A self-fulfilling prophecy in literature is a phenomenon in which a character predicts something and by trying to avoid it makes the thing happen.
The prediction comes true because of the character’s attempts to avoid it. It becomes true because characters act on it believing that it’s true. This is a common feature of novels, short stories, and even more narrative poetry. While there are many dramatic and even scary examples of the phenomenon, it can also be used as comic relief.
Self-fulfilling prophecies can be positive or negative although they are most commonly associated with negative outcomes. For example. , a character might be told that they’re going to die on a certain day at a specific time. Then, by trying to keep that from happening they walk right into it. The phenomenon is attributed to W. I. Thomas who first discovered it in 1928. It was later defined fully by Robert K. Merton in 1948.
History of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
In literature, these prophecies are used as plot devices. They’ve appeared in all variety of stories across generations and cultures but they are most popular in the genres of science fiction and fantasy. There are numerous myths and fairy tales that use these devices as a central motif. It helps to illustrate the concept of fate, the power of the gods as well as powerlessness or mortal beings to craft their own lives.
The best-known example of a self-fulfilling prophecy in a Greek legend comes from that of Oedipus. His father, Laius, was wanted that his child would eventually kill him. So, in an attempt to keep this from happening, he abandons the boy. Once grown, Oedipus is told that he’s going to kill his father and marry his mother. But, he doesn’t know that the people who raised him are not his real parents. After leaving home he meets his biological parents, kills his father as prophesied, and marries his mother.
Other good examples from Greek myths include the legend of Perseus, Croesus, Cronos, as well as Romulus and Remus in Roman mythology.
This technique is not only found in Greek and Roman stories. There are examples found around the world, such as in the stories of the Rus Vikings and tales from Hinduism, such as that of Kansa who acts in fear of his own death.
Examples of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in Literature
Example #1 Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Macbeth has within its acts and scenes many of the best examples of various literary devices. This one is no different. In fact, the self-fulfilling prophecy in Macbeth is at the heart of the story. Macbeth is warned by a ghost to “Beware Macduff!” He takes this as evidence that Macduff is going to try to kill him and Macbeth does what he can to see that from happening. He orders the death of Macduff’s family in order to keep him from coming after him but of course, this doesn’t work and it encourages Macduff to do the one thing that Macbeth is trying to keep from happening. The play ends with Macbeth’s death at the hands of Macduff, just like the spirit predicted.
Example #2 Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
This is one of the best modern examples of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The larger ark of the story begins with Voldemort, the main villain of the series, is informed that a boy who is only at that point a child, is going to kill him. In order to keep this from happening Voldemort seeks the boy out and tries to kill him. Instead, the boy, Harry Potter, survives, and his parents are murdered. This sets him on the path to destroy Voldemort which he eventually does at the end of the novels.