Bathos is defined as a sudden, jolting change in the tone of a work. This could occur in a poem, play, story, or film. The change is from the poetic to the mundane or from the sublime to the absurd. It is done intentionally or unintentionally by writers of all skill levels.
If used on accident it can result in a displeasing transition from one mode of thought or speech to the next. Lines might come across as over the top or overwrought and then immediately return to basic, forgettable description or dialogue.
If a writer uses bathos purposefully it is usually for comedic effect. It can turn what is a dramatic-seeming moment into something humorous, perhaps even creating a kind of commentary on the larger narrative that’s playing out. This technique is, contemporaneously, found in skits, jokes, and comedic scenes and movies.
History of Bathos
The term bathos was created in 1727 within Alexander Pope’s essay “Peri Bathous”. It was used to describe an amusing and failed attempt at creating something that was, or felt, artistically great or successful.
Bathos has appeared in genres like burlesque and mock-epic as well as in more contemporary comedic stories.
The word “bathos” comes from the Greek word meaning “depth”. Pope was very aware of this fact and used it to his advantage. He used it to reference the depths to which a writer will go to try to impress or control the audience, allowing themselves to use terrible lines within their works. He also used it to refer to attempts at appealing to the depths of a reader’s or audience member’s emotions.
Purpose of Bathos
Bathos has been used over the last centuries to criticize writers for their mediocre attempts at creating drama or purposefully in order to cut the tension from a dramatic scene for comic effect. It has become more popular in recent decades as a way to bring light to what could be a tense scene and remind the reader or observer of a film that the characters are real, fallible, and liable to make mistakes.
Examples of Bathos in Literature
Example #1 Enoch Arden by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
One of the best known and most commonly cited examples of bathos comes from Tennyson’s narrative poem ‘Enoch Arden’. It is a long poem and is often criticized for its ending. A reader has to determine whether or not Tennyson made the choices he did willing to accept the criticism, or if the poet laureate made a mistake in how he concluded the poem.
The work tells the story of a sailor, Enoch Arden, who for ten years is believed to be dead by his family. He was in a shipwreck and when he finally gets home is horrified to learn that his family has moved on. His wife is remarried to a rival form his childhood and due to the strain of this turn of events, he dies of a broken heart. The final tercet has become a famous example of bathos. It reads:
So past the strong heroic soul away.
And when they buried him the little port
Had seldom seen a costlier funeral.
The tragic loss and drama are brought to a screeching halt by talk of the cost of his funeral. It brings the reader back into the real world. The events stop being romanticized and one is reminded of a real fact of life.
Example #2 Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Another well-known example of bathos comes from Joseph Heller’s seminal work Catch-22. It is set during World War II and follows the life of an airforce captain named John Yossarian. The novel explores the absurd nature of war and the difficulty that Yossarian and his comrades have in mentally processing everything that happens to them.
Here is one of several examples of bathos:
“Prostitution is bad! Everybody knows that, even him.” He turned with confidence to experienced old man. “Am I right?”
“You’re wrong,” answered the old man. “Prostitution gives her an opportunity to meet people. It provides fresh air and wholesome exercise, and it keeps her out of trouble.”
In these lines, a reader is exposed to a discussion about prostitution. The first speaker, Nately, is engaging an old man on the topic. The old man uses a humorous and traditional Heller-like argument that prostitution is not bad because women can keep “out of trouble” and get “wholesome exercise”.