Definition of Peripeteia

Peripeteia is a reversing of circumstances or turning point in literary works. Retymologically, it is a Greek term first used during the time of Sophocles in the plays staged at that time. Grammatically, this term is a noun and formal term. Semantically, it is a sudden reversal in the fortune of a character or in the situations in which characters find themselves so suddenly that they often feel baffled or bewildered.

The origin of the term in literature. It has been first used by Aristotle in the meaning of discovery in a tragedy that also includes its end or conclusion that may be mercy, terror, or some other feeling like that.

Examples of Peripeteia in Literature

Example #1

From Animal Farm by George Orwell

This was more than the hungry animals could bear. With one accord, though nothing of the kind had been planned beforehand, they flung themselves upon their tormentors. Jones and his men suddenly found themselves being butted and kicked from all sides. The situation was quite out of their control. They had never seen animals behave like this before, and this sudden uprising of creatures whom they were used to thrashing and maltreating just as they chose, frightened them almost out of their wits. After only a moment or two, they gave up trying to defend themselves and took to their heels. A minute later all five of them were in full flight down the cart-track that led to the main road, with the animals pursuing them in triumph.

Although this passage does not occur in the play, it shows peripeteia could occur in a narrative. It shows the reversal of fortune about Mr. Jones that all the animals join hands to expel him from the farm and reversal of situation of the animals that they suddenly found themselves becoming masters of their own fates. This is a very good use of peripeteia is a narrative.

 Example #2

From Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

Et tu, Brute? — Then fall, Caesar.
Cinna: Liberty! Freedom! Tyrannay is dead!
Runn hence, proclaim, cry it about the streets.

These verses occur in Julius Caesar, a play by William Shakespeare. These lines show that when Caesar sees Brutus stabbing him with several others, he utters these words saying “You too, Brutus?” and adds that he is now going to fall. This fall is peripeteia that means the reversal of not only the fortune of Caesar but also his situation as he is going to be declared a dictator who deserves death sentence.

Example #3

From The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Meanwhile, the door of the living room (in which Grete had slept since the lodgers had arrived on the scene) had also opened. She was fully clothed, as if she had not slept at all; her white face also seems to indicate that. ‘Dead?’ said Mrs. Samsa and looked questioningly at the cleaning woman, although she could check everything on her own and even understand without a check. ‘I should say so,’ said the cleaning woman.

This passage occurs in the novel by Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis. It shows that the protagonist of the novel, Gregor Samsa, has transformed into a bug or vermin and that his situation has changed. With the passage of time, he loses his significance at home and then dies quietly as if nothing has happened. This is a complete reversal in his fortune that is a very good use of peripeteia.

Example #4

From Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

He divined that one of his enemy’s purposes was to secure the personal property, as well as the estate, to his son: or rather himself; yet why he did not wait till his decease was a puzzle to my master, because ignorant how nearly he and his nephew would quit the world together. However, he felt that his will had better be altered: instead of leaving Catherine’s fortune at her own disposal, he determined to put it in the hands of trustees for her use during life, and for her children, if she had any, after her. By that means, it could not fall to Mr. Heathcliff should Linton die.

This passage occurs in Wuthering Heights, a novel, by Emily Bronte. This passage shows the reversal in the fortune of Catherine as she gets property from Linton that it is not going to Heathcliff. It is not only a reversal in her fortune but also a reversal in her situation as she is going to have a good source of income for her. This is another good use of peripeteia.

Functions of Peripeteia

The main function of peripeteia is to facilitate the readers to understand the major purpose of the narrative or story and continue reading it until the full message of the author reaches them. Therefore, it works as entertainment or enjoyment or a diversion when the readers are fed up with the straight and flat storyline. They feel that the story is worth reading with a clear message and objective.