Definition of Catharsis
When used in literature, catharsis is the the release of emotions such as pity, sadness, and fear through witnessing art. Catharsis involves the change of extreme emotion to lead to internal restoration and renewal. Catharsis was first linked to drama, especially to tragedy, by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. The theory was that, through viewing tragedy, people learned to display emotions at a proper amount and lessen excessive outbursts of emotion in daily life.
The word catharsis comes from the Greek word katharsis, which means “purification” or “cleansing.” Aristotle created the definition of the literary term catharsis based on the medical use of purgative drugs or herbs which cleansed the body. He used this metaphor for literature cleansing the emotions and/or mind.
Common Examples of Catharsis
We experience catharsis in many different ways in our everyday lives. For example, if you ever go to a movie that you know is going to make you cry and you go for the experience of crying, this is catharsis. Here are other common examples of catharsis in daily life:
- When a relationship ends, one or both parties might choose to “purge” the other out of his/her lives by throwing away mementos and getting ride of shared objects.
- When a loved one dies the family might wish to scatter the ashes together in a significant place to feel a renewal of spirit.
- When a significant life stage is over, such as college, there is a ceremony that encourages strong emotions so that they may be released.
Significance of Catharsis in Literature
There are two ways in which catharsis is significant in literature. The first is the classical definition of catharsis in which reading a particular work of literature, such as a tragedy, allows the reader to experience intense emotions in an indirect way (i.e., nothing bad is happening to the reader) and thus feel a cleansing of emotions.
An author also may choose to show a character going through a cathartic event of his or her own. When a character goes through catharsis, we may expect that character to act differently afterwards or experience an intellectual clarifying. Catharsis in either case asks the reader to identify strongly with the main character(s) and experience those strong emotions at a safe distance.
Examples of Catharsis in Literature
OEDIPUS: Dark, dark! The horror of darkness, like a shroud,
Wraps me and bears me on through mist and cloud.
Ah me, ah me! What spasms athwart me shoot,
What pangs of agonizing memory?
(Oedipus Rex by Sophocles)
The tragedy of Oedipus the King has many facets, a chief one being that he doesn’t heed the prophecies and brings down his own fate upon himself. It is one of the key plays that Aristotle was considering when he created his theory of catharsis. And indeed, the end of Oedipus Rex brings the audience a catharsis example because here Oedipus is overcome with memories, which we as the audience can only imagine as being those prophecies he did not pay enough attention to.
OTHELLO: I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely, but too well.
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought,
Perplexed in the extreme. Of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe.
I took by the throat the circumcisèd dog,
And smote him, thus.
(Othello by William Shakespeare)
At the end of William Shakespeare’s Othello, just as in every other tragedy that Shakespeare wrote, many characters die. The true tragedy of Othello is not just the deaths of the characters Desdemona and Othello, but that Othello realizes his mistake too late. He understands only after he has killed Desdemona that Iago has led him astray. Therefore, his catharsis must come in the form of suicide, and he stabs himself after his final line. The catharsis for the audience comes in the fear of being betrayed by a friend, feeling that intense remorse on Othello’s behalf, and witnessing his death, perhaps with a pledge never to be so taken in themselves by a friend’s reassurances and stories.
There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There’s .1 and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. A writer we used to like taught us that. There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I’m likely to get, and God, I want more numbers for Augustus Waters than he got. But, Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I’m grateful.
(The Fault in Our Stars by John Green)
John Green’s novel for young adults, The Fault in Our Stars, was also immensely popular with adults primarily because of its reputation of being an example of catharsis. The two main characters, Hazel and Augustus, meet because they are both teenagers with cancer. It is a given, just as in any ancient Greek or Shakespearian tragedy, that these main characters will die. In this quote from near the end of the book, Augustus has died and Hazel is reflecting on their love. The moment is cathartic both for her and for the audience because it is an affirmation of the intense strength of her feeling for him, and rather than succumbing to sadness she feels a gratitude toward Augustus for having existed at all.
“But this is touching, Severus,” said Dumbledore seriously. “Have you grown to care for the boy, after all?”
“For him?” shouted Snape. “Expecto Patronum!” From the tip of his wand burst the silver doe. She landed on the office floor, bounded once across the office, and soared out of the window. Dumbledore watched her fly away, and as her silvery glow faded he turned back to Snape, and his eyes were full of tears.
“After all this time?”
“Always,” said Snape.”
(Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling)
The Harry Potter series comes to an end in dramatic fashion in the seventh book with many deaths on both sides of the battle. However, perhaps no death is quite as tragic as that of Severus Snape, who has been woefully misunderstood for the entirety of the series. This moment of catharsis comes after Snape is already dead and Harry is gazing back into Snape’s memories. It is revealed here that Snape never stopped loving Harry’s mother, Lily, and everything he did was to honor her memory. This catharsis allows the audience and Harry to feel the intense sadness of Snape’s life and perhaps think to which lengths they would go to honor a loved one’s memory.
Test Your Knowledge of Catharsis
1. Which of the following statements is the best catharsis definition?
A. A medicinal herb that encourages the body to retain fluids.
B. A display of emotions that is not connected to anything.
C. The release of strong emotions by way of an artistic experience.
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2. Why would an author choose to include a cathartic moment in her work of literature?
A. The author wants to provide a release of emotion either in a character or in the audience.
B. The author wants to upset the audience for no reason.
C. The author feels that intense emotions are not real and can only be conveyed through literature.
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3. Which of the following moments from William Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet constitutes an example of catharsis?
ROMEO: But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon…
JULIET: Yea, noise? then I’ll be brief. O happy dagger! [Snatching ROMEO’S dagger. This is thy sheath; [Stabs herself.] there rest, and let me die.
PRINCE: A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things:
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
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