Pathos: From the Greek for “emotion,” “passion,” or “suffering,” a quality in a work or a portion thereof that makes the reader experience pity, sorrow, or tenderness. Pathos is distinguished from tragedy in that pathetic characters are generally helpless, innocent victims suffering through no fault of their own. Tragic figures, by contrast, possess a heroic grandeur and are at least partially responsible for their fates. Works involving the misuse, abuse, or death of children are almost inevitably pathetic and can easily slip into bathos if the effect is exaggerated or anticlimactic.
EXAMPLES: Charles Dickens achieves pathos in his description of the death of Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son (1846—48), but most critics would say he slips into bathos in describing the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop (1840). Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), which relates the story of a woman who deliberately kills her child to keep her from being returned to slavery, is a novel of intense emotion and immense pathos. Contemporary works filled with pathos include Rohinton Mistry’s novel A Fine Balance (1995) and the film Brokeback Mountain (2005), based on E. Annie Proulx’s 1997 short story. The final scenes of the movie Million Dollar Baby (2004), in which paralyzed former boxer Maggie Fitzgerald seeks her trainer’s help in ending her suffering, evoke pathos.