The UVic Writer's Guide


Pathos is a Greek term for deep emotion, passion, or suffering. When applied to literature, its meaning is usually narrowed to refer to tragic emotions, describing the language and situations which deeply move the audience or reader by arousing sadness, sympathy, or pity.

There are many examples in Shakespeare's King Lear, such as Cordelia's acceptance of defeat:

"We are not the first / Who with best meaning have incurred the worst."

Pathos which seems excessive or exaggerated becomes melodramatic or sentimental, and when its disproportion to its subject results from anticlimax, pathos becomes bathetic. Modern tastes usually prefer pathetic effects achieved through understatement and suggestion, rather than an extended focus upon suffering, though some movies still attract large audiences by offering a good cry.

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