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Pathetic Fallacy

Want to convey a specific emotion in your writing in a more exciting way? Use pathetic fallacy! This literary device allows you to attribute human emotions to animals, inanimate objects or abstract concepts. 

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Pathetic Fallacy

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Want to convey a specific emotion in your writing in a more exciting way? Use pathetic fallacy! This literary device allows you to attribute human emotions to animals, inanimate objects or abstract concepts.

Pathetic fallacy meaning

Pathetic fallacy is a literary device and a type of figurative language that attributes human emotions, moods, and concerns to animals, inanimate objects, or abstract concepts. Pathetic fallacy's purpose is to create a particular mood or atmosphere.

It is often featured in poetry as well as literature, and it can be used to convey a momentary idea or an extended concept through a text.

The term ‘pathetic fallacy’ was coined by Victorian critic John Ruskin. Initially, he considered it a derogatory term as it expressed morbid, false feelings. However, its use is now solely for descriptive purposes.

Tip to remember what pathetic fallacy means: ‘pathetic’ from Greek ‘pathos’ meaning ‘emotion’, ‘experience’ and ‘fallacy’ meaning ‘logical absurdity’- so think, the logical absurdity of giving human emotion/moods to things that cannot feel human emotion.

Major features of pathetic fallacy

One major feature of pathetic fallacy is the use of the weather or environment, as this is one of the most straightforward ways to create a pathetic fallacy. Pathetic fallacy can be used to show contrast.

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), for example, one landscape is described as ‘desolate and appalling’ whilst another is described as ‘fair’ and ‘gentle’. Pathetic fallacy is not always as apparent as the use of adjectives usually used to describe human emotions. They can extend through a whole sentence, verse, or even a paragraph.

Pathetic fallacy uses

Pathetic fallacy highlights an atmosphere or tone that the writer is trying to create or an idea, plot or characterisation they are trying to express that is crucial to the text. It could also be used to foreshadow.

For example, the protagonist focuses on a ‘mournful birdsong’ they hear in the distance, which could foreshadow something dark and turbulent looming over them.

Pathetic fallacy can be composed as a short phrase or as a whole paragraph if there is an extended meaning you wish to convey. It can be used in literary novels as well as in poetry.

Effect of pathetic fallacy

There are multiple effects you can achieve by using a pathetic fallacy. One of them is that it could reflect how a character is feeling in a situation. This creates an atmosphere and tone that could emphasise the emotions a character is feeling, avoiding repetition in how characters’ emotions are expressed.

Pathetic fallacy acts as an intricate means of communicating characters’ feelings from the writer to the reader, allowing for the inner experience to be understood by the reader without doing so blatantly or tediously.

Examples of pathetic fallacy

Some examples of pathetic fallacy are as follows:

Examples of pathetic fallacyQuoted examplesExplanation of the effect
Poem: 'Ode to the West Wind' (1820) by Percy Bysshe Shelley'Thou on whose stream, mid the steep sky's commotion, / Loose clouds like earth's decaying leaves are shed, / Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean, / Angels of rain and lightning'In this passage, Shelley describes the wind as shaking loose clouds like decaying leaves, which means he attributes human emotions and actions to a non-human entity (the wind). The personification of the wind as an agent that can cause the leaves to fall is a metaphor for the transformative power of the wind.
Poem: ‘The Raven’ (1845) by Edgar Allan Poe‘Each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor’ This is an example of pathetic fallacy as the embers reflect the narrator's feelings of dread or gloom as they watch the lover lament the loss of his love.
Poem: 'The Wasteland' (1922) by T.S. Eliot'April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain'This pathetic fallacy attributes human emotions and actions to the non-human entities of the month of April and the spring rain. The personification of April as 'breeding' lilacs and 'mixing' memory and desire creates a sense of unease and tension, which is reinforced by the description of the 'dull roots' being 'stirred' by the rain.
Play: Macbeth (1623) by William Shakespeare 'So foul and fair a day I have not seen'This example of pathetic fallacy shows that the weather reflects the emotional state of the characters. In his first scene, Macbeth will soon be named the new Thane of Cawdor, and the weather is described as 'so foul and fair a day I have not seen.' The fair weather represents the coming good news of Macbeth's promotion, while the foul weather foreshadows the evil deeds that will follow.
Novel: Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Brontë'The sky is darkening, and a light wind is rising from the moors'This is an example of pathetic fallacy because the weather reflects the emotional state of the characters. In this scene, Catherine and Heathcliff are discussing their deep love for each other, but they are unable to be together due to their different social classes. The darkening sky and rising wind reflect the tumultuous emotions that they are experiencing.

