Definition of Pathos

Pathos constitutes an appeal to the emotions of an audience. It is a popular technique by orators and writers alike to connect with people on an emotional level, which is often far more moving than logic or reason. For this reason, pathos is also sometimes akin to a fallacy when it is used only for the purpose of convincing an audience of something even when there is no evidence to support that conclusion. At times, there can be an element of manipulation when pathos is used because it triggers deeply-held emotions and beliefs on the part of the audience without justifying its use. Whether or not it is used as a manipulative technique, pathos can be extremely powerful.

Pathos is one of the three means of persuasion that Aristotle discussed in his text Rhetoric. The definition of pathos shows that it is an emotive mode of persuasion, whereas logos (the appeal to logic) and ethos (the appeal to ethics) are not emotive. The word pathos comes from the Greek word pathea, meaning “suffering” or “experience.”

Common Examples of Pathos

Most advertising is based on pathos. Advertisers try to appeal to the emotional needs of the audience by showing how a product or service can make them happier, safer, healthier, etc. Advertisers use the emotions of fear, disgust, and hope to trigger reactions in the audience. Consider these examples of pathos:

It’s also very easy to see examples of pathos in famous political speeches. Again, some pathos examples are simply manipulative and false, whereas others call on the audience’s emotions to stir up positive feeling and optimism. Here are some examples of pathos from famous orators that inspire hope:

  • “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”—Martin Luther King Jr., “I have a dream” speech
  • “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”—John F. Kennedy, “We choose to go to the moon” speech
  • “It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker’s son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.”—Barack Obama, Keynote address at the 2004 DNC

Significance of Pathos in Literature

It is perhaps easiest to recognize examples of pathos in drama, as the characters may appeal directly to other characters’ emotions, and indirectly to the emotions of the audience. However, almost all works of literature, whether drama, poetry, or prose, include at least some moments of pathos. Authors do want to connect the dramatic moments of their stories or poems with the emotions of the audience. This is not usually to manipulate the audience in quite so cynical a way as some advertisers and politicians intend to do. Instead, it is to draw on the empathy of the audience so they are able to understand the world just a little better, and sometimes to provide moments of catharsis, which could have psychological benefits for the reader. Indeed, there has been some research that indicates that people who read novels benefit from reading about other stories, thereby expanding their worldview and broadening their sense of empathy. When a reading audience feels more emotionally connected to a work of literature, that piece of literature has a more long-lasting impression.

Examples of Pathos in Literature

Example #1

IAGO: Call up her father,
Rouse him. Make after him, poison his delight,
Proclaim him in the streets; incense her kinsmen,
And, though he in a fertile climate dwell,
Plague him with flies. Though that his joy be joy,
Yet throw such changes of vexation on ‘t
As it may lose some color.
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is topping your white ewe. Arise, arise;
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you:
Arise, I say.

(Othello by William Shakespeare)

This is an interesting example of pathos from William Shakespeare’s Othello, in that we can see Iago’s clear plan to manipulate Desdemona’s father’s emotions. Iago knows that Brabantio is xenophobic and will disapprove of Desdemona’s marriage to Othello. Thus, in the first excerpt Iago plans to “poison his delight” and in the second excerpt does this exactly by using overtly racist language meant to anger Brabantio. Iago uses pathos throughout the play in very effective and manipulative ways.

Example #2

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

(“Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allen Poe)

Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee” recounts the sad tale of a young man who has lost his love. However, Poe does not just draw on sappy sentimentality; in this final stanza he does an excellent job of evoking joy, grief, loss, and love in the audience all at once.

Example #3

JOHN PROCTOR: Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!

(The Crucible by Arthur Miller)

This is an incredibly emotional moment in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. John Proctor has been accused of witchcraft. In this excerpt, Proctor refuses to sign his confession, which would save him from being executed. Though he understands there is no logic to this decision, Proctor cannot let his reputation be so tarnished and appeals to emotion in his final moments.

Example #4

JIM: Aw, aw, aw. Is it broken?
LAURA: Now it is just like all the other horses.
JIM: It’s lost its—
LAURA: Horn! It doesn’t matter. . . . [smiling] I’ll just imagine he had an operation. The horn was removed to make him feel less—freakish!

(The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams)

This is a pathos example from Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie in which Laura is trying to avoid pity from Jim, her crush, and yet the scene does indeed appeal to pity in the audience. This scene foreshadows a later scene in which Jim’s clumsiness will metaphorically break the fragile Laura, just as he literally broke her favorite glass animal, the unicorn. The audience feels a great amount of pity for Laura here as she is trying to be strong and hope that this is an omen of things getting better for herself.

Test Your Knowledge of Pathos

1. Which of these statements is the best pathos definition?
A. An experience which allows the reader to cleanse him or herself of his or her emotions.
B. A manipulative lie intended to make people cry.
C. An appeal to the emotions of the audience, whether fear, sadness, disgust, or hope.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Consider the following quote from the character of Amanda in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie:

Well, in the South we had so many servants. Gone, gone, gone. All vestige of gracious living! Gone completely! I wasn’t prepared for what the future brought me. All of my gentlemen callers were sons of planters and so of course I assumed that I would be married to one and raise my family on a large piece of land with plenty of servants. But man proposes—and woman accepts the proposal! To vary that old, old saying a bit—I married no planter! I married a man who worked for the telephone company! . . . A telephone man who—fell in love with long-distance!

What type of emotion is Amanda appealing to?
A. Fear
B. Optimism
C. Pity

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following statements is an example of pathos?
A. As a medical doctor with twenty years of practice, I’ve seen the effects of smoking firsthand.
B. If you don’t quit smoking today, everyone you know and love will die because of your habit.
C. Research has linked smoking with a higher prevalence of certain types of cancer, including lung cancer and leukemia.

Answer to Question #3 Show

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