What is Pathetic Fallacy?

What is pathetic fallacy, or ‘the pathetic fallacy’? And what is its relation to art and literature? We can define the term ‘pathetic fallacy’ easily enough, but it’s worth unpicking the origins and implications of this phrase with some literary examples.

First, though, by way of introduction: a brief definition of what ‘pathetic fallacy’ means. Put simply, pathetic fallacy is when a writer ascribes human emotions to something inanimate, such as the weather, a landscape, or a natural feature. A storm being described as ‘angry’ is a good example, when the poet or novelist is attributing a human emotion (anger) to the inanimate storm, which is in fact incapable of feeling any such thing. Describing a drooping flower as ‘melancholy’ is another example: the poet is bringing that emotion to the flower, but the flower is unable to feel melancholic. So far, so straightforward.

But why is it known as the pathetic fallacy? What’s pathetic about it – and what’s fallacious about it? Well, ‘pathetic’ here relates to the idea of feelings or emotions, from the Greek pathos (which also provides with sympathetic, i.e. ‘together-feeling’, meaning you feel for someone else’s suffering), rather than relating to something laughable or inadequate (which the word ‘pathetic’ has come to mean). ‘Fallacy’, meanwhile, refers to a false opinion or belief. So ‘pathetic fallacy’ is about falsely attributing human emotions to things which cannot possibly experience those emotions.

The person responsible for coining the phrase ‘pathetic fallacy’ was the noted Victorian art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900), in his 1856 book Modern Painters. Ruskin outlined

the difference between the ordinary, proper, and true appearances of things to us; and the extraordinary, or false appearances, when we are under the influence of emotion, or contemplative fancy; false appearances, I say, as being entirely unconnected with any real power or character in the object, and only imputed to it by us.

These ‘false appearances’ are the root of the pathetic fallacy. Ruskin provides some examples – first, from Charles Kingsley’s poem ‘The Sands o’ Dee’:

They rowed her in across the rolling foam—
The cruel, crawling foam…

Foam cannot be cruel, since this is a quality exclusive to animate objects, especially humans (though we might argue that some animals exhibit ‘cruel’ behaviour, even if malice is not what drives them). Or, as Ruskin more brusquely puts it: ‘The foam is not cruel, nor does it crawl. The state of mind which attributes to it these characters of a living creature is one in which the reason is unhinged by grief.’

Ruskin goes on to argue that ‘the greatest poets do not often admit this kind of falseness – that it is only the second order of poets who much delight in it.’ (By ‘second order of poets’, Ruskin clarifies that he isn’t necessarily referring to poetic skill or quality: instead, he’s separating the creative ‘first order’ of poets (Shakespeare, Homer, Dante) from the ‘Reflective or Perceptive’ second order (Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson). Ruskin then contrasts an image from the medieval poet Dante, who described the souls of the dead falling from the bank of Acheron ‘as dead leaves flutter from a bough’, with one from Coleridge:

The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
That dances as often as dance as it can.

Ruskin approves of Dante’s image of the leaves fluttering from the bough as a simile for the spirits of the dead, because the simile conveys ‘their utter lightness, feebleness, passiveness, and scattering agony of despair, without, however, for an instant losing his own clear perception that these are souls, and those are leaves’. By contrast, Ruskin finds Coleridge’s image of the leaf dancing ‘as often as dance as it can’ to be ‘morbid’ and ‘false’ because the poet ‘fancies a life in it [the leaf], and [a] will, which there are not’.

There are a couple of things to say to this. First, Ruskin goes on to find far more egregious examples of pathetic fallacy in other poets (the example he gives is from Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey), next to which Coleridge’s has a pleasing charm to it. Second, our modern use of ‘pathetic fallacy’ as a term has lost sight of the fallacious part of Ruskin’s phrase: the thing he sought most of all in art was Truth (with a capital T), and pathetic fallacy is ‘morbid’ because it attributes false emotions or moods to things which cannot possibly feel them. (Another example he gives is of the ‘raging waves’ of the sea, which even by then had become a poetic cliché.) We tend to use the term ‘pathetic fallacy’ in a more neutral way now, but for Ruskin, it was (usually) a sign of Bad Poetry.

To conclude, we might ask: what’s the difference, then, between pathetic fallacy and personification? We might sum it up as follows: pathetic fallacy is a more specific example of personification, which is a broader literary device. Personification just means giving human attributes to non-human things, whether animals, inanimate objects, or abstract concepts and ideas.

But pathetic fallacy is more specific: it’s about attributing false emotions or moods to inanimate objects (especially in nature), emotions or moods which are actually felt or experienced by the (human) speaker, narrator, or character.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

4 thoughts on “What is Pathetic Fallacy?”

  1. We must see this term in light of the age in which it was ascribed. It is mow becoming more widely accepted that plants and other objects in nature may also be subject to feelings of pain and stress so therefore by extension the possibility of emotion and empathy. Only time will tell if the meaning of, “pathetic fallacy,” may have to be re-written or even lost, as an archaic anachronism.

  2. I’ve always felt that ‘pathetic fallacy’ is a somewhat negative term for personification / anthropomorphism. Unless I’m specifically looking at Victorian literature (usually examples of sentimentality), I usually just go for the more neutral terms…


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