Bathos and Pathos

Commonly Confused Words

bathos
In narratives, says Paula LaRocque, bathos "presents a victim in maudlin, sentimental, and melodramatic action. Often the wholly good are destroyed by the wholly bad" ( The Book on Writing, 2003). H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

The words bathos and pathos are related in meaning as well as in sound, but they're not interchangeable.

Definitions

The noun bathos refers to an abrupt and often ludicrous transition from the elevated to the ordinary (a form of anticlimax), or to an excessively sentimental demonstration of pathos. The word bathos (adjective form, bathetic) almost always has a negative connotation.

The noun pathos (adjective form, pathetic) refers to a quality in something experienced or observed that evokes sympathy and a feeling of sorrow.

Examples

  • "The director had clearly decided to confront us with the gruesome detail of the massacre, but the sight of artificial dismembered limbs, human torsos dangling in trees, and blood-stained cavalry men riding about brandishing human legs and heads, that all clearly had the weight of polystyrene, made his intentions ridiculous. The entire cinema burst out laughing as the film descended into bathos. We expected the gruesome and got the bizarre instead."
    (John Wright, Why Is That So Funny? Limelight, 2007)
  • The pathos of the Frankenstein legend is that the monster has some traits of humanity remaining within him.
  • "Mr. Moretti has a habit of crossing the line from pathos to bathos, but he imbues this movie [Mia Madre] with such honest sentiment that he can evoke a lifetime of feeling with just the shot of an empty chair."
    (Manohla Dargis, "New York Film Festival Walks the Tightrope Between Art and Commerce." The New York Times, September 24, 2015)

    Usage Notes

    • "Don't confuse bathos with pathos. Bathos, the Greek word for depth, is a descent from the sublime to the ridiculous. You commit bathos if, for example, you ruin a stately speech by ending it with some tasteless anecdote. The adjective is bathetic, like pathetic, the adjective for pathos, the Greek word for suffering. Bathos is commonly misused as the equivalent of 'sloppy sentimentality.'"
      (John B. Bremner, Words on Words: A Dictionary for Writers and Others Who Care About Words. Columbia University Press, 1980)
    • "Pathos is the quality of something, such as speech or music, that evokes a feeling of pity or sorrow: 'The mother told her tale with such pathos that tears came to the eyes of many present.' Bathos is either insincere pathos or a descent from the sublime to the ridiculous': 'The play was rather moving in places, but the episode where the two take a shower together was pure bathos.'"
      (Adrian Room, Dictionary of Confusable Words. Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000)
    • "Pathos occurs when a feeling of pity, compassion or tenderness towards a character or situation is evoked in the reader. Pathos will be usually felt towards a hero, an admired character or a victim. The group victims of a disaster will also frequently engender pathos. The undeserved or early death of a character is a subject for pathos. If we have cried over some incident in a book we have experienced pathos. Think of the death of Ophelia in Hamlet and notice how it is Gertrude's speech about a young girl's death which is the means by which Shakespeare induces pathos...
      "The writer must always strike a careful balance with such scenes if pathos is to be achieved. Even good writers can sometimes go over the top into 'bathos,' when an incident or character that should have aroused compassion veers toward the absurd or ludicrous. Dickens in The Old Curiosity Shop clearly meant the death of Little Nell to arouse pathos and for the most part it did with his contemporary readers. Many modern readers though find the overblown description almost laughable."
      (Colin Bulman, Creative Writing: A Guide and Glossary to Fiction Writing. Polity Press, 2007)

      Practice

      (a) The pat ending of Beauty and the Beast disregards the dark undercurrent of genuine _____ and suffering that had made the Beast so endearing.

      (b) "Don Gibson's . . . specialty became the tearjerkin' country ballad, although many of his recordings were so drenched in self-pity that they crossed the line into pure _____."
      (Richard Carlin, Country Music: A Biographical Dictionary. Routledge, 2003)

      Scroll down for answers below:

       

       

       

       

       

       

       

       

      Answers to Practice Exercises: 

      (a) The pat ending of Beauty and the Beast disregards the dark undercurrent of genuine pathos and suffering that had made the Beast so endearing.

      (b) "Don Gibson's . . . specialty became the tearjerkin' country ballad, although many of his recordings were so drenched in self-pity that they crossed the line into pure bathos."
      (Richard Carlin, Country Music: A Biographical Dictionary.

      Routledge, 2003)

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      Your Citation
      Nordquist, Richard. "Bathos and Pathos." ThoughtCo, Jun. 6, 2017, thoughtco.com/bathos-and-pathos-1689314. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, June 6). Bathos and Pathos. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/bathos-and-pathos-1689314 Nordquist, Richard. "Bathos and Pathos." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/bathos-and-pathos-1689314 (accessed May 26, 2018).