What Is Pathos In Literature? A Complete Guide – Jericho Writers
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What Is Pathos In Literature? A Complete Guide

What Is Pathos In Literature? A Complete Guide

Have you ever felt a lump in your throat as you watched a charity advert depicting suffering animals? Stayed up a little later to finish a book, heart racing as you willed the protagonist to succeed against the odds? Felt inspired by a speech calling for justice and change? Then you have experienced pathos – writing that creates an emotional response.  

In this guide, you’ll learn about the origins of our understanding of pathos, read our pathos definition, see how it relates to persuasive writing, and discover how pathos is used to evoke emotion in literature.  

What Is Pathos?

Pathos is language that appeals to our feelings, causing strong emotional responses.  

You will come across pathos every day, particularly in advertisements. That billboard showing a beach holiday paradise, inspiring longing and envy? The series that you just have to watch one more episode of, because you are so invested in the characters? Any time our emotions are engaged, we are experiencing pathos.  

The word ‘pathos’ itself comes from the Greek for ‘experience’, or ‘suffering’. Aristotle, a Greek philosopher who lived in 384-322 BCE, wrote about the power of pathos in Rhetoric, which was about the art of persuasion. Aristotle defined pathos as language which can draw emotions and affect people’s judgement, and is, therefore, a powerful method of persuasion, along with ethos and logos.  


How Does Pathos Relate To Ethos And Logos?

Pathos is just one rhetorical appeal. The other two aspects of rhetoric are ethos (credibility) and logos (logic). Ideally, all three are used to make a strong and persuasive argument.  

Ethos is important because it must be present for you to trust the speaker. To persuade, the audience must be convinced of the speaker’s authority or knowledge, and believe that what they are saying is reliable. Ethos can be achieved in a number of ways – by setting out credentials, by explaining their personal experience with the topic via a personal anecdote, and even by the way the speaker presents themselves. An audience’s perception of the morality and personal history of the speaker impacts ethos – we are unlikely to find a serial adulterer reliable on the topic of the importance of marriage and faithfulness, for example.  

Logos, meanwhile, is the use of logic to persuade. Including facts, statistics, and logical argument is to use logos. These provide evidence to support points that seem objective and unarguable (though we all know that facts and evidence can be presented in ways that serve a particular point of view).  

Aristotle’s Rhetoric demonstrated the need for pathos to work alongside logos and ethos to build an argument. Let’s look at exactly how we might do this.  

How Is Pathos Used To Build An Argument?

Strong emotional responses make an audience personally invested in a topic, and therefore more susceptible to persuasion. Ideally, rhetoric should employ pathos, ethos and logos in tandem. Facts and statistics presented dryly from a speaker you don’t trust will do little to persuade an audience, as will an appeal to emotion without anything to back it up. Let’s look at some successful examples of pathos in persuasive writing.  

In The News/Articles

Louise Tickle’s article on accommodation for care leavers in The Guardian evokes our feelings in its eye-catching headline: ‘We are failing children in care – and they are dying in our streets’. This headline works on a number of levels – the protectiveness that the word ‘children’ inspires, the sympathy created by the word ‘failing’, and the appalled horror when we read the word ‘dying’. More subtly, the use of the pronoun ‘our’ means we feel some personal responsibility and perhaps even guilt when considering how these vulnerable young people are being treated. This pathos example is an effective one, as the headline drives a desire for change in the reader, who may go on to support policies or initiatives that would create that change. 

In Leanna First-Arai’s article ‘Young Workers are Bridging the Climate and Labour Movements’, published in Teen Vogue, we can see the interplay of creating negative, then positive pathos. At first, the reader feels sympathy and dismay: “Young people have grown up in a chilling environment for labour, with their working lives preceded by decades of union disintegration.” Then, however, First-Arai builds hope and a sense of anticipation for a brighter future: “In the past few years, though, young people have reinvigorated the strike tactic in creative new ways.” Aristotle made the point that pathos is particularly effective when emotions are paired: sadness then happiness, despair then hope. Taking the reader on a moving emotional journey creates a strong connection and adds to the effectiveness of the piece’s persuasive force. 


In Politics And Activism

Political speeches also make use of pathos to persuade. MP Mhairi Black’s speech to the UK Parliament in May of 2022 makes use of pathos to create a chilling effect: “But most terrifying of all […] is that this government literally want to get rid of the Human Rights Act. And that begs the question, for who do they think rights have gone too far? Do you know how scary it is to sit at home and wonder if it’s you? Is it your rights that are up for grabs?” Often, political speeches contextualise an issue that might feel remote or abstract, by making it personal and drawing on the audience’s emotions. As we see here, the use of rhetorical questions and the personal pronoun ‘you’ brings the issue home, encouraging a listener to reflect on how they might feel in that situation. 

Poet and activist Lynae Vanee’s speech on climate injustice is a rallying call to indignant anger and a desire for change: “Calling communities riddled with convenience stores, gas stations, with only maybe a Walmart or Kroger ‘ghetto’ and actually they’re just food deserts […] that’s why it’s called climate injustice and that’s why this fight is not just about saving the trees.” Vanee’s use of pathos prompts a desire in listeners to effect change, a powerful tool in political speechmaking.  

How Is Pathos Used In Writing? 

Pathos is not only used in persuasive writing. A primary aim of creative writing of all types is to provoke emotion in a reader or audience. We can find pathos in screenplays, novels, short stories, and poetry. Let’s look at a few examples.  

Akwaeke Emezi’s novel Freshwater creates pathos memorably in an early scene where Ada fails to keep her younger cousin safe: “Añuli looked left, then broke free and darted, small, six, across the road.” The focus on how small and young Añuli is brings home her vulnerability to the reader, adding impact to our fear and worry.  

