“Peripeteia (Greek: εριπέτεια, English: peripety)
A sudden reversal of fortune or change in circumstances, especially in reference to fictional narrative: ‘the peripeteias of the drama 1936 is the peripeteia, the point where the action turned.'”
Aristotle defined three key elements which make a tragedy: harmartia, anagnorisis, and peripeteia.
Hamartia is a hero’s tragic flaw; the aspect of the character which ultimately leads to their downfall. In Othello, his rage and recklessness is fueled, more than anything, by his jealousy. Desdemona’s death occurs at the hands of a man tortured by his incapacity to believe her innocence over the jealousy that her infidelity could be true. The tragic flaw is possibly the most frequently referenced part of Aristotle’s theory in any literary discussion.
Next, we have anagnorisis, or the Eureka moment as it were – whether good or bad. The anagnorisis occurs when the tragic hero recognises something about themselves; some depth to their identity that spurs a change in action. In Antigone, Creon’s refusal to give Eteocles an honorable death. The jarring picture of a body rotting in the wastelands, left to be subsumed into the earth and dishonoured by being unmarked, spurs the titular Antigone to bury him herself on punishment of a live burial. Eventually, both Antigone and her berothed, Creon’s son, kill themselves as a result of Creon’s perverse punishment. It is at the news of these deaths that Creon realises that it was his own pride that has brought about the suicides in his family; his tragic flaw that brought about the tragedy of Antigone.
Finally, we have peripeteia – the main focus of this blog. This is the ‘reversal of fortune’ in the plot which marks the protagonist’s descent towards tragedy. In Medea, the nominal protagonist was set to marry her love, before he fell in love with a princess. Her subsequent murder of her husband, Jason, caused her exile; it was with this act of murder that Medea’s fortune change – her moment of peripeteia.
Peripeteia is so crucial to tragedy, and for the cathartic experience of the audience perceiving it. Perhaps an unusual comparison but ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone’ is as true today as when Joni Mitchell first sung it. We idolize tragedy when it happens to the people who are the most successful, the most celebrated. The underclasses and the underdogs suffering isn’t tragedy, but tragic – and the distinction is important.
If you are studying a literature or humanities subject, understanding the principles behind peripeteia will put you in good stead to interpret texts and cultures.