I. What is Peripeteia?
Peripeteia is a sudden change in a story which results in a negative reversal of circumstances. Peripeteia is also known as the turning point, the place in which the tragic protagonist’s fortune changes from good to bad. This literary device is meant to surprise the audience, but is also meant to follow as a result of a character’s previous actions or mistakes.
A very wealthy man has been making money for decades by taking big risks in the stock market. Suddenly, the stock market crashes and he is launched into poverty.
In this example, peripeteia is a drastic change in circumstance, as a once wealthy man becomes poor. The quick reversal of fortune is surprising, but also makes sense as the man has been making risky investments all his life.
II. Examples of Peripeteia
A once kind, patient, and friendly factory worker becomes fed-up with her job, her boss, and her coworkers after twenty years of the same thing. She transforms into a mean, bitter, and quiet person.
In this example, peripeteia is an big change in character. This character reversal is shocking and dramatic, but it makes sense, as the woman’s work has slowly been reducing her self-esteem for years.
A conman has been getting away with huge cons for his entire life, but the police have slowly been getting closer to catching him. At last, he is caught just miles away from his getaway boat.
In this last example, peripeteia occurs as a change in circumstances. The high-flying conman is finally caught. This is shocking as he has remained on the run for his entire life, but it is expected as well since justice must be served.
III. The importance of using Peripeteia
According to Aristotle, peripeteia is the single most important and powerful element of plot in a tragedy. Peripeteia is meant to cause fear and pity in the audience upon witnessing the tragic twist of fate which abruptly ruins the life of the protagonist. Peripeteia provides a point of shock and dismay in a complex plot, often ironically weaving previous actions with their present effects. Peripeteia provides the tragic plot with surprise and emotional complexity.
IV. Examples of Peripeteia in Literature
Peripeteia provides literature with a shocking and abrupt point in the plot which changes the entire course of the story.
For a classic example of peripeteia, consider Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex:
Oedipus was raised by different parents, for his parents feared the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. As an adult, Oedipus is told by an oracle that the plague on his people will end when the murderer of Laius is caught an exiled. Oedipus visits a prophet Tiresias who tells him he is the murderer. Believing he is innocent, Oedipus is angered. His wife, trying to calm him down, tells him of Laius’s murder. Oedipus, upon hearing the story, suspects he may have been the murderer. A messenger arrives to tell Oedipus his father Polybus has died. Oedipus rejoices that he has not murdered his father, but still fears he may marry his mother. The messenger, hoping to ease his fears, tells him Polybus and his wife were not his real parents. Rather than easing his fears, the messenger reveals the dark truth to Oedipus: he has fulfilled the prophecy.
In this example, the peripeteia occurs when Oedipus learns of his parents’ true identity from the messenger. He realizes he has murdered his father and married his mother, according to the prophecy. Abruptly, his good fortune is ruined and he stabs his eyes out in dismay.
V. Examples of Peripeteia in Pop Culture
Peripeteia is a common element of dark and tragic films and television shows, as protagonists are struck with tragic misfortune much like the classic tragic plays.
For an example, watch the trailer for the film Titanic:
Rose Calvert, a wealthy young woman, falls in love with Jack Dawson, a poor young man. Rose rejects her elitist family for fun, relaxation, and romance with Jack. The two lovers reach their tragic end when the ship sinks and Jack dies. This peripeteia is sudden and unexpected but also makes sense in that Rose chooses to wait with Jack rather than board the lifeboat with the rich women and children.
For a second example, consider the film Million Dollar Baby:
Maggie Fitzgerald is an underdog boxer who rises to fame with the help of a boxing trainer Frankie Dunn. The two become close and work hard to reach their dreams. The peripeteia occurs when, at a championship match, Maggie falls and breaks her neck. This peripeteia is sudden, tragic, and drastically changes the protagonist’s life, ending her career entirely. It results in the audience’s great sympathy and heartbreak.
VI. Related Terms
(Terms: anagnorisis and Deus ex machina)
Although abrupt and surprising like peripeteia, anagnorisis is a sudden discovery made by a character, oftentimes placed before the peripeteia, the sudden reversal of circumstances. More specifically, anagnorisis results in the recognition of the protagonist’s or another character’s true identity or nature.
For an example of anagnorisis versus peripeteia, consider Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club.
The narrator, suffering from insomnia, begins a friendship with a strange man Tyler Durden. Durden develops a friendship with the narrator and drastically changes his life. At the end of the novel, though, the narrator abruptly realizes he himself is Tyler Durden: Tyler Durden was only a figment of his imagination. At the end of the novel, the narrator wakes up in a hospital after an accident caused by his multiple personality disorder.
The anagnorisis occurs when the narrator abruptly realizes his and Durden’s true identity: they are both him, and Durden is only a figment of his imagination. The peripeteia, on the other hand, occurs when the narrator wakes up in a hospital after a terrible accident caused by this delusion.
Deus ex machina
Like peripeteia, deus ex machina occurs towards the end of a plot and appears suddenly. Unlike peripeteia, deus ex machina serves to solve a problem rather than present one. Deus ex machina is an abrupt change of circumstance when a seemingly impossible or unsolvable problem is solved by the unexpected and miraculous appearance of a new character, thing, or ability.
For an example of peripeteia versus deus ex machina, consider a story of time travel:
A boy has become stuck in a time-traveling loop. Because he has time-traveled so much, he cannot stop. His body will continue to hop in time over and over again, no matter what he does to try to stop it. Suddenly, though, a mad scientist appears with a magic time-stopping machine. The boy is launched back in time before any time-traveling took place, and his life is normal again as if nothing ever happened.
The peripeteia occurs when the boy’s constant time-traveling results in his becoming stuck in a terrible time-warp. The deus ex machina, on the other hand, is the mad scientist who abruptly and surprisingly saves the day.
VII. In Closing
Peripeteia provides plays, poems, novels, movies, and television shows with a dark moment when the plot twists and the protagonist’s life changes forever. Whether the change is from wealth to poverty, safety to danger, or good to evil, peripeteia leaves the audience feeling dismayed, sad, and shocked. As such, peripeteia is the most necessary and striking element of the tragic plot.