Why is it so satisfying to see horrible people get what’s coming to them?
Poetic justice is the idea that someone will get, or has got, what they deserve as a consequence of their behaviour. It can be either a reward or a punishment, and these are sometimes thought of as two sides of the same coin: a perpetrator will suffer while their victim has the satisfaction of seeing that justice has been served.
It is similar to the concept of karma, by which one’s intent and actions have a direct effect on their future and wellbeing.
Another related idea is divine retribution: a divine being or the universe itself punishing someone for their actions.
Of course, these concepts are highly subjective. What someone deserves or not depends on one’s perspective. If person A has suffered as the result of Person B’s actions, then A is able to interpret B’s bad fortune as poetic justice or karma, while B might well consider that they are a victim and have reason to hope for their own vindication. Realistically, those two people may never join the same dots.
So why is the idea of poetic justice so appealing?
It can make someone going through a bad situation, or wearing the scars of previous suffering, feel that they are less alone. It can give them hope that and that someone or something somewhere might notice their situation and act in their favour. Ultimately, we would probably all want God or the universe or the supernatural or the powers that be to be on our side and rule in our favour.
The thought of someone having to pay or suffer for what they’ve done to us or to others we care about is powerful. It’s also relatable: as much as we decry revenge and know that it doesn’t solve anything, it’s still an attractive prospect— particularly if we haven’t had to actually do anything to make it happen.
Hoping for poetic justice, or karma, or divine retribution, can also function as a passive way of taking back some control from those who have hurt us. How many of us can honestly say that we haven’t thought “Well, he had THAT coming!” when something bad that has happened to a horrible person?
They are natural thoughts and feelings, and they need to be acknowledged and worked through.
Still, as understandable as those feelings may be, we cannot afford to unpack and live there, no matter how much some of us may want to. It’s not a healthy place to stay. We have to move on and find a way to prevent our feelings about someone else from controlling our behaviour and attitudes.
Perhaps that’s why seeing poetic justice delivered to fictional characters— or, indeed, to public figures who behave badly— is so satisfying. It may not be happening to our own nemesis, but at least it’s happening to someone else’s.
The Appeal of Poetic JusticeTweet
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Several of my books explore themes of poetic justice and seeing people who behave horribly punished for their actions in one way or another.
They are available via jvlpoet.com/books and in all digital stores. Paperbacks are also widely available via Amazon and Book Depository.