An End Goal of Catharsis

I find myself on repeat beginning my blog posts with something that is concrete; whether that be a quote from one of the books we have read in class, or a definition from Wikipedia (which may or may not be considerably less concrete, depending on which professor you ask), and I believe that this blog post will be no different. Because, while whether or not a novel resolves in catharsis is up to the reader (and therefore not concrete), the definition of catharsis is concrete. According to The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, the definition of catharsis (katharsis) is as follows: “the emotional effect a tragic drama has on its audience.” While this definition is true, I would like to dispute the use of “tragic drama.” Catharsis can be the result of not just tragic dramas; I would like to argue that it can be the result of any story that has a definitive end. However, the amount of catharsis has the capacity to change depending on the story being told and the one who is reading it.

Previously, I have often found myself considering catharsis to be synonymous with satisfaction; a word that the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as “the fulfillment of a need or want.” Furthermore, the definition of satisfaction could be elaborated to “the fulfillment of one’s wishes, expectations, or needs, or the pleasure derived from this” according to a simple Google search. What is crucial in this elaboration is the word expectations—as it is common, in most stories, that expectations are developed in the reader, that are later hopefully paid off to high effect by the author. This, in my observations, has produced the feeling of catharsis—or satisfaction—that I have defined. For an example of this technique in story writing, look no further than the writing trope of Chekhov’s Gun: the idea that, if in the first chapter it is stated that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter that rifle will go off. The setting off of this rifle has satisfied an expectation that has been developed, hopefully creating catharsis in the reader.

I find it ironic that in my previous blog post “Rats from Rags and Dust” I cited the Greek philosopher Aristotle on his theory of spontaneous generation, and I find myself, once again, citing him on his ideas on catharsis. Be that as it may, according to The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, Aristotle was the one to introduce the idea of catharsis to literary criticism; but instead of viewing it in the context of audience satisfaction, catharsis originated as an idea of purgation or purification. The word “catharsis,” or its Greek equivalent, “katharsis,” literally means these two things. As stated by The Bedford, Aristotle sought “to explain the feeling of exaltation or playgoers commonly experience during and after the catastrophe (which invariably foregrounds suffering, defeat, and even death).” How could an audience feel catharsis, a feeling similar to satisfaction, following a tragic event that resulted in the defeat and/or death of a play’s protagonist(s)?

To put it simply, you do not have to have a happy ending to have catharsis. To return to the idea of purging and purification, catharsis can also be viewed as a release. The Greek tragedies that Aristotle examined typically built up fear and pity in the audience, which continued to grow as the tragedy became more and more evident, until, finally, there could be a release when the catastrophe—defined by The Bedford as “the culmination of the falling action in the plot of a story or drama”—revealed itself. This, in turn, would purge, or purify, the viewer of all emotions of fear, pity, and overall tension, because what they had been dreading for the protagonist finally occurred. It is in this way that Aristotle believed that attending plays could be beneficial for the audience members, because they could experience a sensation of relief and exaltation.

If that is the case, and stories or narratives with cathartic endings are viewed and beneficial and more satisfactory to the audience, should catharsis be the end goal of every novel with a consistent plot? In our ENGL 203 course, we have read two concrete narratives by Percival Everett—the first was Frenzy, which drew from historical Greek plays such as “The Bacchae” (a tragedy not dissimilar to the ones Aristotle would have studied in an attempt to define catharsis), and I Am Not Sidney Poitier, a less structured novel which was more fluid in its telling. When considering these narratives in the context of catharsis, I have come to the conclusion that Frenzy’s conclusion was arguably more satisfying than I Am Not Sidney Poitier’s. 

Catharsis is an element familiar to classical stories that follow highly structured narratives—more similar to Frenzy, as it draws inspiration from classical Greek plays, and resolves with Vlepo killing his master Dionysos, something that could have been foreseen with all of Dionysos’ talk of sleep and his difference from other gods. In comparison, I Am Not Sidney Poitier is a more contemporarily-structured novel, and Not Sidney almost seems to end up at his conclusion, stating “I AM NOT MYSELF TODAY” as the novel concludes. Therefore, though catharsis may be present in more classically-structured works, other contemporary novels do not necessarily have it as their end goal.

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