Catharsis (katharsis): The emotional effect a tragic drama has on its audience. Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher, introduced this term (which can mean either “purgation” or “purification” in Greek) into literary criticism in the Poetics (c. 330 B.C.). He sought to explain the feeling of exaltation or relief that playgoers commonly experience during and after the catastrophe (which invariably foregrounds suffering, defeat, and even death). Aristotle argued that while viewing such a work, the audience experiences a purging or cleansing of emotions, specifically fear and pity, which in turn produces the beneficial sensation of relief or exaltation. The final line of John Milton’s long poem Samson Agonistes (1671) describes the carthartic state: “Calm of mind, all passions spent.”
Two schools of thought exist regarding the nature of catharsis and, more specifically, how it is effected. Some argue that emotions are purged or cleansed though vicarious identification with the tragic hero. Others claim that viewers (or readers) are so caught up in emotions of fear and pity for the hero that they forget their own problems. Presumably, the expenditure of emotion on the hero engenders the beneficial feelings associated with the cathartic experience.