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Poetic justice

Related: Aristotle - conflict between good and evil - literary technique - fate - fiction - happy ending - justice - poetics - tragic irony - virtue - vice

Inversion of poetic justice: Justine (1791) - Sade


Poetic justice is a literary device in which virtue is ultimately rewarded or vice punished, often in modern literature by an ironic twist of fate intimately related to the character's own conduct. The stricture of poetry, prose, and drama to have justice originates in Aristotle's Poetics. Aristotle says that poetry is superior to history in that it shows what should or must occur, rather than merely what does occur. English drama critic Thomas Rymer coined the phrase in The Tragedies of the Last Age Considered (1678) to describe how a work should inspire proper moral behavior in its audience by illustrating the triumph of good over evil. The demand for poetic justice is consistent in Classical authorities and shows up in Horace, Plutarch, and Quintillian, so Rymer's phrasing is a reflection of a commonplace. Philip Sidney, in Defense of Poetry, argued, like Aristotle, that poetic justice was, in fact, the reason that fiction should be allowed in a civilized nation.

Notably, poetic justice does not merely require that vice be punished and virtue rewarded, but also that logic triumph. If, for example, a character is dominated by greed for most of a Romance or drama, he cannot become generous. The action of a play, poem, or fiction must obey the rules of Aristotelian logic as well as morality, and when the humour theory was dominant poetic justice was part of the justification for humor plays. During the late 17th century, critics pursuing a neo-classical standard would criticize William Shakespeare in favor of Ben Jonson precisely on the grounds that Shakespeare's characters change during the course of the play. (See Shakespeare's reputation for more on the Shakespeare/Jonson dichotomy.) When Restoration comedy, in particular, flaunted poetic justice by rewarding libertines and punishing dull-witted moralists, there was a backlash in favor of drama, in particular, of more strict moral correspondence.

In Stephen King's "Survivor Type," a doctor with no morals or conscience is shipwrecked on a deserted island. Because of his illicit activities, he has a valise of heroin with him. When he breaks his ankle he uses the heroin for an anesthetic, then cuts off his own foot and eats it. He continues to cut off body parts to fend off starvation, finally cutting off his left hand. The diary he keeps ends there. It is poetic justice that the means and skills he used in a lifetime of harming others become the instrument of such horrendous suffering inflicted upon himself.

The "Inferno" portion of Dante's Divine Comedy reads like a compendium of examples of poetic justice.

"For 'tis the sport to have the enginer / Hoist with his own petard." (Shakespeare, Hamlet (III.iv.207).) --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poetic_justice [Nov 2005]

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