Thursday, December 31, 2015

Pathos: What It Is, and How Writers Evoke It

Pathos is one of the emotions that writers most frequently evoke in their work. The noun pathos comes from ancient Greek and from the verb πάσχειν, or pas-thein, which means “to suffer.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines pathos as, “A quality which evokes pity, sadness, or tenderness…”

Essentially pathos is a personal suffering, a solitary emotion,, which is what makes it so poignant. Ironically, it is that individual, interior quality of pathos that allows us to empathize with it, since we all have experienced moments of pathos.

Unlike other emotions, such as love, hate, anger, outrage, friendship, etc., pathos only requires one person to create its story. Because it mostly involves the fate of an individual, pathos might be the easiest emotion to invoke, so it’s a good place to start for a beginning writer.

One of the most classic examples of pathos for me is this poem by the great haiku writer, Hattori Ransetsu (1654–1707).

Hattori Ransetsu
Here is the haiku:

The childless woman,
How tender she is
To the dolls!

translated by R.H. Blyth

In this poem Ransetsu tells the story of one person’s life in fewer than twenty syllables. The woman, who is perhaps a shopkeeper, is arranging dolls, stroking their hair, neatening their clothes. Her tenderness toward them shows the reader the love she would have given her children, if she had had them. This one scene, which the poet depicts with a few quick brushstrokes, gives us an entire narrative. This is not a woman who has voluntarily chosen to forego having children. The pathos comes from the sense of loss, the absence of the life that this woman would have enjoyed as a mother, and the poignancy of her showing that love to a lifeless doll.

Even though pathos does not require many characters to trigger it, it is still a tricky emotion. The danger in attempting to evoke pathos is sentimentality. Imagine, for example, if Ransetsu had written instead:

That poor, lonely, childless woman—
Isn’t it terribly sad how she tenderly strokes
and soothes the dolls!

If Ransetsu had written this overblown version, we would recoil from the writer’s blatant appeal to our sympathy. It’s the restraint that Ransetsu exercises in understating the emotion that allows the reader to experience the feeling.


That’s something to keep in mind in trying to create pathos. Pathos is like mercury. It’s fluid. Unpredictable. It arrives with a sudden flash of light. Trying to force it to appear just doesn’t work. The writer has to create an authentic situation, and allow the pathos to flow into it, and once it does—snap the lid shut so it stays.

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