This device can be used in writing even if the intent of the piece is not to persuade the reader to believe something or turn to a certain ideology. It’s possible to find this rhetorical technique in poems, plays, novels, memoirs, and more. The latter is quite clear in that the writer can spend a great deal of time digging into the emotional lives of their characters. While memoirs include real stories, often making them all the more moving, and poems are custom made to inspire the reader to a particular line of thought.
Definition and Explanation of Pathos
Pathos is one of the three modes of persuasion or three elements of persuasion that are used to make successful writing. It is one of the most important components of literature. Without an emotional reaction, the author doesn’t have much more to work within the way of getting and keeping the reader’s attention.
When using these devices it’s important not to get too caught up in focusing on the reader’s emotions. The other elements of persuasion or rhetoric are equally important. Ethos is used to remind the reader of the author’s knowledge and credentials. It helps to build trust on the part of the reader as they remember that the writer knows what they’re talking about. It’s also important to include logic in one’s argument—that’s where logos come in. A logical argument depends on the author’s rationality and how they consider all the elements of their argument.
Where Can You Find Pathos?
Pathos can be found in almost all forms of writing, even those one might not immediately think of. In politics, legal proceedings, and opinion pieces, or Op-Eds in newspapers and magazines, emotions are important when trying to persuade a reader to a perspective. Despite appearing in newspapers, opinion pieces are filled with the writer’s personal ideas. These are often written with the intent of delivering an opinion for the reader to judge on their own terms, but they also are used to convince people to one mindset. For example, inflating the importance of one social norm versus another or promoting a certain ideology, such as pro or anti-war.
In politics, it’s impossible to have a discussion without pathos playing some role. Politicians argue, use personal stories and stories of their constituents all in an effort to convince other lawmakers to agree with them or voters to choose them in the next election. Those emotions they evoke might be hope or they might be fear.
Pathos was defined by Aristotle in his Rhetoric along with ethos and logos. The latter was for Aristotle the most important of the three-man modes of persuasion. He believed logos outranked the other two in importance due to the fact that any argument, no matter where it’s made, needs logic to work.
Pathos comes from the Greek meaning “suffering” or “experience.” It is, Aristotle described, a way of waking up people’s emotions in order to change their opinion. In the end, they should agree with whatever argument the writer is putting forward. It is commonly noted when speaking about pathos that Plato, Aristotle’s predecessor, didn’t think as highly of pathos as Aristotle did. He was more skeptical and believed it should be used sparingly.
Examples of Pathos in Poetry
Funeral Blues by W.H. Auden
In this well-loved poem, Auden uses pathos to make the reader experience feelings of grief along with the speaker. He depicts a speaker who lost a loved one, someone who was their companion throughout their life. The world goes on cruelly around this person, no one seems to notice that for the speaker, everything has changed. Here are a few lines:
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.
Read more poems from W.H. Auden.
Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas
In this, Thomas’s most famous poem, he directs his words to his dying father, asking him to fight to the bitter end and not give into death. The poem uses repetition and imagery in a way that makes the poem quite emotional and hard to forget. Here are a few lines:
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Read poetry by Dylan Thomas, or explore our pick of Thomas’ top 10 poems.
Bei Hennef by D.H. Lawrence
In this lesser-known poem, D.H. Lawrence’s speaker talks to his lover, going over all the things they have with one another, and the clarity night brings him. He wonders throughout the poem why anything has to be more difficult than it is at that moment. Why, he concludes, is the day any different from the night? The two “suffer” in spite of their perfect relationship. Here are the last lines of the poem:
What else—it is perfect enough,
It is perfectly complete,
You and I.
Strange, how we suffer in spite of this!
Read more poetry from D.H. Lawrence.
Why Do Writers Use Pathos?
Writers use pathos in order to keep their reader’s attention or make their arguments more solid (or convincing). If the reader can be made to feel something for a character, no matter how small or what emotion it is, it’s more likely that they’re going to stick around to find out what happens to them next. For example, if a character goes through a terrible trauma at the beginning of a novel, poem, or play, the reader should (if pathos is used effectively) feel like they want to keep reading to find out what happens next. Will the character recover? What actions will they take because of what happened to them? The reader might find themselves worrying about the character as they would someone they know personally.
- Emotional appeal
- Emotional connection
- Emotional argument
Related Literary Terms
- Imagery: the elements of a piece of literature that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.
- Play (Theatre): a form of writing for theatre. It is divided into acts and scenes.
- Metaphor: used to describe an object, person, situation, or action in a way that helps a reader understand it, without using “like” or “as”.
- Paraphrasing: to simplify it down to its most basic elements, clarifying along the way and choosing a less complicated language.
- Bathos: a sudden, jolting change in the tone of a work. This could occur in a poem, play, story, or film.