Definition of Peripeteia

Peripeteia, a Greek term traced back to Sophocles, signifies a pivotal turning point in literary narratives. Its roots lie in a linguistic evolution, with ‘Peripeteia’ emerging as a formal noun. Semantically, this concept captures the abrupt and bewildering reversal of fortunes for characters in a story. It is more than just a term; it’s a dramatic device that adds depth and intensity to narratives. Aristotle introduced the term, associating it with the revelation or discovery in a tragic plot, resulting in emotions like mercy or terror. Peripeteia, then, is the unexpected twist that leaves characters and readers alike grappling with a newfound reality, shaping the very essence of storytelling across time and cultures.

Examples of Peripeteia in Literature

Example #1

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.

While not explicitly found in Animal Farm, this passage highlights how peripeteia can unfold in a story. It vividly portrays a twist of fate for Mr. Jones, as the animals unite to oust him from the farm. The sudden shift in circumstances turns the animals into the masters of their own destinies, showcasing a powerful reversal. This narrative maneuver exemplifies a skillful application of peripeteia, injecting a compelling dynamic into the storyline. The unexpected turn of events, where the oppressed become the rulers, adds depth and intrigue to the narrative, making it a prime example of how peripeteia can enhance the impact and resonance of a tale.

 Example #2

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.

In Julius Caesar, a play by William Shakespeare, these lines capture a pivotal moment. When Caesar witnesses Brutus stabbing him alongside others, he utters the poignant words, “You too, Brutus?” signaling a moment of betrayal. What follows is a peripeteia, a dramatic reversal, as Caesar acknowledges his imminent fall. This goes beyond a mere change in fortune; it’s a profound shift in Caesar’s situation. Once poised as a potential dictator, he now faces the grim prospect of a death sentence. The unfolding events encapsulate the essence of peripeteia, where the mighty are brought low, and the anticipated narrative takes an unexpected turn, leaving a lasting impact on both the characters and the audience.

Example #3

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.

In Franz Kafka’s novel, The Metamorphosis, this part unveils a striking transformation. Gregor Samsa, the main character, undergoes a bizarre change, turning into a bug or vermin, drastically altering his circumstances. As time passes, he diminishes in importance within his own home, fading into obscurity. The narrative takes an unexpected turn as Gregor quietly succumbs to death, as if his metamorphosis had never occurred. This marked shift in his fate, from a once recognizable figure to an inconspicuous demise, exemplifies a powerful use of peripeteia. The story has surprising twists that leave readers thinking about the character’s journey.

Example #4

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.

In Emily Bronte’s novel, Wuthering Heights, this part reveals a significant twist in Catherine’s fate. She unexpectedly inherits property from Linton, and the windfall doesn’t go to Heathcliff as anticipated. This isn’t just a change in her fortune; it’s a shift in her circumstances, providing her with a newfound source of income. This turn of events showcases a well-executed peripeteia, where the expected trajectory of the story takes an unforeseen detour. Catherine’s sudden acquisition of property not only alters her financial standing but also reshapes the dynamics of the narrative, adding depth and complexity to her character’s journey in this classic tale.

Functions of Peripeteia

Peripeteia serves a crucial role in storytelling. Its primary function is to help readers grasp the main purpose of the narrative, ensuring they stay engaged until they absorb the author’s complete message. Essentially, it acts as a form of entertainment or diversion, especially when readers might find a straightforward storyline monotonous. Peripeteia injects excitement, making the story more dynamic and engaging. Readers, feeling that the plot has depth and purpose, are encouraged to continue, appreciating the clear message and objectives woven into the narrative. Through the usage of peripeteia, the author manages to enrich the overall reading experience, offering readers both enjoyment and a profound exploration of the author’s intentions.