What Is Catharsis?

A Greek word that means cleansing, catharsis is a purging of emotions that brings relief or new understanding. For instance, when a person sobs for hours after a sad event, the physical process allows them to work through and process some of their grief. One speaks of protest rallies and even riots as being cathartic events, because they help to direct and dissolve strong emotions.

How Do You Identify Catharsis in Writing?

Aristotle, the Greek philosopher and playwright, addresses the role of catharsis in his work, Poetics. He believed that a main purpose of drama and comedy is to purge and purify the audience’s feelings, especially those of pity and fear. By imitating dramatic circumstances, a work of literature allows its reader to live vicariously through the situation and experience catharsis. Although Aristotle does not explicitly say this, many now feel that catharsis also allows the reader to arrive at a greater understanding of the world as well.

The showdown or dramatic climax of a work is where one most often achieves catharsis, though any event that evokes strong emotions — such as the death of a character — may also achieve catharsis.

Examples of Catharsis

Catharsis Example 1. When Romeo drinks the poison he thinks Juliet has already taken, the reader achieves catharsis, feeling pity both for the characters and for themselves.

Catharsis Example 2. After the unjust deaths of several young black men due to police brutality, #blacklivesmatter was born as a cathartic means of sharing and processing a collective experience.

Catharsis Example 3. In the original film Alien, Sigorney Weaver’s character does furious battle with the alien in her escape capsule, finally expelling it into the void of space. Our fear is finally purged in this cathartic moment.

Catharsis Example 4. At the end of Oedipus Rex, when Oedipus realizes that the Oracle’s prophecy has come true, that he has killed his father and married his mother, he blinds himself, an action that allows the audience to experience cathartic release from the horror of the circumstances.

Catharsis Example 5. In the film Cast Away, there is dramatic catharsis when Tom Hank’s character becomes separated from Wilson, the soccer ball who has been his only companion; the viewer not only has pity for the character but also experiences the terror of the situation.

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