Deus ex machina is a device used to easily resolve a plotline, usually involving a divine or implausible character.
This literary device is commonly criticized due to its use as an escape from a poorly structured plotline. It’s usually used to resolve something complex and create a pleasing solution to a problem. The introduction of an implausible twist in the story usually leads to a generally unsatisfying and strange conclusion, one that does not do justice to the rest of the work. Divine intervention, such as a miracle originating from an otherworldly source, is a great example.
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Definition and Explanation of Deus Ex Machina
Dues ex machina is normally looked down on as an “easy way out.” This literary device refers to conclusions to stories, novels, and epic poems. The writer concludes the plot with an implausible twist that solves all the problems they had created throughout the work. For example, a story in which a character spends pages seeking out a lost family member only to have them magically returned by an unknown force, or an apocalyptic future remedied by divine intervention, negating the suffering and plot points up until that moment. Another popular example is the realization that the entire story was just a dream.
Origin of Deus Ex Machina
“Deus Ex Machina” comes from the Greek meaning “god from the machine.” It was first used in Greek theatre to refer to the stage machinery that would move statues or actors playing gods onto and off of the stage. It could be crane-like or something more akin to a trap door, allowing actors to rise up or descend down to the stage. The gods appeared and disappeared, providing solutions to difficult situations at the end of plays.
Examples of Deus Ex Machina
War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
War of the Worlds is one of the best-known science fiction novellas of the 1800s. It famously terrified the public when it was broadcast on the radio, convincing many that a real alien invasion was underway. But, the story is sometimes criticized due to its conclusion. The Martians are defeated, after much destruction, due to an earth pathogen to which they had no immunity. Here are a few lines from the last pages of the story:
[the Martians were] slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.
While some might find this conclusion fitting, to others, it reads like an easy way out, one that does not require the author to find a way to physically defeat the extraterrestrials.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Although well-loved by many, a few moments might be considered deus ex machina in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. One of the best-known is the arrival of the eagles, enormous, dragon-sized eagles, who save Gandalf from Saruman when it seems like there is no hope of escape.
As You Like It by William Shakespeare
As You Like It includes an example of deus ex machina, as do several other plays by the Bard. The example in As You Like It is of the comedic variety. The villain of the novel, Duke Fredrick, ends up meeting an old man in the woods, giving up his power, and allowing the characters to live happy lives. Here are a few lines spoken by Jaques de Boys:
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
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Readers will find an example of deus ex machina at the end of Oliver Twist. The novel’s conclusion, which includes the realization that Oliver’s fellow orphan is actually his aunt, provides readers with an easy ending to the story. Some have criticized how smoothly and neatly this ending is.
Why Do Writers Use Deus Ex Machina?
Throughout time, deus ex machina has been used to create solutions to hopeless situations. It is often viewed as a lazy way out, a way around coming up with a creative solution to the story’s conflicts. Alternatively, the device can also be used comedically to provide a solution that’s bizarre enough to be satisfying.
Deus Ex Machina vs. Plot Twist
Although there are some similarities between the two, these two techniques are not the same. Deus ex machina is a contrived solution to resolve a story, one that is usually unsatisfying and without much creativity. For example, the appearance of a god who remedies all the character’s problems. A plot twist is harder to pin down. It can be anything unexpected and is often a welcome and exciting addition to a novel, story, or even a poem. Usually, a plot twist fundamentally alters a story in some way, revealing that a character was dead all along or that one character wasn’t who they said they were. Sometimes they appear at the end of stories, while other times, they might be towards the middle. The most interesting and engaging stories have plot twists.
Related Literary Terms
- Antagonist: a character who is considered to be the rival of the protagonist
- Protagonist: the main character of a story, generally considered to be the hero or the force for good.
- Epic Poetry: a long narrative poem that tells the story of heroic deeds, normally accomplished by more-than-human characters.
- Cliffhanger: a narrative device that’s used to end a story abruptly before an action or segment of the plot is concluded.
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- Flashback: a plot device in a book, film, story, or poem in which the readers learn about the past.
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