Definition of Pathos
Pathos is a literary device that is designed to inspire emotions from readers. Pathos, Greek for “suffering” or “experience,” originated as a conceptual mode of persuasion with the Greek philosopher, Aristotle. Aristotle believed that utilizing pathos as a means of stirring people’s emotions is effective in turning their opinion towards the speaker. This is due in part because emotions and passion can be engulfing and compelling, even going against a sense of logic or reason.
Pathos, as an appeal to an audience’s emotions, is a valuable device in literature as well as rhetoric and other forms of writing. Like all art, literature is intended to evoke feeling in a reader and, when done effectively, generate greater meaning and understanding of existence. For example, in his poem “No Man Is an Island,” John Donne appeals to the reader’s emotions of acceptance, belonging, and empathy:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
By describing how all men are connected rather than isolated, Donne utilizes pathos as an emotional appeal to readers of his poem. The feelings evoked by the poet are grief and sympathy for all who die, because all death is an individual loss and a loss for mankind as a whole.
Common Examples of Emotions Evoked by Pathos
Pathos has the power to evoke many emotions in a reader or audience of a literary work. Here are some common examples of emotions evoked by pathos in literature:
Examples of Pathos in Advertisement
Advertisers heavily rely on pathos to provoke an emotional reaction in an audience of consumers, thereby persuading them to take action in the form of patronage or other monetary support. Here are some examples of pathos in advertisement:
- television commercial showing neglected or mistreated animals
- political ad utilizing fear tactics
- holiday commercial showing a family coming together for a meal
- cologne commercial displaying sexual tension
- diaper ad featuring a crying baby
- ad for cleaning product featuring a messy house and frustrated homeowner
- jewelry commercial showing a marriage proposal
- insurance ad showing a terrible car accident
- ad for line of toys showing children playing together
- commercial for make-up displaying a woman receiving attention from men
Famous Examples of Pathos in Movie Lines
- Love means never having to say you’re sorry. (Love Story)
- The jail you planned for me is the one you’re gonna rot in. (The Color Purple)
- I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore. (Network)
- The marks humans leave are too often scars. (The Fault in Our Stars)
- I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. (The Shawshank Redemption)
- And just like that, she was gone, out of my life again. (Forrest Gump)
- There are two types of people in the world: The people who naturally excel at life. And the people who hope all those people die in a big explosion. (The Edge of Being Seventeen)
- You have to get through your fear to see the beauty on the other side. (The Good Dinosaur)
- Hate never solved nothing, but calm did. And thought did. Try it. Try it just for a change. (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
- Things change, friends leave. And life doesn’t stop for anybody. (The Perks of Being a Wallflower)
Difference Between Pathos, Logos, and Ethos
Aristotle outlined three forms of rhetoric, which is the art of effective speaking and writing. These forms are pathos, logos, and ethos. As a matter of rhetorical persuasion, it is important for these forms (or “appeals”) to be balanced. This is especially true for pathos in that overuse of emotional appeal can lead to flawed argument without the balance of logic or credibility.
Logos is an appeal of logic. It is considered a methodical and rational approach to rhetoric. In a sense, logos is an appeal that is devoid of pathos. Ethos is an appeal of ethics. As an effective rhetorical form, a writer or speaker must have knowledge and credibility regarding the subject. Ethos therefore builds trust with an audience as an ethical and character-driven approach.
Pathos is a common form of rhetoric and persuasive tactic. Emotion and passion can be powerful forces in motivating an audience or readership. However, pathos has minimal effect without the balance of logos and ethos as appeals.
Examples of Pathos in Literature
Though Aristotle defined pathos as a rhetorical technique for persuasion, literary writers rely on pathos as well to evoke emotion and understanding in readers. As a literary device, pathos allows readers to connect to and finding meaning in characters and narratives. Here are some examples of pathos in literature and the impact this literary device has on the work and the reader:
Example 1: Funeral Blues (W.H. Auden)
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
In his poem, Auden relies on pathos as a literary device to evoke feelings of grief and inspire sympathy in the reader. The poet cannot cope with the loss of his loved one and companion, yet the world around him continues to function as if nothing is different and as if the funeral is not taking place. The poet’s passion for his loved one, that he was all cardinal directions and days and times, followed by the poet’s desperation to remove elements of nature, inspires sympathetic mourning in readers.
Though the poet cannot get the world to pause in grief for his loved one, by utilizing pathos as a literary device in this poem, Auden is able to momentarily capture the reader’s attention and understanding. This pause for grief and sympathy on the part of the reader fulfills, on some level, the emotional need of the poet to be recognized and validated in his mourning. This reciprocal exchange of feeling enhances the connection between the poet and reader through pathos.
Example 2: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou)
If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.
In her memoir, Angelou focuses on the emotional events of her life from early childhood through adolescence. While recounting her story, Angelou utilizes pathos to appeal to the reader’s emotions and to evoke empathy for her experiences, especially in terms of trauma, abuse, and racism.
In this particular passage from her memoir, Angelou appeals to the reader’s feelings of shame, empathy, and fear by describing her experience and how she felt as a Black girl growing up in the South. This allows the reader to connect with and find meaning in Angelou’s writing and experiences, especially if those experiences are unfamiliar or personally unknown to the reader. In addition, the pathos in this passage is an effective literary device through confronting the reader with the pain, displacement, and insult experienced not just by Angelou as a Southern Black girl, but in a generalized manner for all Southern Black girls. Angelou’s readers are therefore encouraged through pathos to identify this experience and share in the resulting emotional anger and pain.
Example 3: Romeo and Juliet (William Shakespeare)
Two households, both alike in dignity
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
In the prologue, Shakespeare foreshadows the events that take place in the play between Romeo and Juliet and their families. He also foreshadows the feelings and struggles of the characters, which is an appeal to the pathos of the audience/reader. For example, by stating that “civil blood makes civil hands unclean,” Shakespeare evokes feelings of dread and uncertainty in the audience, knowing that there is impending violence. By categorizing Romeo and Juliet as “star-cross’d” lovers, Shakespeare appeals to the audience’s feelings of passion and unrequited love. Finally, in announcing the deaths of the lovers, Shakespeare inspires sadness, grief, and possibly anger or frustration in the audience at the foretold outcome.
With these emotional appeals in his prologue, Shakespeare not only prepares his audience for what is to come in the plot of the play, but also sets the tone and prepares the appropriate emotional reactions for the audience to the events that will happen. This is a unique use of pathos as a literary device. Rather than allowing the audience to feel and react to the play’s narrative as it unfolds, Shakespeare “primes” emotional responses through pathos before the play even begins. This technique is effective because the audience is able to focus on the nuances of the play since they are already aware of the main events and outcomes, as well as how to feel about it.