly believe that their masters are a threat, and they fight back out of a need for self-preservation. The feared insurrection comes about as a direct result of fear.
This self-fulfilling prophecy is doubled in one episode of The Simpsons. Ned gains the power to foresee people’s deaths, but is troubled when he foresees himself shooting Homer in the back. He struggles to avoid this fate, but then has a premonition of Homer killing the whole town through negligence at the nuclear power plant. Ned finally decides to shoot Homer, but when he does so, he accidentally causes the very explosion he was trying to prevent. Both of Ned’s terrible prophecies, in this case, are self-fulfilling despite his efforts to the contrary.
VI. Related Terms
A predestination paradox (or “time-travel paradox”) is kind of like a self-fulfilling prophecy in reverse. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, the characters have seen into the future and find themselves unable to change it. In a predestination paradox, however, characters have traveled into the past to try to change something, but cannot do so. For example, a character may travel back in time in an effort to prevent World War II, but may inadvertently set off a chain of events that cause the War. These stories remind us that the past is fixed and unchangeable.