Losing the plot: Deus Ex Machina and why you should teach it

Knowledge of complex terminology changes the way pupils think about texts. I’ve written before about why I think introducing pupils to complex terms improves their understanding. Recently, I experienced this phenomenon again: a discussion about a wayward piece of plotting led to a lesson looking at the technical term for the writer’s attempt to rescue the situation, ultimately leading to a much deeper appreciation of the entire play:

deus ex machina (day-us eks mak-in-a) noun.

The implausible introduction of an unexpected person, thing or event that saves a seemingly hopeless  situation, especially in a play or novel. (Modern Latin, from the ancient Greek, ‘god from the machine’)

This term, coined by Aristotle, was used as a way of describing the popular method employed by classic Greek dramatists, notably Euripides, to solve the problem of a plot that appears to have reached a dead end. The ‘machine’ (usually a crane but sometimes a trapdoor) would literally propel an actor – playing the role of a god – onto the stage, to interfere with the hitherto ‘natural’ direction of the narrative. This incredible plot device would magically resolve the conflict and allow the tying up of problematic loose ends.

As you can imagine, for the modern writer, deus ex machina is best avoided. The term has naturally taken on a pejorative edge, given that it highlights a messy bit of plotting that required the remedy of drastic (or divine) intervention. Nonetheless, anyone who’s had a go at writing something with even a slightly complex plot will surely be sympathetic towards writers who’ve had to come up with something special to back themselves out of a corner. After all, as we’ll see, the greatest writer in the English language has had to pull out the odd ace from his sleeve, and modern Nobel literature prize winners have also been forced to resort to this perhaps unfairly maligned literary technique at times:

Five examples of deus ex machina – and how they can help you teach your students to think differently about structure

1. Othello

There are more famous examples of deus ex machina in Shakespeare’s oeuvre (As You Like It being an obvious one) but his use of the device in Othello is, in my opinion, the most fascinating. Unusually, it appears towards the start of the play. For the majority of pupils, Othello is a play about jealousy, betrayal, deception and race. With this in  mind, I gave my Year 12 class a list of provocative statements to try and challenge their immediate ideas:

  • ‘Othello’s downfall is not primarily caused by a jealous nature but instead is explained by his naivety and lack of self-awareness.’
  • ‘Venice was the ideal choice of setting by Shakespeare for Othello; it wouldn’t really have worked anywhere else.’
  • ‘The central theme of Othello is not so much jealousy and betrayal but is rather the depiction of animalistic lust.’
  • ‘Those who see Othello as a play about racism are missing the point; his skin colour is not the principal explanations for his tragic and untimely end.’

One pupil took the managed to tie together these ideas into an impressive take on the eponymous general’s fatal flaw, arguing that Othello’s hamartia is not the colour of his skin, but instead his military background, which renders him ill-prepared for the civilian norms of Venetian  society. I think you’re on to something, I said.  Why don’t you have another look at what happens to the Turkish invasion of Cyprus? Why do you think Shakespeare ends the war before it’s even started?

He noticed, and so did other students, that Shakespeare’s depiction of the end of the battle was somewhat unorthodox. The next lesson I turned it into a ‘big question’:

What’s the structural significance of the following announcement? How does Shakespeare use language to present the sudden end of the conflict?


News, lads, Our wars are done!

The desperate tempest hath so banged the Turks,

That their designment halts. A noble ship of Venice

Hath seen a grievous wreck and sufferance

On most part of their fleet.

Act 2 Sc1 (20-24)

The class came up with the following points:

  • Shakespeare uses pathetic fallacy – the ‘tempest’ foreshadowing the storms that will blow Othello’s life off course
  • Is Iago the ‘desperate tempest’ personified?
  • The very surprising defeat of the Turks leaves Othello without a job to do
  • This leaves him out of his natural “comfort zone”
  • If the war had continued, Othello, as a brilliant warrior and leader of men, would have been less distracted by marital issues
  • Shakespeare had a problem – he’d created a war – Othello’s natural environment – but didn’t really want a war because he wanted Othello to be a vulnerable outsider. Therefore he had to end the war quickly to allow the main jealousy plot to get started.

At this part of the lesson, using the mechanical crane for which I’d traded my visualiser, I dropped in a dictionary definition of deus ex machina.

Since then, the quality of analysis of structural features has skyrocketed. For some, Shakespeare’s use of the device will now become a central framework for their exam essays.

2. Lord of the Flies by William Golding

We’ve been doing this classic text with Year 8; for next year, I’m going to do a lesson on the ending that introduces the concept of deus ex machina. LOTF is a brilliant novel yet it appears to require a bit of disbelief suspension from the outset. A group of schoolboys (awkward question – where are the girls?) post nuclear strike are on an aeroplane, which then crashes onto an isolated island. The adult pilot and the ‘man with the megaphone’ is dead and, , they’re left to fend for themselves. Thus Golding manages to create himself an ideal microcosm but leaves himself a problem: how is he going to end this descent into atavism? He has a few choices:

a) use aporia and leave the fate of the children unclear, which is an uncertain denouement for a book with a clear moral message?

b)  kill them all off! Pretty nihilistic and unlikely to get published?

c) Have them (or most of them) rescued. Yes that will have to do. It’s very dubious but we’ll have to have them picked up by a ‘passing’ ship. Deus ex machina to the rescue!

Through focusing on the writer’s craft and getting students to consider alternative ways of ending the novel, they will hopefully start to consider narrative choices in a more nuanced way. Another novel that offers this opportunity is H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, which uses deus ex machina to solve the problem of the invincibility of the aliens:

…the Martians -dead! -slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared; slain as the red weed was being slain; slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.

Yes, the bacteria gets them in the end.  Pupils benefit from being asked about the message Wells is trying to give through this sudden ending, and also how this ending provides further contextual understanding of the 1953 and 2005 films.

3. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

A plot hole pothole filled by eagles swooping from the sky to rescue Sam and Frodo and Tolkien himself. Clearly a incontrovertible deus ex machina? Well, yes and… possibly no. Tolkien, the university professor, obviously knows his archaic texts and the eagles falling from the sky seems a bit too obvious. Many have called this a blatant deus ex machina but, to me, it seems more of a knowing nod to the ancient Greeks (and now the modern film geeks). Why not let your pupils decide?

4. Life of Brian (1979) View Clip

The great English surrealists – with significant input from one particular American – parody deus ex machina to its logical (illogical?) endpoint. For a film set in Judea circa 1 A.D. the arrival of an alien spaceship is certainly unexpected. The unlikely rescue of the eponymous messiah and subsequent interstellar space battle prove an absurd highlight of the film. Lucky bastard.

5. Money by Martin Amis

A even more postmodernist subversion of plot sees Martin Amis introduce a character towards the end of this seminal 1980s novel called… Martin Amis. The character is a novelist, who is… the son of a famous novelist. All  very metafictional. Intriguingly though, Amis becomes his own deus ex machina, helping the hapless narrator, John Self, complete his tale after mockingly advising him that readers feel ‘tiredness at turning the pages. People read so fast – to get to the end, to be shot of you.’

So in conclusion, this hard-to-pronounce and difficult-to-spell device helps to instill a more sophisticated understanding of structure and the inspired (or lazy, depending on view) methods writers use to dig themselves out of plotting when they can’t think of a way of – hold on there’s some trick or treaters at the door


2 thoughts on “Losing the plot: Deus Ex Machina and why you should teach it

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