Pathos is used by Kirstin Innes in her novel Scabby Queen to add resonance to the title itself. A character explains the card game of the same name: “The queen goes round and round, and the object is to get rid of her – pass her on to the next one as quickly as you can.” The reader becomes aware that the central character, Clio, is the ‘scabby queen’ as her various relationships disintegrate, lending further poignancy to her situation.  

At the conclusion of Vanessa Kisuule’s poem Hollow, the reader is left with a mix of emotions, and a sense of changing perspectives. Inspired by the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston, the poem ends: 

But as you landed a piece of you fell off 

broke away 

and inside 

nothing but air. 

This whole time

You were hollow. 

Hollow by Vanessa Kisuule

A quiet and understated conclusion, the lines nevertheless leave a lasting impact – perhaps reflectiveness, maybe the bittersweet satisfaction of an overdue change.  

Kimiko Hahn’s poem The Dream of a Lacquer Box explores the complexity of her connection to Japanese culture as she dreams about what might be inside her mother’s lacquer box. The list of objects that could be inside, followed by questions (“am I wishing for Mother? searching for Sister?/Just hoping to give something Japanese to my daughters?”) allows the reader to relate to Hahn’s feelings, and empathise with her desire to belong.  

In Bong Joon-ho’s film Parasite, the audience sympathises strongly with the Kim family when they are forced to hide under a coffee table so as not to reveal their presence in the Parks’ house. While there, the Parks discuss how badly they think Kim Ki-taek – the Parks’ chauffeur – smells. A close up on Ki-taek’s face engages the audience’s sympathy, as does the small, dark space he is in, representing metaphorically to the audience how trapped Ki-taek is in this stratified society.  

Pathos is also used to create a sense of joy and triumph. At the end of the British film Pride, busloads of Welsh miners turn up unexpectedly in support of a pride march. The triumphant music and surprise and happiness on the characters’ faces add to a sense of joy and delight for the audience, emphasised by the text onscreen confirming that this was a real historical event.  


Pathos Examples From Literature

In literature, writers use pathos to help readers connect more deeply to characters, so that the writing resonates more strongly, and so that the themes and ideas being explored are meaningful and impactful. Here’s some further examples of how pathos is used effectively in books.  

A Tale For The Time Being By Ruth Ozeki

The predicament of Nao, a bullied Japanese schoolgirl, is made all the more distressing with the author’s use of metaphor: “The minute he turned his back, they would start to move in. Have you ever seen those nature documentaries where they show a pack of wild hyenas moving in to kill a wildebeest or a baby gazelle?” Likening Nao to a helpless animal surrounded by predators communicates powerfully to the reader just how vicious the bullying is, and heightens our sense of empathy for her.  

Lanny By Max Porter

In this short novel, Lanny’s dad is woken up suddenly and becomes convinced there’s an intruder in his house: “I have no actual defensive power, I am not brave, I do not fight, have never fought, I work in asset management and only fight in subtle ways on Microsoft Outlook. I’m terrified.” Here, Porter effectively weaves humour with fear as he describes the ridiculous, yet scary, situation.  

The Song Of Achilles By Madeline Miller

Appropriately for a novel inspired by Greek mythology, Miller’s The Song of Achilles has pathos in spades. The ending, where lovers Achilles and Patroclus are reunited in death, is a particularly effective example: “In the darkness, two shadows, reaching through the hopeless, heavy dusk. Their hands meet, and light spills out in a flood, like a hundred golden urns pouring out the sun.” The reader’s eyes are sure to be pouring out tears here, as the cathartic climax creates a bittersweet sense of loss, relief, and joy.  

Tips For Using Pathos In Your Own Writing 

Using the examples above, we can see that there are several ways to use pathos in your own writing.   

  • Use emotive word choice and techniques like metaphors and similes to evoke feelings. Think of the bullied Nao being likened to prey in Ruth Ozeki’s The Tale for the Time Being.  
  • You can use pathos to help readers better understand and sympathise with an anti-hero. Consider Killmonger’s backstory of loss and abandonment in the film Black Panther, which allows the audience to understand what drives him.  
  • Creating pathos is like conducting an orchestra. Tweak your language here and there to create a variety of emotional responses in your audience, before building to a crescendo.  

Frequently Asked Questions

What Type Of Literary Device Is Pathos?

Pathos is the use of language to create an emotional response in readers. It is also one of the three key components of rhetoric, or the art of persuasion, the others being ethos (credibility) and logos (logic).  

What Are Examples Of Pathos?

Some examples of pathos are:

  • An advert for a rescue charity which shows images of dogs looking alone and uncared for is an example of pathos, as it makes us feel sympathy and a desire to help.  
  • A film with a triumphant ending where the hero wins against the odds is another example – the audience feels a happy, satisfied joy.  
  • A story which puts a character in a dangerous situation engages our sense of worry and fear, using the reader’s connection to the character to create pathos. 

What Is A Simple Definition Of Pathos?

Pathos is the appeal to emotion. It can be created in writing, speech and in visual media. The aim is to persuade an audience through an emotional appeal, or to evoke emotion in response to a piece of writing or art.  

Pathos In Writing

If you want to grab your readers by the feels, pathos is the way to go. Using language to create sympathy, despair, and fear; or laughter, joy, and triumph, will add impact to your writing and leave a lasting impression on your reader.  

Remember that bringing your readers through a variety of feelings adds to the overall impact – just as in rhetoric, pathos is nothing without logos and ethos; in storytelling, one-note emotional appeals will quickly lose their resonance. Use pathos to take your readers through a spectrum of human emotion – remember that the root of the word ‘pathos’ is ‘experience’.  

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