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Poetic Justice

Poetic justice occurs when a writer punishes an evil character or rewards a good character creating a satisfying conclusion.

Poetic justice also occurs when good characters receive some kind of award. It is a form of literary justice that should be quite satisfying for the reader. Their appreciation for the protagonists is fulfilled by their victory, and their hatred for the antagonist/s is solidified when they are punished. For example, a bank robber might have their house robbed, or a scheming business executive might lose all their money on the stock market.

Poetic Justice pronunciation: poh-eh-tick juss-tiss

Poetic Justice definition and examples


Definition of Poetic Justice

Poetic justice is literary justice delivered to good and evil characters. When a writer uses poetic justice, they’re also suggesting that one way of being is better/more moral than another. They punish those who misbehave and reward those who have stuck the right path and shown integrity. The twist of fate that rewards/punishes characters often comes as a surprise, something that can make or break a story. If a reader walks away from a story feeling as though the villain never got what was coming to them, then they’re likely going to feel disappointed. The same can be said for morally good characters who are never rewarded.


Examples of Poetic Justice in Literature

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

Oedipus Rex is one of the best examples of how poetic justice can work in a piece of literature. The play, written by Sophocles, follows Oedipus, who desperately tries to avoid a prophecy that says he’ll marry his mother and kill his father. Here is a fairly well-known quote from the story:

Alas, how terrible is wisdom

when it brings no profit to the man that’s wise!

This I knew well, but had forgotten it,

else I would not have come here.

Sophocles eventually travels to Thebes, where he kills the king of the city and marries his widow, the queen. Poetic justice comes into play when the reader learns that the queen is Oedipus’s mother and the king his father. In his attempts to flee the prophecy, he fulfills it.


Inferno by Dante Alighieri

Inferno’ is one of the three books of The Divine Comedy, Alighieri’s masterpiece. The poet casts himself as the main character, with the epic poet Virgil leading him through the levels of Hell. Here is a well-known quote:

And I — my head oppressed by horror — said:

“Master, what is it that I hear? Who are

those people so defeated by their pain?”

And he to me: “This miserable way

is taken by the sorry souls of those

who lived without disgrace and without praise.

They now commingle with the coward angels,

the company of those who were not rebels

nor faithful to their God, but stood apart.

Throughout this section of The Divine Comedy, there are several poignant examples of poetic justice as Dante comes upon men who sinned in life and are eternally punished in death. This includes Pier della Vigna who committed suicide in life and now in death has to spend eternity as a tree. Ulysses is also in Hell, in the Eighth Circle, where he must suffer for Spiritual Theft. One final example comes in the form of sinners too evil to remain in their bodies, Fra Alberigo and Branca d’Oria. These two were snatched from their bodies and reside in Hell while their bodies are used by demons.


Under the Dome by Stephen King

In this contemporary example, King crafts a collection of remarkably brave and terrible evil characters. As is often the case in his books, it’s easy to love the heroes and hate the villains. Such is certainly the case with “Big” Jim Rennie, the gangster-like self-appointed leader of the town when it’s separated from the rest of the world. He runs an incredibly profitable meth lab, is unbelievably cruel to the people around him, and suffers some of King’s best poetic justice. Towards the end of the novel, he dies alone after hallucinating the faces of some of the people he’s betrayed, including his own sun. He forces his way out into the town’s poisoned air and suffocates. Here are some lines from the novel shortly before Big Rennie meets his end:

He was going to die. Then his fingers finally found the valve. At first it wouldn’t turn, and he realized he was trying to spin it the wrong way. He reversed his fingers and a rush of cool, blessed air gusted into the mask. Ollie lay under the potatoes, gasping. He jumped a little when the fire blew in the door at the top of the stairs […]


Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

This Shakespearean tragedy has one of the clearest examples of poetic justice. The two feuding families, the Capulets, and Montagues face poetic justice when their children die. Their endless arguing and fighting have resulted in the loss of two young people who got caught up in the feud.  This is something the reader is well-aware of, long before the families are and before the two young lovers even meet. Shakespeare began the play with these lines:

Two households, both alike in dignity,

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;

He has the chorus go on to tell the audience that this is where the story is going to take place, saying The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love, / And the continuance of their parents’ rage, / Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove.”

Discover William Shakespeare’s poetry.


Related Literary Terms

  • Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
  • Climax: the point at which the main character is forced to contend with the central conflict of the story.
  • Foreshadowing: refers to the hints a writer gives a reader about what’s going to happen next. It’s a common literary device that’s used every day.
  • Cliffhanger: a narrative device that’s used to end a story abruptly before an action or segment of the plot is concluded.
  • Flashback: a plot device in a book, film, story, or poem in which the readers learn about the past.


Other Resources

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