Deus ex machina, a phrase that comes from ancient drama, is defined as a surprising and sudden appearance of something or someone who can provide an unforeseen solution to the issue, which was considered to be irresolvable. In dramas, this technique defines the outcome, the final moment of the plot. Deus ex machina can be represented by a person, an object, or even a situation in a literary piece.
The term originates from the New Latin expression, which can be translated as “a god from a machine”. There’s a historical background, which explains every part of this phrase. The machine actually denotes the crane that used to hold a character over the stage during the play. The word “god” is also being used for a reason in this term. In ancient dramas, the hero who appeared at the end to solve the issue, unravel the plot, and create a turning point was actually not a human but a god. This practice to introduce gods into the play dates back to 480-405 B.C.
The term came to the English language somewhere around 1690-1700. While god-like characters weren’t necessarily used anymore, the literary tool was still implemented to portray an unexpected savior or unbelievable events that alter the narrative and resolve the chaos in the story.
There are various literary techniques and plot scenarios that can be confused with Deus ex machina. So, even when there’s an unexpected turn in the narrative, it still needs to meet certain requirements to be called Deus ex machina. For instance, Deus ex machina always gives a solution to an issue and never creates additional problems and worse situation, even when it’s a very unexpected and abrupt development.
Another point that describes Deus ex machina is how it presents a solution to an unresolvable problem. If the issue can be worked out with good sense or by making an effort, the solution to this problem cannot be called Deus ex machina, no matter how abrupt it is.
Deus ex machina characters or events aren’t usually connected with the other personas of the story. It’s like they are separated and Deus ex machina is external. It might appear somewhere in the story but not for long and not often as Deus ex machina has a really small or even zero impact on the plot until that turning point when it appears.
Another important trace Deus ex machina should possess is being sudden. Even if it was mentioned somewhere in the narrative, its appearance isn’t gradual. Deus ex machina doesn’t just happen naturally, it is always an unforeseen solution.
When using Deus ex machina in literary works, authors can create a surprising, shocking, or exciting turn of events for the reader. It is also used when the writer wants to completely change the course of the story without rewriting the whole plot. Deus ex machina can also serve to stir the reader’s and the critics’ feelings, create a point for discussion, and open new expressive possibilities for the author. This technique also comes in handy when the author feels stuck with the plot and doesn’t know how to develop it further and solve the pressing issues.
The most common reason to use Deus ex machina in literary pieces is not only to create a turning point but to present the moment of sudden realization that there always can be hope. This is a somewhat romanticized way to use this linguistic tool, but it creates a hopeful atmosphere and can add a dramatic effect to the story.
Because Deus ex machina sometimes implies introducing completely new heroes to the narrative, this literary tool is often being criticized. When using Deus ex machina, the author doesn’t create a turning point by using the already established circumstances and elements of the story. Instead, the author adds an absolutely new element, which many critics and readers consider to be a sign of the author’s laziness and lack of artistry. Many critics and writers themselves tend to think that it’s better to find a solution to the plot’s issue by naturally building up the events.
Still, there are critics who justify using Deus ex machina but only in the appropriate circumstances. Oftentimes, using this literary technique can lead to rather absurd results, which is why authors are usually very careful with Deus ex machina and try to use it appropriately.
There are numerous examples of Deus ex machina in literary works. Lots of them belong to the fantasy genre, where the unpredicted appearance of something unnatural is a common plot turn. For instance, the Tolkien’s eagles. They arrive when there’s no hope for salvation, creating a turning point in the story and illustrating a very hopeful moment.
There’s also Deus ex machina technique in the story of Oliver Twist. In the end, he finds out the truth about his fellow orphan/aunt Rose, which leads to a number of happy events and a fortunate end of the story. Although Dickens didn’t intend to use Deus ex machina to create such an impossible ending, some critics still claim that the story ends in a too neat way.
Shakespeare was also the one who used Deus ex machina in his comedies to create a comical effect. For example, the work “As You Like It”, where the villain meets a religious person in the forest and unexpectedly decides to become a peaceful, kind man, which leads to a happy ending for other characters. Here, Deus ex machina is used to show the absurd side of the situation.