I. What is Catharsis?
Catharsis, meaning “cleansing” in Greek, refers to a literary theory first developed by the philosopher Aristotle, who believed that cleansing our emotions was the purpose of a good story, especially a tragedy. Catharsis applies to any form of art or media that makes us feel strong negative emotions, but that we are nonetheless drawn to – we may seek out art that creates these emotions because the experience purges the emotions from our system. We can feel something intense, then walk out of the theater feeling better afterwards. Catharsis is roughly synonymous with the idea of “blowing off steam.”
II. Examples of Catharsis
The idea of catharsis is one possible explanation for the popularity of sports, especially in places where the local team tends to lose. Why, for example, do Oakland Raiders fans keep watching the games, despite the team’s abysmal record? Part of the reason, of course, is sheer dogged loyalty. But it may also be that sports fans feel better when they can experience deep feelings of frustration during the game, but then be cleansed of them when the game is over.
Catharsis may also help to explain why we enjoy negative emotions in music. Many people enjoy music that is sad, angry, or dark – they get pleasure from listening to such music. Why is this? It might be because such music helps the listener purge negative emotions from their system. If you listen to a death metal song in which the singer screams the lyrics, it might help lessen your own feelings of needing to scream.
III . The Importance of Catharsis
Aristotle was perhaps the greatest philosopher of the ancient world, and he was curious about everything – biology, physics, politics, ethics, literature, etc. This powerful thinker raised many insightful questions and tried to answer them through philosophy. One question that particularly vexed Aristotle was: why do we enjoy watching or reading tragedies? Why do we enjoy stories that make us sad?
It’s important to remember that ancient Greek culture had real tragedies, which modern culture generally doesn’t. Hollywood seems to be addicted to happy endings, which means almost none of our popular stories are really “tragic” in the true sense. After all, a real tragedy is one in which the hero is ultimately destroyed and there is no happy ending to be found. So when Aristotle pondered the question of tragedy, he was wondering why so many people in his society preferred stories that had unhappy endings.
His theory, as we’ve seen, was that such stories are cathartic. We feel such tremendous sympathy for the hero, such rage at the villain, such sorrow at the tragic ending, that we can then walk out of the theater and back into our own lives with less “baggage,” – less pent-up emotion threatening to boil over.
IV. Examples of Catharsis in Literature
Romeo and Juliet is a great example of a tragedy, and its popularity might be explained by the idea of catharsis. In the end, the young lovers end up dead because they made the mistake of following their childish passions instead of being rational and patient. (It was intended as a cautionary tale, not a celebration of romantic love!) As an audience, we feel sympathy and pity for Romeo and Juliet, but we may also feel some relief at the end due to the effects of catharsis.
In Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe takes the structure of a classical tragedy and applies it to African culture. He tells the story of a powerful village leader whose arrogance drives away his supporters. He is ultimately brought so low that he kills himself. Catharsis, along with Achebe’s skill as a writer, may help to explain why this story is so popular.
V. Examples of Catharsis in Popular Culture
The idea of catharsis is often used to explain the popularity of violent video games: such games can be thought of as an “outlet,” where frustrated adolescents can pour all their rage and pain without actually hurting anyone. Through playing violent games, they may actually become less violent. However, there is also the possibility that playing violent video games makes people more violent, which would seriously undermine the theory of catharsis, at least where interactive storytelling is involved. The social science is not clear on this question, but the most likely answer is that there is no one answer: that different people react differently to the simulated violence of video games.
The movie Citizen Kane is one of the few unambiguous modern tragedies. Over the course of the movie, we watch an incredibly talented and ambitious man rise to the heights of fame and glory, while slowly losing the fight against his own inner demons until he ends up utterly alienated and dies alone in his mansion. The story makes viewers feel a combination of pity for Kane, frustration at his wrongful actions, and sorrow at his fate. But in the end, we are supposed to walk away feeling cleansed.
The Notebook is a good example of a modern drama. It’s often mistakenly viewed as a tragedy because it has so many sad themes. But there are two things to notice about The Notebook: first, the ending is not exactly sad. Although the main characters die, they die together in a pose of intimacy, and the suggestion is that their love is stronger than death itself. Although death is always sad, this is still a victory for the heroic lovers. Second, the conflict in The Notebook revolves around illness, which is not a “human flaw” in the classical sense – it’s an external problem that the protagonists struggle against, rather than a flaw in the soul or behavior of a main character. So The Notebook is not a tragedy, but it may still be very cathartic for audiences!
VI. Related Terms (with examples)
Catharsis applies mainly to tragedy, but can also apply to any story that makes us feel negative emotions. Due to the nature of our popular culture (which almost invariably has happy endings), we are not as familiar with tragedy as people in some other cultures, including the ancient Greeks. Tragedy doesn’t just mean a sad story – it’s a story in which a great hero is brought down by ordinary human failings, especially moral failings like arrogance or ignorance.
In the ancient world, the two types of stories were comedy and tragedy. In the modern world, we separate our movies and TV into comedies and dramas. Dramas typically evoke themes like sadness, anger, or betrayal, so in this way they are similar to tragedies. However, there are two key differences: first, dramas still tend to have happy endings (or at least uncertain endings that could be happy or sad); second, the plot is usually driven by external conflicts rather than internal conflicts within the hero’s own soul. Nonetheless, a drama can still produce catharsis – just not as effectively, Aristotle would say, as a tragedy.