Deus ex machina

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Deus ex machina

Deus ex machina: From the Latin for “god from a machine,” a phrase referring specifically to the intervention of a nonhuman force to resolve a seemingly unresolvable conflict in a literary work. It also refers more generally to improbable or artificial resolutions of conflicts, such as those provided by unbelievable coincidences or unexpected strokes of good luck.

EXAMPLES: Toward the end of Moliere’s (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin’s) Tartuffe (1667), Orgon has lost all his property to the dissembling Tartuffe and, thanks to Tartuffe’s treachery, has been arrested for disloyalty to the King (who, in Moliere’s day, would have been seen as God’s representative on earth). Suddenly, an officer of the Crown appears, forgives Orgon, and restores his property, saying:

Sir, all is well; rest easy, and be grateful.

We serve a Prince to whom all sham is hateful,

A Prince who sees into our inmost hearts,

And can’t be fooled by any trickster’s arts.

In George Eliot’s novel Adam Bede (1859), Hetty Sorrell — about to be hanged for infanticide — suddenly hears a shout in the street:

It was a shout of sudden excitement at the appearance of a horseman cleaving the crowd at full gallop. The horse is hot and distressed, but answers to the desperate spurring; the rider looks as if his eyes were glazed by madness, and he saw nothing but what was unseen by the others. See, he has something in his hand — he is holding it up as if it were a signal.

The Sheriff knows him: it is Arthur Donnithorne, carrying in his hand a hard-won release from death.

Bertolt Brecht parodied the use of deus ex machina in The Threepenny Opera (1928), a play with music by Kurt Weill, in a scene in which Macheath, a villain, is saved from hanging by a pardon from the king.