Catharsis in Literature
Catharsis is an emotional release. The word comes from the ancient Greek meaning “purification” or “cleansing” and was first used as a metaphor by Aristotle in his Poetics. In that work, Aristotle compared the effects of watching a tragedy, such as Oedipus the King to a physical release from the body. In Oedipus the King, which Aristotle held as the model of catharsis, Oedipus blinds himself as a form of penance after learning that he has killed his own father and married his mother.
Traditionally, catharsis in literature has taken on one of three varieties: purgation, purification or clarification. In many ways, catharsis is more about what we, as an audience, experiences upon the unfolding of events in the play or novel. The exact definition of catharsis in literature is often reinterpreted throughout history, reflecting the concerns of contemporary society in attempting to define emotional release. Ultimately, catharsis in literature is our participation with tragedy.
In literature, the term catharsis is used to describe the release of emotions from the main character. One of the most famous examples of catharsis in literature is William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In the Scottish Play, Macbeth becomes carried away with the power he is given, eventually losing everything. It is the temptation of power that destroys Macbeth, leaving him worthless.