Pathos is a literary and rhetorical device that causes pity and sadness in the audience. Stories with a high degree of pathos are often referred to as “tear-jerkers.” Pathos also occurs in debate, writing, or speechmaking; it is used to improve arguments. Instead of using rational arguments, pathos brings in emotions to gain people’s sympathy.
II. Examples and Explanation
Pathos is often used in politics to gain support for a particular cause. For example, people often draw attention to the struggles of breast cancer patients as a way to convince people that they should donate to a particular charity. While the sadness of cancer is undeniable, it doesn’t prove that the charity is actually doing anything to help. The Susan G. Komen foundation, in particular, has frequently been accused of exploiting people’s sympathy for profit without actually doing enough to help patients or advance cancer research.
The Pokémon video games are generally known for being light-hearted and fun, but they occasionally have moments of pathos. For example, in the original games the creature Cubone lives in Pokémon Tower, a huge graveyard where his mother died and is now buried. Cubone is traumatized by his mother’s death, and has the nickname of “The Lonely Pokémon.”
Example 3[SPOILER]: Game of Thrones is famous for its pathos, especially when it comes to the Stark family. In the first few episodes, we see Eddard Stark’s nobility and honor, so we feel sad when he is betrayed and executed. Over the course of the show, the other Starks suffer similarly pitiable fates, leading to a huge buildup of pathos.
III. The Value and Risks of Pathos
Pathos has been used in rhetoric for centuries because people are naturally emotional creatures; you can often get them on your side by making them feel pity. Pathos has been especially common in tragedies, which are entirely based on sad and pitiful stories. For some reason, people often enjoy hearing such stories and seeing them acted out, so pathos has always been important to human storytelling. However, it can certainly be overdone, and too much pathos is definitely a problem – that’s when a story starts to seem silly and cheaply sentimental.
Similarly, pathos can play a role in persuasive writing and rhetoric. If you want to persuade someone to give money to the homeless, you can use sad and pitiable images of homeless people to persuade them. There are a couple of problems with this approach, however. For one thing, it’s still possible to overdo the pathos, which will cause your readers to dismiss your argument as sappy. In addition, pathos is not a logical argument, so some readers will feel that you should be more logical and rational rather than appealing to the emotions.
IV. How to Write Pathos
- Reflect on your own emotions. Since pathos is so emotional and subjective, you really have to “feel it out” rather than following a step-by-step guide. Just think about what makes you feel sadness and pity, and include these qualities to create pathos.
- Use vivid language. It’s usually not enough to just say that something sad is happening – you have to describe it in an emotionally evocative way. For example, if you say “Rachel’s dog died,” then there’s some pathos in that statement because it’s a sad situation. But there’s much more pathos if you show the sadness: “Rachel sobbed uncontrollably when she heard the news of her beloved dog’s death.”
- Don’t overdo it. This is completely up to your judgement. In some situations, the sentence about Rachel sobbing would just seem ridiculous and overdone. Different audiences respond to different amounts of pathos, so try to predict the audience reaction and don’t push the pathos too far.
V. When to Use Pathos
Pathos is used in all rhetorical situations, from poetry and theater to formal essays. However, different amounts of pathos should be used in these different situations. Too much pathos is never a good thing, but it’s an especially bad thing in more serious contexts like formal essays. You have to be extremely careful using pathos in essays, and only do it in very subtle ways. Even when you’re discussing a tragic situation such as a disease or a war, it’s best to be a little more detached and objective, rather than getting too caught up in the emotions. On the other hand, in creative writing you still have to be careful – but there’s a little more flexibility.
VI. Related Terms (with examples)
Angst is a general feeling of fear and anxiety, directed at nothing in particular or at the whole world. When we see a character experiencing angst, audiences are generally inclined to feel sadness and sympathy, which leads to pathos. However, angst can easily be overdone, leading to a sense that the character is just whiny or self-pitying. In these cases we’re more likely to feel contempt than sympathy.
Melodrama is a form of storytelling in which all the characters and events are exaggerated for emotional effect. Soap operas are a great example – the actors use extremely exaggerated gestures, and the situations are unrealistic in their scope and emotional gravity. It’s a matter of taste whether melodrama is a good thing, but at any rate, it is certainly a good example of pathos.
When something has way too much pathos, it’s described as maudlin. Say a character goes through a difficult breakup. A normal human would feel sadness in this moment, but it would be maudlin behavior for the character to stand on a rooftop and deliver a tearful speech about the depths of pain and anguish they’d been reduced to.
VII. Examples in Literature
Example 1[SPOILER:] The ending of Romeo and Juliet has plenty of pathos as the young lovers die a senseless death due to miscommunication and recklessness. In response, the audience pities them and wishes that their circumstances could have been easier (and that their behavior could have been more mature). This is common in tragedies – the moment of greatest pathos occurs right at the end so that the audience leaves with the emotions still lingering in their minds.
- Greek tragedies are always filled with pathos. Prometheus Bound, for example, takes place just after Prometheus has saved humanity from the wrath of Zeus. As punishment for defying the thunder-god, Prometheus is chained to a rock and forced to have his liver eaten by an eagle. Prometheus’s situation is deeply pitiable by itself, but the pathos is heightened by the fact that we feel gratitude toward Prometheus, who is undergoing all this pain as a consequence of his aid to our species.
VIII. Examples in Media and Popular Culture
A famous IKEA ad from 2002 makes a joke out of its own pathos. In the commercial, we see a broken lamp being taken out to the trash in order to make room for a new one. The lamp sits out in the rain, and we watch from its perspective as its former owners sit in their warm apartment, enjoying the light from their new lamp. Sad music over the whole thing, evoking a feeling of incredible sadness. Then a man steps into the frame with a raincoat and says, “Many of you feel bad for this lamp. That is because you are crazy. It has no feelings! And the new one is much better.”
Goth music (and several other musical genres) uses a lot of pathos in its lyrics. The original practitioners of this style, such as The Cure, sang about themes of loneliness and depression in a much more “pathetic” way than many of their contemporaries. For example, hardcore punk bands like Black Flag sang about the same themes using violent imagery and an angry sound; but The Cure had much more pitiable imagery.
Kids’ cartoons often have moments of remarkable pathos that we remember long after we’ve grown up. In the Disney film Bambi, Bambi’s mother is killed by a hunter in a famously tragic scene. The pathos is heightened by the fact that Bambi does not understand what’s happening, but slowly comes to realize that his mother is gone.