"Peripeteia" is an unexpected reversal of circumstances or a turning point. In tragedy, this sudden change of circumstances is usually a negative one. Is it possible for peripeteia to be a positive one too? For example:

A guy named Peter has been working hard his whole life, but has never gotten any credit for his work. Unexpectedly, he starts getting the appreciation he deserves and gets a promotion or a raise.

Can this be called peripeteia?

3 Answers 3


In his Master's thesis, titled The peripeteia, an analysis of reversal speeches by Barbara Bush, Richard Nixon, and Lyndon B. Johnson, Christopher James Anderson of Iowa State University did exactly this, and presented some justification:

It is important to note that peripity need not always be concerned with tragedy. Aristotle has defined peripeteia as a reversal of the action. Humphrey House, author of Aristotle’s Poetics, goes a step further and defines it as a “reversal of intention.”3 This definition takes into account the “thought” or the daimio exercised by the character. House describes it as “holding the wrong end of the stick.” Peripeteia can then be determined to be deciding the proper side of an argument or event and moving to that side.

Another definition, more recently interpreted, comes from noted literary critic Frank Kermode. He defines it as a “disconfirmation followed by a consonance; the interest of having our expectations falsified is obviously related to our wish to reach discovery by an unexpected route. It has nothing to do with our reluctance to get there at all. So that in assimilating the peripeteia we are enacting that readjustment of our expectations in regard to an end.”4 This definition leads to a sense of accomplishment that can occur when a peripeteia is properly enabled. Here it is clear that the outcome lies not in tragedy as with the Shakespearean example noted earlier, but in triumph.

Mr Anderson then goes on to examine the eponymous speeches where he feels peripeteia happens in the positive sense.

The footnotes mentioned above:

  1. House, Aristotle’s Poetics, p 96
  2. Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction, p 18
  • 1
    Good summary, but this answer could be made even better by citing directly all the sources mentioned by Anderson - Aristotle, House, Kermode - as well as at least mentioning which three speeches Anderson examines, even if you don't want to quote them or his analysis in full.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Oct 10, 2017 at 9:43
  • 1
    That was a really awesome edit, thanks! The answer looks much better now, and I've upvoted it. (I'm also leaving my original comment just so that people can see the feedback process working well, given that ongoing meta discussion.)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Oct 10, 2017 at 10:54

Aristotle's Poetics is the oldest extant text that defines the term peripateia. In William Hamilton Fyfe's translation (1926; [1452a]; emphasis mine):

Some plots are "simple" and some "complex," as indeed the actions represented by the plots are obviously such. By a simple action I mean one that is single and continuous in the sense of our definition above, wherein the change of fortune occurs without "reversal" or "discovery"; by a complex action I mean one wherein the change coincides with a "discovery" or "reversal" or both. (...)
A "reversal" is a change of the situation into the opposite, as described above, this change being, moreover, as we are saying, probable or inevitable— like the man in the Oedipus who came to cheer Oedipus and rid him of his anxiety about his mother by revealing his parentage and changed the whole situation. In the Lynceus, too, there is the man led off to execution and Danaus following to kill him, and the result of what had already happened was that the latter was killed and the former escaped.

The example from Oedipus is a reversal in a negative direction. The Lynceus is a play by Theodectes based on a mythical story about Lynceus of Argos. The play has been lost, but it appears that Lynceus escaped death, so the reversal in Theodectes's play is a positive reversal for the main character.

J. A. Cuddon's The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (third edition, Penguin, 1991) writes that a peripateia in drama is "usually the sudden change of fortune from prosperity to ruin; but it can be the other way about". The entry for "peripateia" also cites an excerpt from Aristotle's Poetics (from chapter 11 in Ingram Bywater's translation) but without including the Lynceus example.

Some reference works for literary terms consider peripateia as an exclusively negative change, for example LiteraryTerms.net, but others also provide examples of positive changes, for example, LiteraryDevices.net. The Algemeen letterkundig lexicon (in Dutch) says that a peripateia can be either a positive or a negative reversal.


From no less an authority than Aristotle, we are assured

The fourth case is when some one is about to do an irreparable deed through ignorance, and makes the discovery before it is done. . . . The last case is the best, as when in the Cresphontes Merope is about to slay her son, but, recognizing who he is, spares his life. So in the Iphigenia, the sister recognizes the brother just in time. Again in the Helle, the son recognizes the mother when on the point of giving her up. (Emphasis mine.)

So the originator of the use of "peripeteia" in literary context not only regards positive changes as an example, but thinks they are best.

I also add that when he wrote, "tragedy" meant what we would now call "drama" -- it included tales with happy endings.

  • 1
    Aristotle specifically says a tragedy should invoke pity and fear; the claim that tragedy included all drama is incorrect.
    – verbose
    May 14, 2021 at 7:35
  • “The same distinction marks off Tragedy from Comedy; for Comedy aims,at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life.” Translated by S. H. Butcher
    – verbose
    May 14, 2021 at 7:44
  • The lost second part of Aristotle's Poetics covered comedy, whereas the preserved first part discusses tragedy. I don't know what could justify the claim that Aristotle's concept of "tragedy" also included comedy.
    – Tsundoku
    May 14, 2021 at 9:33
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    @Tsundoku But I didn't say it included comedy. I said it included happy endings, as the quote indicates.
    – Mary
    May 14, 2021 at 13:05
  • @verbose "drama" does not mean "all plays" as witness that if you were told that a movie was a drama you would not know whether the ending was happy or sad but would know it's not a comedy.
    – Mary
    May 14, 2021 at 13:06

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