Bathos refers to an abrupt transition from the sublime to the ridiculous. It is when a writer shifts from a lofty, elevated or dignified tone to one that is mundane, common or even comical in an unexpected way.
In this article, we have covered importance of bathos, various examples of bathos in literature, examples in movies and some literary devices related to bathos.
Definition of Bathos
Bathos is a literary technique used intentionally by some writers to bring readers down from intense or dramatic highs by inserting an anticlimactic element. It acts as a way to release built-up tension or emotions.
Some see bathos as a failure of style, while others see it as a purposeful device to comment on human fallibility or the absurdity of life. When done skillfully, bathos can highlight fundamental truths about the juxtaposition of grandness and pettiness in human experience.
Importance of Bathos
Bathos has some important literary functions and purposes:
- Provides comic relief/levity: In otherwise serious or dramatic stories, bathos injects an element of absurdity or silliness that can offer much-needed comic relief for readers/viewers.
- Punctures inflated tones: As discussed earlier, bathos deflates pomposity, melodrama, exaggeration or pretension by cutting it down with mundane or common details. This makes stories and characters seem more grounded and relatable.
- Emphasizes shared humanity: By reminding us that even grand/serious people experience basic human/physical realities, bathos underscores our shared vulnerabilities and frailties. It connects “larger-than-life” characters back to ordinary human experience.
- Adds complexity: Introducing contradictory tones of solemn and absurd shows that life contains multitudes. It enriches characters and situations by showing different sides not always in harmony.
- Commentary on fate/mortality: Some interpret bathos as reminding us that life’s gravitas coexists with slapstick absurdity, often at unpredictable moments. It comments on the fragility of human affairs.
- Engages audience intellect: Recognizing and making sense of bathos requires cognitive engagement from audiences. It forces them to reconcile incongruous tones.
Examples of Bathos in Literature
“The Quest of Sir Galahad” by Robert Johnson
“Must the quest for enlightenment be hindered so by trivial matters? Very well, let us gather these fruits with haste so the journey may continue.”
Johnson employs bathos by having Galahad’s profound contemplations interrupted by the mundane problem of losing his pack. The deflation from lofty thoughts to a lowly chore humorously punctures Galahad’s dignified air, reminding us he is still human despite his noble mission.
“A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens
The Marquis’ boorish butler came bumbling out of the kitchens, nearly colliding with the doctor in his haste. He says: –
“Pardon, monsieur, but I am in dire need of your services!” the man blustered. “The cook has sliced his finger most grievously while chopping vegetables for supper. It is a royal bleeding!”
Manette sighed wearily.
“So the health of the nation must take a back seat to culinary mishaps. Lead on, let us see to this ‘crisis’ with haste.”
In the scene, Dickens employs bathos by having the weighty political and medical matters Manette contemplates be interrupted by the lowly injury of a cook. This abrupt shift from graver concerns to a trivial kitchen accident brings humor and reminds readers of mundane realities amid turbulent times.
“King Lear” by William Shakespeare
The mad King Lear wanders on the heath during a raging storm, howling in anguished raving. Suddenly, he shifts to a more practical tone, asking
“Didst thou give all to thy daughters? And art thou come to this?”
This unexpected tonal change from wild ravings to a calm question underscores Lear’s collapse from the sublime to the mundane.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
The character Ishmael stands gazing out at the vast ocean, his mind exploring the mysteries of creation and divinity. He is abruptly interrupted when
“a shadow passed overhead something wet splattered upon his hat.”
Ishmael cries out in irritation at being defecated on by a seagull while contemplating the profound. This comic deflation highlights the human tendency for distraction.
These examples from King Lear and Moby Dick demonstrate how authors like Shakespeare and Melville skillfully employ bathos to release tension, comment on human nature and accent.
“Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen
Elizabeth Bennet walked in the groves of Rosings Park with her aunt and sister, her mind occupied with reflecting on her changing perceptions of Mr. Darcy. As she became lost in thought, contemplating the complexity of human motivations and relationships, she failed to see a tree root protruding above the path. Her foot caught upon it, causing her to stumble briefly before regaining her balance.
“Bother these trees, always trying to trip one up,” she said irritably.
This abrupt shift from Elizabeth’s serious introspection to a trivial complaint about the tree root underscores Austen’s skilled use of bathos to puncture built-up solemnity with comedy.
“Paradise Lost” by John Milton
Satan and his legions of fallen angels wandered the burning plains of Hell, lamenting their fate and planning rebellion against God. Satan’s thoughts reached to the very pinnacles of pride, hatred and defiance. Just then, a noxious sulfurous odor assailed his nostrils.
