The Greek pathos literally means "experience." A literary technique that uses language and described situations, as well as the emotions of characters within a work, to incite tragic emotion within the reader. The idea is to move the reader to sadness, pity, or sympathy. Originally the Greek word simply meant deep emotion, such as passion or suffering.

There are innumerable examples of pathos, as it has become an expected experience in literature; it is taken for granted that a good work will provoke an emotional response. For example, in the fifth book of J.K. Rowlings' Harry Potter series, the protagonist's recently aquired God-Father is killed in an epic battle with the forces of darkness. Harry’s emotions are described, and the emotions and reactions of others in such a way that a reaction, whatever it may be, is extracted from the reader.

Marcus Fabius Quintilian used pathos to describe violent emotions, and ethos, to describe calmer emotions.

Pathos in rhetoric is the ability of a speaker or writer to convey emotion in their message (logos) effectively. Aristotle writes: “To this and only this we said contemporary technical writers give their attention.” The ability to convey feeling to the reader and incite emotion from an audience is a crucial part of a literary experience.

Literary Terms

Works Cited

  • Aristotle. A Theory of Civic Discourse On Rhetoric. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Harmon, William. A Handbook to Literature. Ninth Edition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2002.
  • Russel, D.A. Ancient Literary Criticism. New York : Oxford University Press, 1972.
  • Steele , Felicia. "Rhetoric and Argument: A Review." The College of New Jersey. 2/20/06.