Definition of Poetic Justice
Poetic justice occurs at the conclusion of a novel or play if and when good characters are rewarded and bad characters are punished. Poetic justice is thus somewhat similar to karma, and can be summed up by the phrases “He got what was coming to him,” or “She got what she deserved.” Note that poetic justice takes both positive and negative forms, depending on how a character has acted through the narrative. In more contemporary tales, poetic justice comes after an ironic twist stems from a character’s own actions and leads to the conclusion.
The definition of poetic justice was created by the English drama critic Thomas Rymer in 1678 in his book The Tragedies of the Last Age Considere’d. He urged authors to set moral examples and show how good overcomes evil. Indeed, Rymer was a critic at a time when it was thought that the role of literature was to provide moral education to the reading populace. Thus, poetic justice was necessary to encourage citizens to be upright in order to reap the rewards.
Common Examples of Poetic Justice
It is easy to think of examples of poetic justice in real life. For example, if a hard-working couple wins the lottery after years of being good citizens, this a positive example of poetic justice. If a corrupt businessman or politician is caught in a scandal and loses his position, this is also a poetic justice example.
There are also countless examples of poetic justice in movies and television shows. Here is a short list:
- The Shawshank Redemption: A man falsely accused and imprisoned for killing his wife escapes after two decades in prison, gets enough money to live in a beach town in Mexico, and has the police captain of the jail arrested for laundering money.
- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: Indiana Jones is in love with a Nazi sympathizer named Elsa, who is after the Holy Grail for greed alone. She takes it and causes an earthquake; instead of taking Indy’s hand and surviving, she reaches for the Grail and dies.
- Disney’s Aladdin: Aladdin pretends to be a prince to impress Princess Jasmine, but it is his good heart that ultimately wins her over, frees the genie, and overcomes the evil Jafar.
Significance of Poetic Justice in Literature
As stated above, poetic justice has sometimes been named as the reason that literature is important in a society. The genres of fable and parable often contain poetic justice, as a wise and good character is rewarded, and any bad characters are punished. The idea of these stories is to provide a moral foundation for readers.
Some examples of self fulfilling prophecy are also examples of poetic justice. If an evil character hears a prophecy and does cruel things in order to stop that prophecy from coming into being, then the villain’s ultimate defeat or death is attributed to the poetic justice of getting what he deserved.
Historically, it was also important in poetic justice that there was a sense that logic prevailed, and that characters do not suddenly change and warrant different treatment than what they deserve. For example, in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, it is not poetic justice that greedy Ebenezer Scrooge suddenly became good and therefore would warrant good treatment. Of course, not all authors are interested in poetic justice. More modern authors showed good characters receiving bad fortune and bad characters being rewarded. These authors would probably argue that their role in society was not to provide a moral education for readers, but instead to depict situations that are closer to reality. Indeed, believing too much in poetic justice could be harmful and give rise to questions like, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Indeed, poetic justice is a literary device and not an accurate depiction of real life.
Examples of Poetic Justice in Literature
Below that point we found a painted people,
who moved about with lagging steps, in circles,
weeping, with features tired and defeated.
And they were dressed in cloaks with cowls so low
they fell before their eyes, of that same cut
that’s used to make the clothes for Cluny’s monks
Outside, these cloaks were gilded and they dazzled;
but inside they were all of lead, so heavy
that Frederick’s capes were straw compared to them.
A tiring mantle for eternity!
(Inferno, Canto XXIII by Dante Alighieri)
Dante’s Inferno is basically one long treatise on poetic justice. Dante imagines himself as a character led through the different circles of Hell by the poet Virgil. In each circle they encounter different famous residents of Florence, Italy where Dante lived suffering punishments appropriate to the different sins they committed while alive. In the above example of poetic justice, Dante and Virgil see “the hypocrites” clothed in rich robes on the outside that are lead on the inside, to symbolize the deception of these men. Indeed, the concept of some people going to Heaven while others are sent to Hell has much to do with poetic justice.
HAMLET: There’s letters sealed, and my two schoolfellows,
Whom I will trust as I will adders fanged,
They bear the mandate. They must sweep my way
And marshal me to knavery. Let it work,
For ’tis the sport to have the engineer
Hoist with his own petard. And ’t shall go hard,
But I will delve one yard below their mines,
And blow them at the moon. Oh, ’tis most sweet
When in one line two crafts directly meet.
(Hamlet by William Shakespeare)
Many of William Shakespeare plays contain poetic justice examples. In this excerpt, Hamlet imagines that “the engineer” of Hamlet’s father’s death will be “hoist with his own petard.” Hamlet thinks of vengeance for his father as a type of poetic justice. However, in this scene he himself has just killed Polonius, and is dealt the poetic justice of his own death at the end of the play.
“I know things you don’t know, Tom Riddle. I know lots of important things that you don’t. Want to hear some, before you make another big mistake?”
“Is it love again?” said Voldemort, his snake’s face jeering. “Dumbledore’s favorite solution, love, which he claimed conquered death, though love did not stop him falling from the tower and breaking like an old waxwork? Love, which did not prevent me from stamping out your Mudblood mother like a cockroach, Potter – and nobody seems to love you enough to run forward this time and take my curse. So what will stop you from dying now when I strike?”
“Just one thing,” Harry replied quietly.
“If it is not love that will save you this time, you must believe that you have magic that I do not, or else a weapon more powerful than mine?”
“I believe both,” Harry said.
(Harry Potter and the Death Hallows by J.K. Rowling)
Many tales of good and evil contain endings with poetic justice, which is certainly the case with J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Harry Potter and his friends are exemplars of good, and are awarded accordingly with winning the final battle. Voldemort, the main evil character, believes that violence is stronger than love, and this is the vice and wrong thinking that leads to his death.
Test Your Knowledge of Poetic Justice
1. Which of the following statements is the best poetic justice definition?
A. An ironic twist of fate.
B. A climax in which bad things happen to good people.
C. A conclusion where vice is punished and virtue rewarded.
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2. The following passage is from Dante’s Inferno, and talks of the punishment that is dealt to magicians, astrologers, and diviners:
As I inclined my head still more, I saw
that each, amazingly, appeared contorted
between the chin and where the chest begins;
they had their faces twisted towards their haunches
and found it necessary to walk backward,
because they could not see ahead of them.
Why is this an example of poetic justice?
A. In Dante’s view, these people were charlatans and, for the sin of trying to tell the future, in the afterlife they are doomed to only be able to look backwards.
B. The magicians, astrologers, and diviners in Dante’s day were the only truth-tellers, and Dante didn’t want them to be rewarded for their knowledge.
C. The magicians, astrologers, and diviners had done nothing wrong, and it was cruel retribution on the part of those who were jealous of their gifts that they be sent to Hell.
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3. Which of the following scenarios is an example of poetic justice?
A. A corrupt businessman dies of natural causes before his pyramid scheme is revealed to be a sham.
B. A nerd who was always bullied in childhood but never lashed out creates a computer program and makes millions.
C. A figure skater who was trained tirelessly for her entire life breaks her ankle the day before her Olympic trial.
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