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Deus Ex Machina

Deus ex machina literally means "god out of the machine". This is a reference to the way that when a deus ex machina is present within a plot, it seems to just come out of nowhere, having no real logical relationship with the rest of the plot. Deus ex machina usually has a pejorative connotation, because it implies that the writer has backed himself into a corner and does not know how to resolve his plot.

Deus ex machina explained

Deus ex machina is a literary device which uses a person or thing that appears or is suddenly or unexpectedly introduced into story. Its purpose is to provide a solution for a previously unsolvable piece of the plot. The Deus ex machina is often contrived, and may appear unbelievable to the reader, observer, or listener. Its original meaning goes back to the introduction of a god using a crane (the lifting machine) in ancient Roman and Greek drama – this crane would place the god in the center of the action, and he or she would then decide the outcome of the plot’s most difficult situation. Deus ex machina is from the New Latin, and a translation of the Greek theos ek mēchanēs. It literally translates to “a god from the machine” and the first known use was in 1697.

How the term is used

Deus ex machina introduces an outside character, event, ability, or object into a story’s plot in order to resolve an impossible issue. Deus ex machina is used by the writer or speaker in order to escape being “stuck” in the process, surprise the audience, as a comedic device bordering on the ridiculous, or to ensure a happy ending for the characters.

Deus ex machina was most often used in Greek and Roman dramas in historic times, and the actor representin the decisive god was lowered onto the stage using a crane (called a mechane) or lifted onto the stage through the means of hidden trapdoor to represent their otherworldly abilities. Aeschylus introduced the idea to the theatre, and soon it became as common in comedy as it was in tragedy. Although its first use was in Aeschylus’ Eumenides, Euripides popularized the practice. In Medea, for example, the deus ex machina is the sun god who appears to whisk away his granddaughter Medea in a chariot drawn by dragons. Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae used deus ex machina in a parody of Euripides, as well. The immediate emotional response of the Greek and Roman audiences through the use of deus ex machina was one of awe and wonder – playwrights found it added to the moral and emotional effect of their plays without exception. In the instance of comedy, the silliness of the transparent intervention made these plays uproariously funny. 

Deus ex machina in literature

In modern writing, a deus ex machina is considered contrived and unoriginal, and is not generally recommended for use. A story’s internal logic should decide the outcome of the plot and the situations the characters find themselves a part of instead of a circumstance or outside character that may cause the reader’s suspension of disbelief to falter. Today, happy endings are not as desirable as they may have been during certain periods in the past.

In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, British schoolchildren involved in a plane wreck reach a deserted island and become savage and even murderous in the absence of adults. A navy officer who happens upon the children spares one of them from almost certain death at the hands of the others. The officer is Golding’s deus ex machina, and the author admits he used the plot device to avoid an unpalatable ending for the boys.

The term “eucatastrophe” was originally used by Tolkien to describe a sudden change in a plot to avoid the death or unfortunate ending of the main character. In fantasy novels deus ex machina is more acceptable due to the elevated level of suspension of disbelief in readers; it is easier for them to accept sudden plot twists or character introductions.

In modern parodies of horror films, such as the Scary Movie trilogy, deus ex machina is a regular plot device used repeatedly to enforce plot holes in the original film and for comedic effect.

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