Examples of Pathos in Literature, Rhetoric and Music

Has a book, speech or song ever made you feel a certain way, but you couldn't explain why? The writer is probably using pathos as a way to bring about feelings in their readers or listeners. But what does pathos look like in a written work? Keep reading for pathos examples in literary works, rhetorical arguments and famous music.

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Ethos, Pathos and Logos

What is pathos? Pathos is one mode of persuasion often used when making arguments. The Greek philosopher Aristotle cites three modes of persuasion: ethos, pathos and logos. They are effective rhetorical devices that appeal to three different areas.

  • ethos - appeals to authority or credibility

  • pathos - appeals to emotion by citing tragedy or sadness

  • logos - appeals to facts and reason

Effective arguments use all three modes to convince their listeners. However, shorter arguments, such as advertisements or conversations, may rely more heavily on pathos than ethos or logos. Pathos encourages a person to act by evoking their feelings.

Pathos Examples in Literature

Authors often make use of pathos to evoke certain feelings from the reader. In literature, pathos is an effective literary device rather than a rhetorical device. It can establish tone or mood, and it makes audiences feel sympathetic toward different types of characters. Writers can make readers feel happy, sad, angry, passionate, or miserable with their word choice and plot development.

Pathos in Tragedies

Greek tragedies specialized in using pathos to draw feelings from their audience. Later playwrights and writers, including William Shakespeare and Arthur Miller, used these same techniques: they hint toward a happy ending for an endearing character, then use irony to take it all away. The result is a tragic ending for character and audience alike, as a tragedy cannot create the feeling of sadness alone — it only works by bringing that feeling out in the audience.

Examples of pathos in literary tragedies include:

  • Romeo and Juliet - Shakespeare contrasts the deep love of Romeo and Juliet against the conflict of their families and sets up a happy ending for them. He then uses the elements of timing and circumstance to cause each character to commit suicide, eliciting deep remorse and regret in the surviving characters and in the audience.
  • Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck establishes the pure goodness of Lenny with his childlike manner, as well as the friendship between Lenny and George, before using that goodness as the weapon that ultimately ends Lenny's Life.
  • Death of a Salesman - Arthur Miller appeals to the audience's sense of regret and lost opportunities in their own life, dangles a bit of hope for Willy Loman, and then ends the play with Loman's suicide.
  • The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald criticizes the excess of the 1920s by making Jay Gatsby fabulously wealthy but miserably alone; after being abandoned by his first and only love, Gatsby is murdered in his luxurious pool.
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Pathos in Comedies

Authors can also use pathos in comedies to make an audience happy. They use humor to make readers laugh, happy endings to make them feel satisfied, and just a little bit of drama to make them feel worried that there won't be a happy ending (but there will be!).

Examples of pathos in comedies include:

  • Pride and Prejudice - With the pathos right there in the title, Jane Austen writes her main characters Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy to be too proud and prejudiced to get together — but also constantly drawn to each other, getting the readers' hopes up with every new encounter.

  • Catch 22 - J.D. Salinger's use of verbal irony and humorous characterization make very serious subjects, such as war and death, seem sort of funny — which is the point of a political satire.

  • Much Ado About Nothing - Shakespeare uses wordplay and plot devices to establish how evenly matched Benedick and Beatrice are, and to make the audience feel satisfied when they end up together at the end.

  • The Importance of Being Earnest - Oscar Wilde's witty characters and their misadventures are endearing and humorous to the audience; the happy ending of Ernest actually becoming Ernest (and being truthful the entire time) makes the audience feel relieved and satisfied.

Pathos Examples in Rhetoric

We see pathos in everyday life through rhetoric. Whether it's family, friends or advertisers, people are constantly trying to persuade you of something by appealing to your emotions. However, you can also find pathos in formal arguments, including famous speeches and political addresses.

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Pathos in Everyday Rhetoric

Whenever someone tries to make you feel bad enough to do something, they're using pathos as a rhetorical tool. They can also use pathos to explain how happy they would feel if you helped them out, or how hard it will be for them if you don't.

Pathos examples in everyday life include:

  • A teenager tries to convince his parents to buy him a new car by saying if they cared about their child's safety they'd upgrade him.

  • A man at the car dealership implores the salesman to offer the best price on a new car because he needs to support his young family.

  • A boyfriend begs his girlfriend to stay with him, claiming "If you really love me, you'll give me time to change my ways."

  • A car commercial depicts a teary-eyed parent saying goodbye to their child as they go off to college, sad but assured that they're sending their child away in a reliable, safe car.

  • Charity organizations show images of starving orphans living in dire conditions who need your help with monthly financial support.

Pathos in Rhetorical Speeches

If a political speech has ever made you feel inspired, angry or upset, it's used pathos correctly. Politicians and activists rely on appealing to their audience's feelings to make them feel a certain way and to persuade them to do something.

Examples of pathos in rhetorical speeches include:

  • I Have a Dream - Martin Luther King, Jr. compares the "vicious racists" of Alabama with the idyllic picture of "little black boys and black girls" joining hands with "little white boys and white girls."
  • The Gettysburg Address - Abraham Lincoln's speech at the battleground evoked mourning for the soldiers lost in the Civil War, as he dedicated the ground as "a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live."
  • Their Finest Hour - William Churchill, a master of rousing oration, explains that the Battle of Britain will determine "the survival of Christian civilization" and describes a nightmare of a world that will "sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age" without a victory in World War II.
  • Liberty or Death - Patrick Henry's words brought American Revolutionaries to battle as he declared that time for negotiations was over ("there is no longer any room for hope") and appealed to their fighting spirit with his immortal cry of "give me liberty or give me death!"
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Pathos in Music

There's a form of expression that can make you dance until your feet ache or cry your eyes out. Music has the ability to touch our lives through a careful correlation between lyrics and instrumentals.

Take a look at a few popular examples:

  • God Bless the USA - Lee Greenwood's song is a powerful composition that stirs up feelings of emotion or pride in the United States. It uses the sacrifices of American soldiers to emphasize his patriotic pride: "And I won't forget the men who died who gave that right to me ..."

  • Nothing Compares 2 U - Prince and Sinead O'Connor's song about the sadness that comes from missing an ex resonates with anyone who mourns for a lost relationship: "It's been so lonely without you here, like a bird without a song ..."

  • Someone Like You - Adele's hit song deals with feelings of sadness and despair. "I remember you said 'sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead,'" deals with one of the many stages of a breakup.

  • Happy - Pharrell Williams' fun beat and lyrics like "Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth" is an instant mood-booster for anyone who wants to feel happy.

Origin of Pathos

Pathos is a Greek word meaning "suffering" that has long been used to relay feelings of sadness or strong emotion. It was adopted into the English language in the 16th century to describe a quality that stirs the emotions, often produced by a real-life tragedy or moving music or speech.

Pathos became the foundation for many other English words. For example:

  • empathy - the ability to understand and feel the emotions of others

  • pathology - the study of disease, which can surely cause suffering

  • pathetic - something that causes others to feel pity

  • sympathy - a shared feeling of sadness

  • sociopath - causing harm to society

  • psychopath - suffering in the mind

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The Art of Persuasion

The next time you need to move someone out of the realm of indecision, consider what pathos can do for you. You may also want to think twice when someone tries to appeal to your emotions when convincing you to do something. Learn more about these rhetorical techniques with these examples of ethos, which appeal to a person's authority. You can also find the opposite tactic of appealing to emotions with these examples of logos, which appeal to reason and facts.