We are frequently focused on the damage control that follows a traumatic occurrence. From a personal catastrophe, such as the loss of a loved one or meeting with a nasty accident, to a worldwide crisis, such as the pandemic, or the global economic recession that followed it, a traumatic and life-altering incident usually calls for damage assessment and then a speedy response to minimize its impact on your daily life.
This damage control and call for immediate action consumes all of our attention leaving our emotions overlooked and ignored. Sometimes, simply letting those feelings out is not your first priority. Maybe the time is not right or the situation does not permit it. You end up bottling your emotions, telling yourself that you would cross that bridge when you come to it, but you never really end up addressing how you feel.
As we bury these sentiments, reject them, and put them on the back burner in our minds for something to be dealt with "later on", they frequently compound into something much worse, and then erupt at inopportune times, where the smallest of triggers or reminders remotely related to the traumatic event you suffered makes you break down and let all those emotions out. This show of suppressed emotions in all of their unadulterated truth, relief and release of intense and quashed feelings is what the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle coined “catharsis”.
The term “catharsis” derives from the Greek word katharsis meaning “purification” or “cleansing”. It is, in simple words, a therapeutic practice that involves bringing upsetting feelings (that one tends to reject) to conscious awareness and enabling them to be articulated.
Despite the term's seeming scientific and psychological roots, it is frequently used to describe artwork that arouses powerful feelings. In fact, catharsis has always been an essential element in many pieces of tragic literature throughout history.
A cathartic experience (when it comes to theater) is one in which the audience or reader goes through the same feelings that the characters do on stage. Therefore, any literary work that allows readers to feel this is a therapeutic work and a form of catharsis.
Take Romeo and Juliet from Shakespeare as an example. In Romeo and Juliet's Act 5, Scene 3, Romeo finds Juliet's sleeping body in the Capulet tomb. To escape marrying Paris, one of her suitors, and to stay with Romeo, whom she married in a private ceremony without her parent's knowledge, Juliet consumed a sleeping potion to make her family believe she was dead. The audience may be reminded of comparable losses when they see Romeo confront his true love, whom he believes to be dead. Romeo doesn't realise that Juliet is still alive and poisons himself out of grief. The audience would have gained some relief and been able to deal with any unresolved sadness in their own life by experiencing or re-experiencing the emotional hardship of a loved one's death via Romeo, in accordance with the traditional notion of catharsis established by Aristotle.
Think of a movie about a little child who loses his mother to cancer as an illustration. Like at the beginning of the film Guardians of the Galaxy, we see an emotional scene between the protagonist Peter Quill, and his mother Meredith Quill, who suffers from brain cancer and eventually succumbs to the disease in front of her child. A film like this might not be cathartic for everyone, but for someone who has lost a friend or family member to cancer, viewing a movie like this could be a highly emotional experience and might even cause them to tear up. They may identify with the character's feelings of pain or rage because they had similar feelings when they went through the same experience but were unable to express them.
These illustrations highlight a crucial aspect of what makes a literary work cathartic: the reader must have formed a close connection with the characters. In other words, readers would not likely develop the appropriate level of emotional involvement to have a cathartic experience in reaction to the work if they cannot "see themselves" in the storylines they believe they do not have any attributes or experiences in common. Because of this, creating really cathartic writing typically requires a great degree of ability and experience on the author's side. The work of George R. R. Martin is the prime case of how an experienced author is necessary to create a connection with the audience. Consider Lord Eddard Stark, the mighty House Stark's lord and unquestionably the most well-known tragic hero from “A Song of Ice and Fire”. Even though the books are set in a fantasy world, the political atmosphere we are currently experiencing is reflected in them. Rival political parties are vying for control of our countries, there are friends who have become enemies, social activists, and martyrs. A reader may relate to a character like Stark and his downfall due to misguided faith in his honor and the goodness of people in a turbulent environment and hence experience their own catharsis with him.
Similar to how therapy works in real life, catharsis in literature helps readers to "let it all out" by allowing them to feel strong emotions from a distance. According to what we have said, cathartic works are particularly effective in evoking suppressed emotions, that is, feelings that one may not normally permit oneself to feel. A person might not want to cry over their personal loss because denying it makes it feel more bearable, but if they witness a character in a movie cry during a funeral, they can find themselves unanticipatedly brought to tears. True proponents of dramatic catharsis (as Aristotle described it) would contend that feeling pity or dread in reaction to art may really teach viewers how to deal with these feelings in real life.