Bathos is a negative term for the effect when a writer describes the emotions created by a genuinely tragic situation in such an exaggerated, overwritten manner that the piece loses its tragic tone and becomes unintentionally melodramatic and comic.

An example of bathos comes from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, in the batheic poem "O'd to Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec'd," supposedly written by a morbid young girl who died soon after completing her opus:

And did young Stephen sicken,
And did young Stephen die?
And did the sad hearts thicken,
And did the mourners cry?

No; such was not the fate of
Young Stephen Dowling Bots;
Though sad hearts round him thickened,
'Twas not from sickness' shots.

No whooping-cough did rack his frame,
Nor measles drear, with spots;
Not these impaired the sacred name
of Stephen Dowling Bots.

Despised love struck not with woe
That head of curly knots,
Nor stomach troubles laid him low,
Young Stephen Dowling Bots.

O no. Then list with tearful eye,
Whilst I his fate do tell.
His soul did from this cold world fly,
By falling down a well.

They got him out and emptied him;
Alas it was too late;
His spirit was gone for to sport aloft
In the realms of the good and great.

A story crammed full of unrelated deaths and other tragedies is especially likely to be accused of bathos. The term is sometimes expanded to describe works of fiction in which the writer seems to expect the reader to weep--or includes hypersensitive chracters who weep--over relatively small tragedies (the poignantly sad blue eyes of a dead opossum lying by the side of the road, for example).

Generally, bathos is a problem of description and style rather than of plot. The biblical Book of Job, for example, is full of tragedy and suffering, but no one would accuse it of being bathetic, because the writing is not melodramatic; Job's emotions seem entirely appropriate to his situation. It is important that a writer not forget that real life can be tragic, and that it usually is a mistake to leave out genuine emotion from a story in hopes of avoiding bathos.

Ba"thos (?), n. [Gr. depth, fr. deep.] Rhet.

A ludicrous descent from the elevated to the low, in writing or speech; anticlimax.


© Webster 1913.

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