Poetic Justice Definition
In literature, poetic justice is an ideal form of justice in which the good characters are rewarded and the bad characters are punished by an ironic twist of their fate.
It is a strong literary view that all forms of literature must convey moral lessons. Therefore, writers employ poetic justice to conform to the moral principles. For instance, if a character in a novel is pitiless and malicious in most part of the novel. His state has gone beyond improvement. Then, the principles of morality demand this character to experience a twist in his fate and be punished. Similarly, the one’s who have suffer at his hand must be rewarded at the same time.
Poetic Justice Examples in Literature
Let us analyze a few examples of poetic justice in Literature:
In Shakespeare we see the evil characters, Goneril, Regan, Oswald and Edmund, thrive throughout the play. The good characters, Lear, Gloucester, Kent, Cordelia, and Edgar, suffer long and hard. We see the good characters turn to gods but they are rarely answered. “Lear” in Act 2, Scene 4 calls upon heaven in most pitiful manner:
“LEAR […] O heavens!
If you do love old men, if your sweet sway
Show obedience, if you yourselves are old,
Make it your cause. Send down, and take my part!”
Lear loses his kingdom by the conspiracies of his daughters Goneril and Regan supported by Edmund. At Dover, Edmund-led English troops defeats Cordelia-led French troops and Cordelia and Lear are imprisoned. Cordelia is executed in the prison and Lear dies out of the grief of his daughter’s death. Despite all the suffering that good undergoes, the evil is punished. Goneril poisons her sister Regan due to jealousy over Edmund. Later, she kills herself when her disloyalty is exposed to Albany. In a climactic scene Edgar kills Edmund in Act 5,Scene 3 and says:
My name is Edgar, and thy father’s son.
The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us.
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes.”
“the gods are Just” because they punish the evil for their evil actions.
We see role of poetic justice in the character of the cruel “Mr. Bumble” in Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist”. He was a “beadle” in the town where “Oliver” was born in charge of the orphanage and other charitable institutions in the town. He is a sadist and enjoys excessive torturing of the poor orphans. He marries “Mrs. Corney” for money and become master of her workhouse. Here his fate takes a twist as he lost his post as a beadle and his new wife does not allow him to become a master of her workhouse. She beats him and humiliates him as he himself had done to the poor orphans. Right at the end of the novel, we come to know that both Mr. and Mrs. Bumble end up being so poor that they live in the same workhouse that they once owned.
A classic example of poetic justice is found in a Greek tragedy “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles. He committed a crime of defying gods by trying to escape his fate. Therefore he left the kingdom he lived in and went to new kingdom “Thebes”. He killed the king of the city after a quarrel and married the queen. Later, we learn that the prophecy turned out true as the man he killed was his father and the queen his own mother. The Greek believed their destinies were predetermining shaped by the gods and goddesses. Whosoever tried to defy them committed a sin and deserved punishment.
Function of Poetic Justice
Generally, the purpose of poetic justice in literature is to adhere by the universal code of morality i.e. the virtue triumphs vice. The idea of justice in literary texts manifests the moral principle that virtue deserves a reward and vices earn punishment.
In addition, the readers often identify themselves with the good characters. They feel emotionally attached to them and feel for them when they suffer at the hands of the wicked characters. Naturally, the readers desire for a compensation for the good characters and equally wish the bad characters be penalized for their evilness. Thus, poetic justice offers contentment to them.