“Cursed cesspits, can nothing here be free from foul miasma?” Satan cried in disgust.
Milton here employs bathos to bring Satan crashing from his lofty rhetoric down to confront the lowly physical annoyances of their condemned realm. It highlights the dichotomy between grandiose thoughts and mundane realities.
Both these examples use bathos to release tension, comment on human/devilish nature, and accentuate deeper literary and philosophical points through an abrupt shift in tone.
“Hamlet” by Shakespeare
“Not now, you traitorous gut! Can you not see I am struggling with matters of state?”
Shakespeare employs bathos to interrupt Hamlet’s intense brooding over Denmark’s fate. As the prince grapples with weighty matters of revenge and kingship, his serious musings are abruptly punctured by a comedic deflation – the rude noise of his own hungry stomach.
“Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston
“Shoo, you pesky thing! Can’t a body tell her story without you in the way?”
Hurston employs bathos here to puncture the dramatic tone of Janie’s homecoming with a comic deflation. Janie is brought down from her moment of empowerment to confront a mere annoying insect. It releases built-up tension and highlights fundamental human experiences that transcend grand narratives.
“Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare
“Oh Juliet, you are the sun that lights my world! Together our love shall transcend all families and factions.”
Just then, Romeo’s stomach let out a loud growl.
“Damned organ, can you not see I am declaring my undying devotion?!”
“The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien
“Bother and confusticate these flies! Can a wizard not have a moment’s peace?”
Gandalf stood atop Orthanc, having outwitted Saruman and regained his power staff. Middle Earth was now freed from the threat of Isengard. As he surveyed the lands, Gandalf thought proudly of the hobbits and all they had accomplished. Just then, a bothersome fly buzzed around his head.
“The Iliad” by Homer
“Curses, will you not leave me be, pesky insect? I am in the midst of epic fury here!”
This deflates Achilles’ intense wrath and fury by interrupting the dramatic moment with a trivial annoyance. It reminds us that even the greatest heroes are not above base irritations, cutting his inflated anger down to size.
“Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte
“Forgive me, my dear. It seems even you cannot stop the autumnal allergies.”
The sneeze punctures the romantic tension and drama by injecting an absurd physical element. It reminds the characters and readers that profound emotions exist within fallible mortal shells prone to basic bodily functions.
“Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes
“Rocinante, have you no sense of drama? We shall discuss this later, in private!”
The horse’s fart deflates Quixote’s chivalric daring by interrupting his noble actions with crude absurdity. It underscores his fantasies exist within the constraints and vulnerabilities of reality.
Examples of Bathos in Movies
1- The Dark Knight (2008)
The Joker unleashes chaos and terror across Gotham with his diabolical schemes. As he prepares his latest move, he suddenly lets out a massive sneeze, startling his henchmen. “Apologies boys, it seems even supervillains are not immune to seasonal allergies.”
2- Titanic (1997)
Jack and Rose gaze into each other’s eyes, their passion swelling as the ship sinks around them. But then Jack lets out a huge belch. “Pardon me love, that lobster didn’t agree with me it seems.”
3- The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Frodo is filled with a sense of foreboding as the Ring weighs heavy around his neck. They must push on to Rivendell with all haste. But then Sam trips on a rock and farts loudly. “Begging your pardon Mr. Frodo, but this wizard business plays havoc on a hobbit’s digestion.”
Literary Devices Related to Bathos
- Juxtaposition: As mentioned, bathos relies heavily on juxtaposing solemn/lofty elements with common/ridiculous ones. Placing these incongruous ideas side by side drives the comedic effect.
- Anticlimax: Many examples of bathos involve building up to a dramatic climax then abruptly cutting to something mundane, creating an anticlimactic effect.
- Irony: The contrast between expected/intended tones and the actual deflating tone introduced is often ironic. Bathos plays on situational or dramatic irony.
- Understatement: Sometimes bathos is achieved through an understated comment that seems disproportionately casual given the context. This deadpan delivery aids the comedic timing.
- Hyperbole: Leading up to the bathos moment, descriptions may be exaggerated or melodramatic to inflate the stakes, making the comedown funnier.
- Non sequitur: The mundane insertion is frequently a non sequitur that doesn’t logically follow the flow of dramatic tension, catching the audience off guard.
- Juxtaposed imagery: Visual or sensory descriptions are set side by side – e.g grand vistas paired with an odd physical sensation or sight gag.
- Undercutting dialogue: A character’s pompous speech may be abruptly interrupted by a snide remark or puzzled response that pricks inflated ego.
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