Deus Ex Machina


Deus Ex Machina, a Latin term meaning “god from the machine,” refers to a plot device where a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object. Historically, it stems from ancient Greek theater, where gods were literally lowered onto the stage using a crane to resolve the characters’ dilemmas, thus bringing the play to a resolution. In modern literature and cinema, this device can sometimes be seen as a cop-out, but when used effectively, it can add a layer of mythic proportion and profound meaning to the narrative.

Pronunciation Deus Ex Machina: /ˌdeɪ.əs ɛks ˈmɑː.kɪ.nə/

When Do Writers Use Deus Ex Machina?

Writers often employ Deus Ex Machina to inject new life into a narrative that has reached a seemingly insurmountable impasse, allowing for a dramatic, albeit often criticized, resolution. This device is typically used to surprise the audience and bring about a swift conclusion to a complex situation. While it can be viewed as a lazy writing technique, it’s also a tool for highlighting themes of fate, divine intervention, or the random chaos of the universe. In genres like fantasy or science fiction, it can underscore the boundless possibilities of the genre.

How Should I Use Deus Ex Machina?

To effectively use Deus Ex Machina in your writing, consider these rules:

  1. Use Sparingly: Rely on it only when it aligns naturally with the narrative’s themes and when other resolutions have been explored.
  2. Prepare the Groundwork: Foreshadow or hint at possible interventions throughout your story to make the Deus Ex Machina more plausible and less jarring.
  3. Ensure It Adds Value: Employ this device to enrich the story or highlight a specific philosophical or thematic message, rather than merely as an easy fix.
  4. Maintain Emotional Impact: It should enhance, not undermine, the emotional journey of the characters and the audience.

Employing Deus Ex Machina requires a delicate balance between creativity and believability, aiming to leave the audience both surprised and satisfied.

Types of Deus Ex Machina

Deus Ex Machina can manifest in various forms within literature and film, each serving to resolve the narrative tension abruptly. Here are some common types:

  1. The Unexpected Character: A new character introduced towards the end who solves the central conflict.
  2. The Sudden Power or Ability: A character suddenly reveals or gains a new ability or item that resolves the situation.
  3. The Fortuitous Event: An unexpected natural event or change in circumstances that resolves the conflict.
  4. Technological or Magical Intervention: Especially prevalent in science fiction and fantasy, where a new technology or spell resolves the problems.
  5. Divine Intervention: A god or spiritual entity intervenes directly in the storyline. Each type is designed to surprise the audience and bring a swift resolution to the storyline, though the effectiveness and reception can vary widely based on the execution.

Deus Ex Machina in Literature

Deus Ex Machina has been used by numerous authors across different genres. Here are some famous examples:

  1. “The War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells: The Martians are defeated not by human endeavor but by Earth’s bacteria to which they have no immunity.
  2. “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding: Just as the boys’ society collapses into chaos, a naval officer arrives unexpectedly to rescue them.
  3. “Medea” by Euripides: Medea is rescued by the Sun God Helios, who sends a chariot to help her escape, avoiding retribution.
  4. “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” by J.K. Rowling: Fawkes the phoenix arrives in the nick of time with the Sorting Hat that produces Godric Gryffindor’s sword to kill the basilisk.

Deus Ex Machina in Children’s Books

In children’s literature, Deus Ex Machina often appears to provide a safe and reassuring end to stories. Some notable examples include:

  1. “Peter Pan” by J.M. Barrie: When Wendy and the boys are about to walk the plank, Peter Pan saves them at the last moment.
  2. “The Cat in the Hat” by Dr. Seuss: Right when the mother is about to come home and find the house in chaos, the Cat uses a machine to clean everything up instantly.
  3. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” by Roald Dahl: Charlie finds the last Golden Ticket by chance when all hope seems lost. These instances use Deus Ex Machina to teach lessons or ensure a happy ending, which can be both engaging and morally instructive for young readers.

Deus Ex Machina in Poetry

While less common in poetry, Deus Ex Machina can occur, often to emphasize themes or to provide a sudden resolution or shift in perspective. Examples include:

  1. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The mariner’s curse is lifted by the hermit’s prayer, which appears suddenly to resolve his suffering.
  2. “Deus Ex Machina” by Andrew Hudgins: This modern poem explicitly discusses the concept within the context of personal and universal struggles. In poetry, the device may serve as a metaphorical tool to delve into deeper philosophical issues, highlighting sudden changes in fate or divine grace.

Deus Ex Machina in Songs

Deus Ex Machina in songs often appears as a sudden resolution in the narrative of the lyrics, where a character or situation experiences an unexpected turn of events. Here are ten songs that feature this concept:

  1. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot – Nature’s sudden fury ends the journey of the ship.
  2. “Hotel California” by The Eagles – The twist of being trapped in the hotel forever.
  3. “Stan” by Eminem – The arrival of Eminem’s reply letter, albeit too late.
  4. “Two Black Cadillacs” by Carrie Underwood – The unexpected alliance between the wife and the mistress.
  5. “Redemption Song” by Bob Marley – The call to “emancipate yourselves from mental slavery” as a sudden awakening.
  6. “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen – The sudden confession and acceptance of fate in the lyrics.
  7. “The River” by Bruce Springsteen – Fate’s intervention in the lives of the characters described.
  8. “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” by Bob Dylan – The Jack of Hearts’ mysterious escape.
  9. “Highwayman” by The Highwaymen – The reincarnation of the soul into new bodies.
  10. “Ghost Riders in the Sky” by Johnny Cash – The divine punishment and redemption of the cowboys.

Deus Ex Machina in Movies

Deus Ex Machina is a frequent device in films, providing dramatic resolutions that are unexpected and sometimes criticized for their convenience. Here are some notable examples:

  1. “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) – Dorothy learns she can return home by clicking her heels, which she hadn’t known before.
  2. “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003) – The Eagles arrive just in time to save Frodo and Sam from Mount Doom.
  3. “War of the Worlds” (2005) – The sudden death of the aliens due to Earth’s bacteria.
  4. “Deus Ex Machina” (2015) – As a meta-narrative, the film itself revolves around unexpected technological solutions.
  5. “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975) – The police abruptly end the movie by arresting all the characters.

Famous Movie Line Highlighting Deus Ex Machina

“The eagles are coming!”

This line from “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” exemplifies Deus Ex Machina as the eagles arrive just in time to rescue Frodo and Sam, providing a sudden and unexpected resolution to their perilous situation.

YouTube Link Demonstrating Deus Ex Machina

Here’s a relevant clip demonstrating Deus Ex Machina in “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” where the eagles save Frodo and Sam: Watch on YouTube

Deus Ex Machina in Advertising

In advertising, Deus Ex Machina is used to create memorable, impactful ads where a product or service unexpectedly solves a problem. Examples include:

  1. Coca-Cola “Happiness Factory” – Where a Coke machine leads to a magical world solving emotional thirst.
  2. Geico “Hump Day” Commercial – Where the camel’s arrival whimsically breaks the monotony of a typical workday.
  3. Old Spice “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” – Solutions to various life scenarios magically appear as the man transitions through fantastical settings.

Deus Ex Machina Related Literary Devices

Plot Twist and Peripeteia

These devices are closely related to Deus Ex Machina, often used to inject sudden changes in a story, but typically involve more integral plot development and character involvement:

  • Plot Twist: A sudden shift in the expected direction or outcome of the plot.
  • Peripeteia: A reversal of fortune or change in circumstances, particularly involving the protagonist’s fortune changing from good to bad or vice versa, which is more integrated into the storyline compared to Deus Ex Machina.