There’s a scene in the fine and dark TV series Breaking Bad in which a villainous drug dealer, half-dead and half-blinded by a poisonous gas, stumbles down a suburban street and runs into one of his adversaries. The dealer can see just enough to recognize who it is, but he can’t see enough to realize, when he lurches off in a panic, that he’s heading straight for a large cottonwood tree. He slams into the trunk and knocks himself out cold. In the midst of that scene of tense dramatic confrontation, the resolution—a moment of classic slapstick reversal—is unavoidably funny.
We do seem to love narrative reversals. We love to see characters not just being wrong but also discovering that they are wrong. Yet for ourselves, we want to be right. We want to understand—understand ourselves, our world, our relationships. We may generally believe that as we go through life, our understanding, our basic rightness about things, grows. Or even if we don’t believe that, then we may construe that very doubt as a kind of growing rightness. So why do we love the moments in narratives of all kinds—stories, movies, epics, plays, novels, TV shows—when exactly the opposite happens, when people are proven categorically to be wrong? Part of the answer may be that it sparks a recognition of something about how our life works: that being wrong can, and often does, bring us closer to being right.
Tragedy just as much as slapstick thrives on reversal. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Oedipus is welcomed to the plagued city of Thebes as a hero, determined to root out the ill afflicting its citizens. He works tirelessly to relieve the city of its curse, little suspecting its true source. The story is timeless and universal, so much so that Freud placed it at the core of his theory of psychoanalysis. But its universality is not limited to its application to a speculative theory about unconscious desires. There is something in its very structure that continues to speak to us. The play’s key moment, the dramatic pivot on which the action turns, is when Oedipus discovers to his horror that the real source of Thebes’ problem is none other than he himself. His true identity is not that of a hero but of an incestuous parricide.
Aristotle had a term for this kind of sudden reversal: peripeteia. He saw it as essential to the success of any narrative. Peripeteia literally means a “turning around.” A healthy, wealthy king becomes a blind, outcast pauper (Oedipus); a dutiful sister winds up a convicted felon (Antigone); a great warrior-king becomes a wandering seafarer who in turn becomes a settled farmer (Odysseus); and so on. But the best peripeteia, according to Aristotle, are those that involve more than just a change in fortune. They have an additional ingredient, anagnorisis—or “recognition”—a moment when a character discovers for himself his own wrongness. This, says Aristotle, characterizes the highest, most affecting kind of drama.
The illumination here is less concerned with matters external as with internal problems. The character undergoes a reversal in her construal of reality. What she thought true turns out to be false, and what she thought false turns out to be true. Pride and Prejudice has one of the purest examples of this, when Elizabeth Bennett realizes that everything she thought about Darcy is wrong and that the problem is not his pride but her prejudice. The entire story turns right there. Another clear example is King Lear. Lear is taken in by the flattery of his deceitful daughters, Regan and Goneril, and he banishes the loving and loyal Cordelia, but he finally realizes that he got it upside down. In that realization, out on the heath in the storm, he loses his sanity but regains his humanity. Though it comes too late to avert horrible tragedy, there is, in seeing the truth, a measure of redemption.
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