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Glossary of Literary Theory
by Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown


An Aristotelian term for the purgative or purifying effect that the imitation of victimage in tragedy has upon an audience. According to Aristotle, a tragedy is a dramatic form "with incidents arousing pity and fear wherewith to accomplish the catharsis of such emotion." By allowing spectators to load their emotions onto a scapegoat, tragedy cleanses them of harmful tensions which would otherwise poison their mental health. It also purifies these emotions and forces the audience to undergo a process of ethical clarification. Catharsis, therefore, is morally as well as psychologically therapeutic.

© Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown,
University of Toronto
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University of Toronto English Library
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Last modified: March 31, 1997