What is poetic justice? – Literary Terms 101

Poetic Justice: “Rewarding the good and punishing the bad. The term was first used by Thomas Rhymer in 1678 to express the idea that in literature, if not always in life, rewards and punishments should be carefully distributed so that readers may be inspired to goodness and discouraged from evil.” NTC’s Dictionary of Literary Terms

My View On Poetic Justice

After reading the definition, I immediately thought about how often this technique was done in old films. There are audiences that still find it satisfying probably because it satisfies the dualistic status quo our cultures often reinforce: goodness is praised, evil is punished. But things aren’t always that black and white are they? Especially when you’re developing a plot or character, you need to mix things up.

In fact, I’ve seen poetic justice used quite sarcastically or ironically to address that the way we want a clear cut picture of good and bad doesn’t always exist. But poetic justice, I feel, isn’t just about defining a dualistic morality. It’s satisfying when the character the audience roots for reaches success and when the character they can’t stand deals with struggle or suffers. The foundation of poetic justice is ethical satisfaction, confirmation in the legitimacy of the status quo, even in fictional worlds. It’s a great tool to help audiences attach to the story. Personally, I find that art has its greatest impact when it’s a moral challenge and encourages ethical relativity rather than be purely pleasing, but that’s just me.

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