Definition of Catastrophe
Literary catastrophes refer to pivotal, disastrous events that irrevocably alter character arcs and plot trajectories. Unlike mundane setbacks, these sudden calamities trigger irreversible upheaval. Consider Shakespeare’s tragedy of star-crossed romance, Romeo and Juliet. Though forbidden to marry by their feuding noble families, young passion overwhelms sensibility. Their secret marriage seems a triumph of love, but impetuosity and misfortune soon end the joy. Duels, banishments, and missed messages snowball. Ultimately, the lovers commit suicide upon mishearing of each other’s death. The catastrophe breaks past remedy. Their grieving families finally reconcile, but at grave cost.
While such tragedies demonstrate catastrophe’s dramatic power, the device also shapes other genres. In science fiction, speculative disasters often set wider stories into motion. Nuclear conflagrations, climate catastrophes, alien invasions and runaway technologies can provide inciting incidents or transform fictional worlds. Here the catastrophe serves more as a backdrop, which provides scenarios to explore human resilience, ethics and societal complexity. More than just plot devices, these narratives reveal that disaster’s causes, consequences, and solutions rarely fit simplistic assumptions. While using catastrophe to propel character growth and thematic depth, authors compel readers to reexamine their own worldviews.
Types of Catastrophe
Following are the common types of catastrophe:
Tragedy is an event with disastrous consequences. It culminates the downfall of a protagonist. Tragedies typically feature a peripeteia and a protagonist who makes a fatal flaw that seals their fate. Examples include Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet.
These are events like floods, storms, wildfires, earthquakes or disease outbreaks that threaten human lives and disrupt societies. They can test characters’ resilience. Examples feature in novels like The Plague by Camus.
Stories depicting widespread destruction and the end of the world through nuclear wars, climate change, pandemics, etc. Life as characters know it is irreversibly changed. Examples include post-apocalyptic fiction like Oryx and Crake.
Devastating events that destroy a main character’s life, dreams or family through death, ruination, betrayal, or catastrophic failure after taking risky actions. The fall is precipitous. Examples include Death of a Salesman.
Stories in which society itself has become corrupted or oppressive. Individual freedoms and rights are severely curtailed by totalitarian regimes with social control. Characters suffer in worlds gone awry. Examples include 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale.
Examples of Catastrophe in literature
“A Night to Remember” by Walter Lord
“There was no moon. The water seemed on fire with light. On the port side was the gigantic steel wall of the ship’s hull. The Titanic was tilted at such an angle that one could see right down into the water.”
The aforesaid excerpt describes the sinking of the Titanic after hitting an iceberg. The lack of moon in the dark night and the fiery light reflect the chaos and urgency. The tilting ship and the description of the hull conveys the enormity of the catastrophe as the “unsinkable” ship rapidly sinks into the freezing Atlantic.
“The Last Days of Pompeii” by Edward Bulwer-Lytton
“Darkness came on; the wind roared; showers of ashes fell; the earth trembled and shook; the sea approached the town…Soon the ashes fell so thick that we could no longer see.”
The lines dramatize the AD 79 catastrophic volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius and utter destruction of the city Pompeii. The darkness, wind, falling ashes, rumbling earth and encroaching sea create an apocalyptic scene of a once thriving city being buried and destroyed within hours.
“All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque
“Bombardment, barrage, curtain-fire, mines, gas, tanks, machine-guns, hand-grenades – words, words, words, but they hold the horror of the world.”
This impactful line encapsulates the horrific mechanized trench warfare of World War I. The matter-of-fact listing of deadly weapons contrasts with the brutal carnage they unleashed. It reflects the catastrophe of “The Great War” that killed 20 million, devastating a generation.
“Salvage the Bones” by Jesmyn Ward
“The storm hit that Tuesday with the crash of a bomb. There was no warning, only a sudden great blast as the house shook and lightening flashed simultaneously…The water surged through, rising swiftly as it barged through the house, smashed into walls, shoved furniture aside.”
Ward vividly captures the intensity of the category 5 hurricane making landfall, evoking the cacophonous crash and flash of light as the storm forces its way into the house. The violent water rapidly rises, which destroys the home. This excerpt underscores Katrina’s shocking speed and force conveying how quickly catastrophic destruction ensued.
“Pale Horse, Pale Rider” by Katherine Anne Porter
“As the swelling rampart of mist blew nearer, I saw that it was shot through with a million veins of silver and violet lightning. The death mist seemed to engulf the whole round earth; in a few seconds the bitter-electric taste of the cyclone was on my lips…This was no ordinary storm.”
This depicts the onset of the 1918 influenza pandemic as a surreal, apocalyptic purple storm. An ominous, creeping meteorological event infused with lightning and an eerie taste. The metaphoric storm represents the virus rapidly infecting the protagonist Miranda and spreading death across the world. Porter foreshadows the swelling catastrophe soon to arrive, which killed 50-100 million globally.
Catastrophe Examples in Pop-Culture
The 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic is depicted in James Cameron’s epic 1997 film ‘Titanic’. The movie dramatizes the catastrophe that occurred when the supposedly “unsinkable” ship struck an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage, resulting in over 1,500 deaths.
2- Jurassic Park
In the 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park by Steven Spielberg, a fictional theme park featuring cloned dinosaurs spirals into chaos when a catastrophic power failure allows the dangerous creatures to escape their enclosures. They break free and wreak havoc on the park and its visitors, which demonstrates that tampering with nature can lead to catastrophic consequences.
3- Deepwater Horizon
This 2016 film dramatizes the catastrophic 2010 explosion and oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico. The disaster on the BP-operated rig, which killed 11 workers, led to the largest marine oil spill in history. The movie depicts the harrowing experiences of the crew during the initial blast and subsequent fires and sinking. It also shows the devastating environmental impacts as nearly 5 million barrels of oil spewed uncontained into Gulf waters, wreaking ecological havoc. The Deepwater Horizon catastrophe and its aftermath showed the potential consequences when risky engineering overlooks safety, resulting in loss of life and environmental crises. The film brought renewed attention to this cautionary real-world disaster.
Peripeteia refers to a sudden reversal of fortune or change in circumstances, especially in a literary work. It is a turning point where an action veers in an unexpected direction. Peripeteia often leads to a moment of recognition or discovery that creates a dramatic shift.
In tragedies and other dramatic works, peripeteia brings about a protagonist’s downfall. It overturns a previously stable condition and interrupts the normal course of events. For example, in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Oedipus is the respected and beloved king of Thebes when he slowly discovers that he has unwittingly killed his father and married his mother. This shattering revelation that he has fulfilled a prophecy he spent years trying to avoid represents the peripeteia that leads to his tragic downfall.
II- Deus ex Machina
It refers to the unexpected appearance of an outside power, event or object that provides a contrived solution to a seemingly unsolvable problem in a story. Typically, the deus ex machina intervenes out of nowhere when events have spiraled out of the protagonist’s control. The phrase means “god from the machine.” It originates from ancient Greek theater, when an actor playing a god would be lowered onto the stage via a mechanical crane (machine) to resolve tangled plot events and bring the play to a satisfying close. A deus ex machina is generally seen as an inelegant plot device because it introduces new, unexpected elements rather than logically building upon existing story threads .
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