In the Poetics Aristotle, in defining tragedy, sees its objective as being “through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation [catharsis] of these emotions,” but he does not explain what “proper purgation” means. In his time it had both a medical and a religious signification. In medical terms catharsis referred to the discharge from the body of the excess of elements produced by a state of sickness and thus the return to bodily health. Viewed in this sense, catharsis is the process by which an unhealthy emotional state produced by an imbalance of feelings is corrected and emotional health restored. An ambiguity in the Greek wording make sit possible that what is purged is not the emotions but the complications of the plot. In religious terms, as expressed in several places by Plato, catharsis is the process of purification by which the soul collects its elements, brings itself together from all parts of the body, and can exist: “alone by itself, free from the body as from fetters.”
Whatever Aristotle means thereby, catharsis remains one of the great unsettled issues. That it implies a beneficial cathartic effect produced by witnessing a tragic action is clear; how it is produced is in question. Some believe that the spectators, by vicarious participation, learn through the fate of the tragic hero, that fear and pity are destructive and thereby learn to avoid them in their own lives (this interpretation is clearly didactic). Others believe that the spectator, being human and thus subject to disturbing emotions of fear and pity, has this imbalance rectified and these internal agitations stilled by having an opportunity vicariously to expend fear and pity on the hero…. (Handbook to Literature)
A Handbook to Literature. William Harmon.
The Norton Anthology of World Literature: Literary Terms. Martin Puchner, et al.
Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French & Ned Stuckey-French.« Back to Reference Index