Definition of Bathos

Bathos is a sudden change of tone in a work of writing, usually from the sublime to the ridiculous. This may be done unintentionally, and creates a sappy, overly sentimental effect that is a mark of amateur writing. On the other hand, it can be done knowingly and for comedic effect, and is found in many skits and jokes in the way that it turns expectations around.

Alexander Pope created the term bathos in 1727 originally to criticize bad novelists and poets. The word bathos comes from the Greek word for “depth,” and Pope used this meaning both ironically and to imply a sense of the author “sinking” by using such ridiculous lines. The definition of bathos that he gave then was of attempts at appealing to the reader’s or audience’s emotions (i.e., pathos), but failing at creating a sense of the sublime to such an extent that the attempt becomes amusing. Bathos also has a sense of anticlimax because the reader expects a certain tone to continue—especially a lofty or grandiose tone—which quickly is replaced with a vulgar or common tone. There is improper juxtaposition involved in bathetic passages between the serious and the trivial.

Common Examples of Bathos

There are many examples of bathos in comedy, such as in the following skit from the famous British comedy troupe, Monty Python:

Bridgekeeper: Stop. Who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see.
Sir Lancelot: Ask me the questions, bridgekeeper. I am not afraid.
Bridgekeeper: What… is your name?
Sir Lancelot: My name is Sir Lancelot of Camelot.
Bridgekeeper: What… is your quest?
Sir Lancelot: To seek the Holy Grail.
Bridgekeeper: What… is your favourite colour?
Sir Lancelot: Blue.
Bridgekeeper: Go on. Off you go.
Sir Lancelot: Oh, thank you. Thank you very much.

(Monty Python and the Holy Grail)

There are also numerous examples of bathos in any beginning creative writing class. There is now a contest for deliberately bad writing called the Buller-Lytton Fiction Contest, named for the man who composed the notorious opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Many of the winning lines of this contest, now over three decades in existence, are examples of bathos. Here are some recent winning lines:

  • Seeing how the victim’s body, or what remained of it, was wedged between the grill of the Peterbilt 389 and the bumper of the 2008 Cadillac Escalade EXT, officer “Dirk” Dirksen wondered why reporters always used the phrase “sandwiched” to describe such a scene since there was nothing appetizing about it, but still, he thought, they might have a point because some of this would probably end up on the front of his shirt.
  • For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity’s affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss – a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity’s mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world’s thirstiest gerbil.
  • Through the verdant plains of North Umbria walked Waylon Ogglethorpe and, as he walked, the clouds whispered his name, the birds of the air sang his praises, and the beasts of the fields from smallest to greatest said, “There goes the most noble among men” – in other words, a typical stroll for a schizophrenic ventriloquist with delusions of grandeur.

Significance of Bathos in Literature

Generally, authors try to stay away from creating bathetic lines in their writing, unless they are for comedic effect. When Alexander Pope created the term bathos in his short essay “Peri Bathous,” he meant to ridicule other poets of his time. Some authors use bathos to knowingly mock other writers who take themselves too seriously. Even Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130,” which begins with the famous line “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;” is meant to ridicule other love poetry that compares lovers to ridiculously grandiose things.

Bathos has risen in popularity as a comedic device in the centuries since Alexander Pope described it as a mark of bad writing. There is a certain light sarcasm that some authors use when intentionally using a bathetic style, because there is an aspect of ridicule and irony involved.

Examples of Bathos in Literature

Example #1

Then the third night after this,
While Enoch slumber’d motionless and pale,
And Miriam watch’d and dozed at intervals,
There came so loud a calling of the sea,
That all the houses in the haven rang.
He woke, he rose, he spread his arms abroad
Crying with a loud voice `a sail! a sail!
I am saved’; and so fell back and spoke no more.

So past the strong heroic soul away.
And when they buried him the little port
Had seldom seen a costlier funeral.

(“Enoch Arden” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

Many people dislike the ending of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s long narrative poem “Enoch Arden” precisely because it is an example of bathos. The poem has more than five dozen stanzas, and tells the story of a merchant sailor named Enoch Arden who leaves his family for work, is shipwrecked, and believed dead for a decade. When he finally returns he finds that his wife has married his childhood rival, and Enoch dies of a broken heart. Though the poem is serious throughout all sixty five stanzas, and told through a serious tone, the very final three-line stanza reduces the sentimentality completely by referencing the cost of Enoch’s funeral. Unfortunately, this one final line provides such an anticlimax as to almost negate the entire rest of the poem.

Example #2

“Prostitution is bad! Everybody knows that, even him.” He turned with confidence to experienced old man. “Am I right?”

“You’re wrong,” answered the old man. “Prostitution gives her an opportunity to meet people. It provides fresh air and wholesome exercise, and it keeps her out of trouble.”

(Catch-22 by Joseph Heller)

Joseph Heller is an expert at subverting his reading audience’s expectations, and he does so many times over in his masterpiece Catch-22. The whole novel is about the absurdity of war, and Heller deals with this theme by creating absurd situations and conversations that only have logic within the book itself. In the above bathos example, the character Nately is trying to get an old Italian man to agree with him about prostitution being a bad thing. The old man disagrees, using the absurd argument that the woman can meet people and get “wholesome” exercise through her profession.

Example #3

His voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel… or something.

(Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James)

There are numerous bathos examples in the wildly popular series Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James. The fact that the writing is also wildly amateur has apparently done nothing to detract from its success. In fact, this is a part of its infamy. In the above quote, the protagonist Ana thinks about her love interest Christian, describing his voice in a romantic way. And then the sentence ends in “or something,” immediately replacing the sense of adoration and wonder with a ridiculous insecurity. It is difficult to take the sentiments in the book seriously since they are so often followed by colloquialisms that make the tone ridiculous.

Test Your Knowledge of Bathos

1. Which of the following statements is the best bathos definition?
A. A line that appeals to the emotions of the reader.
B. A shift in tone, usually from lofty to ridiculous, that produces a sense of anticlimax.
C. The use of aquatic imagery.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following lines from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is not an example of bathos?
A. The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous, and likable. In three days no one could stand him.
B. Doc Daneeka was Yossarian’s friend and would do just about nothing in his power to help him.
C. Milo looked at Yossarian with profound emotion. “That’s what I like about you,” he exclaimed. “You’re honest! You’re the only one I know that I can really trust.”

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Why might an author intentionally use bathos in his or her writing?
A. To produce a comedic effect.
B. To get the reader to feel strong emotions.
C. To show off how good of a writer he or she is.

Answer to Question #3 Show