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A catastrophe is a turning point in a story, usually a tragedy, in which something terrible happens to the main character/s.

Catastrophe comes between the climax and dénouement. This unknown event is a terrible one, with the word “catastrophe” being used just as it is in everyday conversation. It’s the last bit of suffering a character, or all the characters, in a play, narrative poem, or novel go through before the story starts its real conclusion. It might be the death of the main character, the loss of an important secondary character, or any other dramatic change of events. 

Catastrophe pronunciation: cuh-tah-strow-fee

Catastrophe definition and meaning


Definition of Catastrophe

In the story it’s used, the catastrophe is integral to concluding the plot. Without it, the story couldn’t unravel, and the conclusion would’ve been known.

While catastrophes are far more common in tragedies than they are in comedies, they do also appear in the latter. Sometimes, authors choose to intertwine a character’s fate with the catastrophe near the story’s end. That single event might be what all the character’s actions were leading up to. See Macbeth by William Shakespeare as an example. 


Examples of Catastrophes in Literature 

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller 

Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman has a great example of a catastrophe in its final scenes. The play follows Willy Loman, a salesman, and his family. Their economic struggles are at the heart of the play, and it’s not until the catastrophe unfolds that it becomes clear how they’re going to get out of the situation they’re in. Willy dies at the end of the poem, committing suicide in a car wreck so that his family can collect his life insurance.  Here are a few lines from this part of the play when Charley is discussing Willy’s character at his funeral: 

Nobody dast blame this man. You don’t understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re fin- ished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.

The characters react in different ways to Willy’s death but, without this final tragic event, the story would not have the conclusion it does. 


Hamlet by William Shakespeare 

Hamlet is a classic example of a story that concludes after a catastrophe. In this case, Hamlet and Laertes duel, and Gertrude and Claudius are poisoned. Almost everyone in the play dies, leaving the audience to ponder what it all meant and what it was all for. Here are a few lines Hamlet speaks to Horatio as they contemplate the duel he’s about to have: 

Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a special

providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,

’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be

now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the

readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he

leaves, what is’t to leave betimes?

Hamlet is a classic Shakespearean tragedy in that no one can escape from the consequences of their actions, not unlike the end of Macbeth. 


Macbeth by William Shakespeare 

At the end of Macbeth, the main character dies in a fight with Macduff. Everything Macbeth had done up until that point led him to his death. As he tried to grab more power, he continued to walk towards his fate. Here are a few lines: 

Despair thy charm;

And let the angel whom thou still hast serv’d

Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother’s womb

Untimely ripp’d.

Macbeth’s fate was unavoidable. From the beginning of the play, it was clear that there was nothing he could do to prevent this outcome. Macbeth’s death makes the play what it is. It helps define the moral and reminds the audience about the importance of keeping one’s ego and greed in check.

Explore William Shakespeare’s poems.


Oedipus the King by Sophocles 

Oedipus the King is another classic example of a tragedy that depends on its catastrophe to reach a conclusion. As with Macbeth, Oedipus fulfills the terrible prophecy he was trying to avoid throughout his story. He ends up killing his father and marrying his mother, something that inspires him to tear his eyes out. 


Why Do Writers Use Catastrophes? 

Writers use catastrophes in their stories to drive the story towards its ultimate conclusion and ensure that readers remember the content. Without Macbeth, Hamlet, and Romeo and Juliet’s deaths, the plays would not be what they are, nor would they like they likely be was popular. Tragedy usually makes for an interesting story. As is the case with these theatrical examples, often, the catastrophe is not a surprise. It’s something that the story has been headed towards since the beginning. It was always Macbeth’s fate to end up slain by Macduff, and despite his attempts, Oedipus fulfills his destiny. 


Related Literary Terms 

  • Plot: a connected sequence of events that make up a novel, poem, play, film, television show, and other narrative works.
  • Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
  • Tragedy: refers to a type of drama that explores serious, sometimes dark, and depressing subject matter.
  • Play: a form of writing for theatre. It is divided into acts and scenes.
  • Denouement: occurs at the end of a story, where the plotlines are tied up and resolved.


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