Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 03/15/2023

Episode 28: The Expression of Pathos

By Emily Vaile

From the May, 1908 issue of "The Editor."

This art of appealing to the emotions, how simple it is, and yet how rare are its masters. Its very simplicity, perhaps, is its evasive quality. There is such a prevailing ambition among, writers—young writers especially—to soar, to display their rhetorical pinions, that, when the occasion presents itself, up they go, forgetting in their flight that they are attracting attention from the soul of the thought to its tinseled vehicle. This may dazzle, but, being external, its effects are correspondingly superficial.

Then there is another reason for avoiding this error. Upon consideration, can we not recall descriptions of pathetic scenes that have aroused annoyance rather than tears? Let us analyze these carefully, and we shall find written between the lines substantially this: “I fear you will not see the pathos in this situation if I do not call your attention to it.” Observe the indirect, uncomplimentary inference.

Let us take, for instance, a scene from the works of Ian Maclaren, and desecrate with this verbosity, then note the effect. Drumsheugh at the grave of Margaret Howe will, perhaps, serve as well as any. “O Marget! Marget!” and the voice was full of tears, “there was nane like ye!” Notice the reserve behind that simple explanation; a buried hope, a noble resignation, a barren future, a human agony. Also the assumption by the author that the reader, in his sympathetic imagination, comprehends all this without his assistance.

Now let us express these impressions, and observe the result: There he stood, this lonely, misinterpreted, and misjudged man, his noble brow pale with the agony that shook his bent form. As he gazed down upon the sod that lay like an impenetrable cloud between him and earth's sunshine, his desolate thoughts went out into the future over the bleak and barren pathway he had yet to traverse, without so much as the cheer of a gleam of light from another man’s fireside. A bitter sense of isolation crept over his patient, long-suffering heart, and in his despair he moaned: “O Marget! Marget, there was nane like ye!”

We feel, with a thrill of sympathy that is almost painful, that he felt all this and even more, yet we, consciously or unconsciously, resent such an elaboration thrust upon us as an intrusion into the realm of our imagination.

The writer of fiction who attempts to treat his subject in such a way as to leave the reader in the position of a passive recipient, must, as a natural result, be disappointed in the outcome of his efforts. The successful novelist, like the natural teacher—as, indeed, he should be— avoids that deadening "pouring-in” process. Like his brother artists in oils and marble, he depends, rather, upon the delicate leading-strings of suggestion, and poses his characters with the same nice regard for lights and shadows. A simple attitude may be more eloquent than a whole chapter of explanation; and there are actions, the natural promptings or sequence of which we may safely trust the reader to interpret with much more delicate accuracy than is possible of being put into words.

In brief, let the imaginative word-builder remember that power, beauty, and above all, pathos lies not in the multitude of words, but, on the contrary, in a certain suggestive reserve which, by leading the imagination of the reader, necessitates its co-operation with his own.