Definition of Deus Ex Machina
The literary device of deus ex machina means to solve a seemingly intractable problem in a plot by adding in an unexpected character, object, or situation. Deus ex machina often has the sense of being quite contrived, as it seems like the author must resort to something that he or she did not set up properly plot-wise. However, an author can also use deus ex machina for comedic purposes due to this contrived nature, or even make it so that the deus ex machina surprises the audience yet was retrospectively was the solution being set up all along.
The phrase deus ex machina is Latin for “God in the machine.” The definition of deus ex machina first came from the Greek phrase apò mēkhanês theós, which has the same meaning.
Common Examples of Deus Ex Machina
There are many examples of deus ex machina in films. They are especially common in the James Bond series (and similar espionage series like Mission Impossible) when James has an unexpected device that happens to be exactly what he needs in that moment to save his life, but didn’t know how it worked until that moment. Here is a short list of other deus ex machina examples:
- Monty Python’s Life of Brian: In a comedic twist, the Biblical-era hero Brian falls off a tower and is saved by a spaceship of aliens flying by.
- Lord of the Rings: Magical, gigantic eagles arrive to save Gandalf when he is trapped on top of a tower by evil wizard Saruman with no hope of escape.
- Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Nazis tie Indiana Jones and his companion Marion up to a pole to watch them open up the “Ark of the Covenant;” when they open it, however, angels of death emerge and kill all the Nazis and a flame consumes everything except Indiana Jones and Marion (indeed, it just burns the ropes off that tied them to the pole).
- Jurassic Park: Just when the humans are surrounded by velociraptors and are surely going to die, the tyrannosaurus rex charges in and kills the velociraptors, but not the humans.
Significance of Deus Ex Machina in Literature
The literary device of deus ex machina comes from the Greek drama tradition of using a machine to lower or lift characters playing Greek gods on to the stage. Thus, deus ex machina originally referred to literal machines and gods as characters. Some Greek playwrights like Aeschylus and Euripides used this device frequently. Aristotle was the one who coined the Greek term for deus ex machina in his treatise on literary theory, Poetics. Like many other literary scholars, Aristotle disliked this device and found that it made the plot improbable. He argued that the conclusion of a work should stem naturally from the structure of events that the author has already created. Many critics of deus ex machina call it too simplistic and inartistic. Generally, therefore, authors are cautioned to avoid deus ex machina in serious works of literature. Some authors use deus ex machina for comedic purposes simply because the contrived ending is so absurd.
Examples of Deus Ex Machina in Literature
JAQUES DE BOYS: Duke Frederick, hearing how that every day
Men of great worth resorted to this forest,
Address’d a mighty power; which were on foot,
In his own conduct, purposely to take
His brother here and put him to the sword:
And to the skirts of this wild wood he came;
Where meeting with an old religious man,
After some question with him, was converted
Both from his enterprise and from the world,
His crown bequeathing to his banish’d brother,
And all their lands restored to them again
That were with him exiled. This to be true,
I do engage my life.
(As You Like It by William Shakespeare)
William Shakespeare used the device of deus ex machina in several works, including in the comedy As You Like It. Indeed, most of the deus ex machina examples in Shakespeare’s works are in his comedies because there’s an aspect of the absurd in the conclusions to these plays. Usually in a Shakespearean comedy there are several marriages to end the play, and in the case of As You Like It, a fortuitous—if completely improbable—event allows this to happen. Duke Frederick, who was effectively the villain, met an old religious man in the forest and suddenly decided to give up power and become peaceful. Therefore, the rest of the characters can carry on with their happy lives.
OFFICER OF THE KING: Your papers, which the traitor says are his,
I am to take from him, and give you back;
The deed of gift transferring your estate
Our monarch’s sovereign will makes null and void;
And for the secret personal offence
Your friend involved you in, he pardons you.
(Tartuffe by Jean Baptiste Moliere)
Jean Baptiste Moliere’s comedy Tartuffe ends with an excellent example of deus ex machina. When everything seems to be going Tartuffe’s way, an officer of the king arrives to arrest him and everyone else who has been acting in good fait profits from this. Again, this deus ex machina example comes from a comedy and therefore showcases the absurdity of the whole situation and is engineered to produce mirth.
Let the tears which fell, and the broken words which were exchanged in the long close embrace between the orphans, be sacred. A father, sister, and mother, were gained, and lost, in that one moment. Joy and grief were mingled in the cup; but there were no bitter tears: for even grief itself arose so softened, and clothed in such sweet and tender recollections, that it became a solemn pleasure, and lost all character of pain.
(Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens)
The ending of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens includes an example of deus ex machina, yet Dickens did not mean for it to be comical. Against all odds, it turns out that Oliver’s fellow orphan Rose is actually his aunt, though neither had any idea. This plot twist allows for several happy things to occur, including Oliver’s adoption by his mentor Mr. Brownlow and Rose’s marriage to her longtime love. While technically not impossible, some critics dislike the ending of Oliver Twist for tying things up too neatly.
“If you kill me”–he told them, “I can darken the sun in its heights.”
The natives looked at him fixedly and Bartolome caught the incredulity in their eyes. He saw that a small counsel was set up and waited confidently, not without some disdain.
Two hours later Brother Bartolome Arrazola’s heart spilled its fiery blood on the sacrificial stone (brilliant under the opaque light of an eclipsed sun), while one of the natives recited without raising his voice, unhurriedly, one by one, the infinite dates in which there would be solar and lunar eclipses, that the astronomers of the Mayan community had foreseen and written on their codices without Aristotle’s valuable help.
(“The Eclipse” by Augusto Monterrosa)
The Guatemalan author Augusto Monterrosa’s very short story “The Eclipse” includes a failed attempt at deus ex machina on the part of the protagonist, Brother Bartolome Arrazola. The Spanish monk Arrazola is caught in the forest by Mayans, and attempts to subvert their plans to sacrifice him through his knowledge of the solar eclipse. In his hubris, he thinks that this will seem like a sign from the gods that he must be saved. He does not count on the Mayans having much deeper knowledge of astronomy that he does, and his desire to rely on deus ex machina causes his downfall.
Test Your Knowledge of Deus Ex Machina
1. Which of the following statements is the best deus ex machina definition?
A. A conclusion to a story that is completely impossible.
B. The use of a machine in order to solve a problem, especially if that machine makes the protagonist feel god-like.
C. An unexpected turn of events in which a situation that looked inescapable is solved by the contrived appearance of another character, object, or super power.
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2. Which of the following scenarios is an example of deus ex machina?
A. A hero is caught in a trap, but suddenly an enemy bomb explodes and frees the hero without injuring him.
B. A villain is arrested and confined, but knew where he would be confined and set up his escape route before arrest.
C. A team strategically works their way out of a difficult solution using their knowledge and equipment.
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3. Why might an author want to use a deus ex machina example in his or her piece of literature?
A. To show how ingeniously the author can solve a problem.
B. For comedic purposes.
C. To represent the way the supernatural functions.
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