Definition of Denouement

The denouement of a story occurs just after the climax and is the final moment in which there is resolution for any remaining conflicts in the plot. All the loose ends of the plot are tied up in this last scene, secrets are revealed, and there may be a sense of catharsis for the reader or audience member at this point. It is also a return to normalcy for the characters, though there may be a “new normal” after the intricacies of the plot have occurred and been revealed. Generally, in a comedy the characters end up happier than they were at the beginning of the plot (a “happier ever after” scenario), while in tragedies the characters end up worse off than in the beginning, often with one or more deaths.

The word denouement comes from the French word desnouer, which means “to untie” (originally from the Latin word for knot, nodus). In a sense, the definition of denouement is the untying of all the knots created throughout a piece of drama or fiction.

Common Examples of Denouement

Certain world events can be seen as having a similar structure to dramatic plots, broken into rising action, a climax (or set of climaxes), falling action, and denouement. Here are some examples of denouement as seen in the real world:

  • World War II: The denouement of World War II could be seen as the official surrender of Japan in 1945. This comes after the surrender of the Germans in May of 1945 and the horrific “climax” of the atomic bombs being dropped, the moment in which nothing could be the same afterwards.
  • American Revolution: Though the United States celebrates 1776 as the year of independence from Great Britain, the final denouement came in 1783 when the final British troops left New York City and Washington resigned as Commander.
  • Good Friday Agreement: This agreement was signed in Belfast on Good Friday, April 10th, 1998 as part of the Northern Ireland peace process. The signing of the agreement itself is a sort of denouement, as it comes after many years of strife and violence, and then later at the end of several years of talks, referendums, elections, pledges, and so on. There were many events leading up to this important agreement, and the final signing of it represented a certain end of the story, though of course it did not completely solve all discord immediately.

Significance of Denouement in Literature

Most works of fiction and drama include a denouement as a way of wrapping up the story and providing a conclusion, whether or not it is ambiguous. Only in some post-modern stories is there no real denouement. The German novelist and playwright Gustav Freytag developed the pyramid theory of narrative structure in the 1800s to describe classical dramas such as Ancient Greek and Shakespearean plays. However, his theories are easily applied to many modern plots as well. Freytag broke the elements of a story into five parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. While many stories are more complex than this five-part scheme, Freytag’s pyramid is useful for understanding the development and resolution of conflict, which is so necessary in all stories.

Examples of Denouement in Literature

Example #1

PRINCE: A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things:
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

This is an example of denouement from a tragedy. The climax of the play is the scene in which the two young lovers, Romeo and Juliet, commit suicide. Afterward, the other characters in the play rush in to see what has happened and find them dead. The Prince ends the play by giving a short eulogy for the couple, which leads to the new normal of the Montagues and Capulets putting an end to their animosity.

Example #2

PUCK: If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend.

(A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare)

Unlike the first example, this finale to a William Shakespeare play comes at the end of a comedy. The character of Puck addresses the audience in this final epilogue, after the happy couples have all married each other. Puck makes light not only of the episodes that have occurred in the play, but also of the concept of going to a play. It’s appropriate for a comedy that the audience should leave feeling uplifted, and Puck makes sure of that here.

Example #3

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

(Animal Farm by George Orwell)

This is an interesting denouement example from George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The entire plot has been about the animals of a farm rebelling against their human oppressors, but after some time the pigs begin to see themselves as better than the other animals. In this final line, the other animals cannot distinguish between the pigs and their original oppressors, showing that they have become one and the same.

Example #4

Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.

(One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez)

Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude ends with the above excerpt. A wizardly character has left parchments to be deciphered by the central family in the novel, and the moment in which the character Aureliano Babilonia finally decodes them is concurrent with the end of his family line. It is almost as if the final revelation of secrets in this denouement example is actually one of the causes of the family’s destruction.

Example #5

Very few castaways can claim to have survived so long at sea as Mr. Patel, and none in the company of an adult Bengal tiger.

(Life of Pi by Yann Martel)

Throughout the contemporary novel Life of Pi, there is some ambiguity about whether the tiger Richard Parker is an actual creature or a metaphor for something (or someone else). While many have taken the story at face-value that the main character Pi Patel survived a shipwreck on lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, this final line of the novel casts some doubt on whether this unlikely survival story could really have happened. Thus, this denouement example is an ambiguous one, open to reader interpretation.

Example #6

There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.

(“Brokeback Mountain” by E. Annie Proulx)

E. Annie Proulx’s short story “Brokeback Mountain” is about the difficulties that two men face when they fall in love in a culture that is rabidly homophobic. This final line shows the utter tragedy of their story—the characters of Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar fantasize about escaping from disapproving society, yet they cannot fix it. Ennis comes to the painful realization that all he can do is “stand it.”

Test Your Knowledge of Denouement

1. Which of the following statements is the best denouement definition?
A. The beginning of a work of literature.
B. The most important action that happens in a plot, after which nothing can be the same.
C. The very end of a story after the climax has occurred and final secrets are revealed.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. The following quote is the very last line from a William Shakespeare play:

Myself will straight aboard, and to the state
This heavy act with heavy heart relate.

Based on this denouement, would you guess that this is the final line of a tragedy or comedy?
A. Tragedy
B. Comedy
C. History

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following statements is true?
A. In a comedy, the characters often end up worse off at the end of a plot than they are at the beginning.
B. In a tragedy, the characters’ fortunes generally get better after the opening, but then fall at the end.
C. After the denouement, there is a final conclusion.

Answer to Question #3 Show

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