The UVic Writer's Guide

Catharsis ("Purgation" Or "Purification")

In response to Plato's attack on Greek epic and tragedy for encouraging a shameful indulgence in sorrowful emotion, Aristotle argues in his Poetics (fourth century B.C.) that tragedy allows a healthy release or purifying of emotions. This tragic catharsis is achieved through the emotions of pity and fear (forms of sympathy or empathy), which are aroused in the audience by the tragedy of a protagonist who suffers unjustly but is not wholly innocent.

Pity and fear are inspired in the audience by the suffering of someone who is morally typical: he or she is not overwhelmingly good or evil, but susceptible to error (as when acting unjustly through ignorance or passion). The protagonist's misfortune therefore inspires pity because it is worse than he or she deserves, and fear because the audience sees in it their own potential errors and suffering. (See under Hamartia ("error" or "flaw") for more on tragic error, or flaw.)

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Copyright, The Department of English, University of Victoria, 1995
This page updated September 23, 1995