How to create a pathetic fallacy

To create a pathetic fallacy, first, choose an animal or inanimate object - for this example, we will use an inanimate object, such as a rocking chair. Then, consider the emotion you want to express.

For instance, you want to express the instability and dejectedness a character feels in their relationship with another character. Finally, describe the object as having these emotions either in their demeanour or movement. Here is an example of a pathetic fallacy we have created:

He watched as she stood from the rocking chair and left. The chair continued to swing, slightly out of step, lonely in its countenance, looking larger with the empty space in it. The creased cushion sagged despondently as the chair came to an uncertain stop.

It takes some practice to get familiar with making these ideas sound interesting but not comical and nonsensical (unless that is your aim). It is often easiest when practising to start with the weather or an environment because we already attribute human emotions/emotional actions and moods to the weather in everyday conversations.

Let’s consider another example, this time using the weather. The emotion we want to convey is a feeling of happiness and hope. Here is an example of pathetic fallacy we have created:

The sun was fair and buoyant in the sky, its rays warm, welcoming and loving, casting shadows only behind her as she gazed at it.

Pathetic fallacy vs personification

Pathetic fallacy falls under the category of personification. Whilst personification attributes human characteristics in a broad sense to animals, inanimate objects or abstract concepts or treats them as though they were alive, pathetic fallacy focuses specifically on giving them human emotions.

Here is an example of personification that we wrote:

The grease jumped out of the pan, taunting her as she really had no idea what she was doing.

The grease is described as doing the human action of jumping at the woman. It is 'taunting' her, and this is a specific human attribute given to an inanimate object- the grease, in this case. Grease can't taunt a person; that is a description reserved for human relations.

Here is an example of pathetic fallacy that we wrote:

The rain blasted violently, wept violently, raging through the sky.

Humans weep and rage. Weeping is a consequence of sadness, and 'raging' describes the emotion of rage.

This quote attributes these human emotions to an inanimate object - the rain. This shows pathetic fallacy as the specific human characteristic used here is related to emotion.

Pathetic fallacy vs anthropomorphism

Both pathetic fallacy and anthropomorphism involve attributing human characteristics to inanimate objects or non-human entities, so what is the difference between them?

Whilst pathetic fallacy is a literary device that falls under the category of figurative language as the non-literal attribution of emotions to animals or inanimate objects, anthropomorphism is a literary device that is the literal attribution of human characteristics in general to animals or inanimate objects.

Anthropomorphism usually conveys either an eerie or a comedic image.

For example, the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) talk and think like humans. While this is comedic, it is an unsettling depiction of human capabilities in animals.

This is an example of anthropomorphism as the animals talk, debate and engage in corruption and rebellion, which are all attributes exclusively associated with humans. It speaks to the broader allegory of the animals and the farm representing the events and people of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

In comparison, the example of the ‘mournful storm’ is a pathetic fallacy unless you mean for the storm to show signs of grieving in a literal way- show preoccupation with loss, numbness, and isolation, as though it has its own sentience.

Pathetic Fallacy - Key takeaways

  • Pathetic fallacy attributes human emotions, moods and concerns to animals, inanimate objects or abstract concepts.

  • Pathetic fallacy is a type of personification, which is a type of figurative language. Unlike personification, it focuses specifically on human emotion.

  • Pathetic fallacy's purpose is to create a particular mood or atmosphere.

  • Pathetic fallacy can be used to foreshadow events to come.

  • Pathetic fallacy is the non-literal attribution of human emotions specifically to inanimate objects or non-human entities. Anthropomorphism is the literal attribution of human characteristics in general to inanimate objects or non-human entities.

Frequently Asked Questions about Pathetic Fallacy

Pathetic fallacy is a literary device and a type of figurative language that attributes human emotions, moods and concerns to animals, inanimate objects or abstract concepts.

Pathetic fallacy can show contrast in emotion. It can feature weather and the environment. It can feature just one or two adjectives or a lengthy description. 

Pathetic fallacy is used to convey an atmosphere or tone that the writer is trying to create or an idea, plot or characterisation they are trying to express. It is also used to foreshadow.

Pick an animal or inanimate object. Consider the emotion you want to convey in your writing. Finally, describe the object as having these emotions either in their demeanour or in their movement.

Pathetic fallacy falls under the category of personification. Whilst personification attributes human characteristics in a broad sense to animals, inanimate objects or abstract concepts or treats them as though they were alive, pathetic fallacy focuses specifically on giving them human emotions. 

William Shakespeare's play Macbeth (1623) is an example of pathetic fallacy when the weather reflects the emotional state of the characters. In  'So foul and fair a day I have not seen', the fair weather represents the good news of Macbeth's future, while foul weather foreshadows the evil deeds that will follow. The weather then creates a particular mood or atmosphere in the play. 

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