Catharsis: Literary Definition, Examples, and Purpose

In general, catharsis is an emotional release, but the catharsis literary definition is more specific. This important literary device is a fixture in many of the great works. You’ll see catharsis examples in everything from Greek mythology to Harry Potter.

woman reading cathartic bookwoman reading cathartic book

What Is Catharsis?

If you’ve ever found yourself crying to let out your emotions, you may have experienced catharsis. In psychology, it means a release of often-repressed emotions that leaves you feeling calmer. In general use, catharsis can also mean an emotional moment that brings clarity.

Catharsis is a word with Greek roots. Directly translated, it means cleansing or purifying. It’s easy to see how this is a metaphor for emotional cleansing.

Catharsis Literary Definition

Aristotle first discussed the concept of catharsis as it applies to literature in Poetics. Specifically, he spoke about Greek tragedy and its effect on the audience:

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation [catharsis] of these emotions.

Catharsis plays an important role in literature. It offers an emotional release of the tension built up over the course of the story or play. This emotional release can take the form of tears, and it can also happen without an obvious outward display.

Catharsis Examples in Literature

Because it plays such an essential role, you’ll find catharsis in many great works of literature. Here are a few examples.

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare is a master of catharsis, as you can see in many of his great tragedies. In Romeo and Juliet, the two star-crossed lovers eventually commit suicide. The audience, often in tears by this point, experiences a feeling of catharsis. As the play closes, the two families in the story make peace with one another, offering a feeling of closure.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens uses catharsis to provide the impetus for change in the character of Scrooge. Scrooge sees the past, present, and future and experiences the emotional upheaval that comes from truly examining his life. When he sees what will become of the character of Tiny Tim, he endures real sorrow and guilt, and an empathetic reader feels these emotions with him. Scrooge changes his life as a result of his insights.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Russian literature is full of examples of catharsis, but one notable one is Anna Karenina. In Tolstoy’s famous novel, the heroine endures the torture of being in love with one man and married to another. Her eventual suicide leaves the reader crying, and it offers and emotional release for the sadness that runs throughout the story.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

In this cathartic work by Chinua Achebe, a village leader in Africa must endure losing everything because of his pride. The reader feels for him as he faces the loss of most of what he cares about and eventually kills himself.

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

In the play Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller explores the role of the American Dream and whether it can be obtained. As the main character, Willy Loman, pursues this dream despite its obvious futility, the audience feels pity. When Willy Loman commits suicide, the audience grieves.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

There is much sadness in the Harry Potter series, but one moment of catharsis happens when Harry learns about the motivations of Severus Snape. Snape serves as the supposed villain for parts of the series and is one of the most mysterious characters. After Snape’s death, Harry learns that Snape had always been in love with Harry’s mother. The reader shares the pity Harry feels.

Deepen Your Understanding of Great Tragedy

Catharsis is closely related to the concept of pathos, or the ability of a work of literature to elicit strong emotions from the reader. Understanding pathos and catharsis helps improve your appreciation of great literary tragedies and deepen your understanding of why certain work affects the audience so profoundly.

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