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Pathetic Fallacy


Pathetic fallacy occurs when a writer attributes human emotions to things that aren’t human, such as objects, weather, or animals. It is often used to make the environment reflect the inner experience of a narrator or other characters. For example, if a writer mourning the death of a loved one writes that “the flowers on the grave drooped in sadness,” this would be an example of pathetic fallacy, since the flowers do not, in fact, feel sad.

Additional details about pathetic fallacy:

  • The word “pathetic,” in this context, doesn’t mean “bad” or “lame.” It comes from the Latin pathos, meaning “feeling.” The word “fallacy” comes from the Latin fallax, meaning “deceitful” or “false.” When they’re put together, these words suggest that assigning human feelings to nonhuman things is a falsehood. However, that doesn’t mean that pathetic fallacy is always a mistake; it is often used on purpose in order to evoke a certain emotional atmosphere.
  • The term “pathetic fallacy” was coined by a British writer named John Ruskin, who defined it as “emotional falseness.” Ruskin originally used the term to criticize what he saw as the sentimental attitude of 18th century Romantic poets toward nature. The meaning of the term has shifted over time, and now is often used to simply describe, rather than criticize, the attribution of emotions to non-human things.
  • Pathetic fallacy is a specific type of personification, or the attribution of human qualities to non-human things.
  • Any time a writer describes a wave as “angry,” the sun as “smiling,” or birdsong as “mournful,” it’s an example of pathetic fallacy, since emotions are being attributed to things that don’t actually have them (or at least not in the way humans do). Although the example of a sun “smiling down” on someone technically doesn’t refer explicitly to an emotion (e.g., happiness) it’s fair to count it as an example of pathetic fallacy because the action being described so clearly suggests a specific emotion.

Pathetic Fallacy vs. Personification

Pathetic fallacy is a specific type of personification—which is the attribution of human qualities or actions to non-human things. Here’s a run-down of what makes pathetic fallacy its own distinct category within the broader category of personification:

  • Pathetic fallacy involves the attribution of emotions to nonhuman things.
  • Personification can involve the attribution of any human quality, action, or attribute to nonhuman things Examples of personification that are not pathetic fallacy would include saying that “The waves winked in the sunlight” or “The wind played hide-and-go-seek among the trees,” since neither of these suggest any particular emotion.
  • An additional difference between pathetic fallacy and personification is that pathetic fallacy is often associated only with the attribution of human emotions to aspects of nature (sun, sky, wind, etc.), while personification is applied to things both natural and man-made.

Why Do Writers Use the Pathetic Fallacy?

A scientist might say (as John Ruskin did) that describing non-human things as having emotions is, essentially, incorrect—a fallacy. However, writers may make the conscious choice to do so, with an awareness that such a description is figurative and not literal. This can serve a few different purposes for a writer. It can help them:

  • Set the mood of a scene.
  • Imbue the environment with a certain emotional quality.
  • Craft a vivid and compelling setting.
  • Convey the emotional state of a characters and/or narrator, because the way that character or narrator describes the world in fact reveals the state of their own mind.
  • Make inanimate objects or nonhuman forms of life seem more familiar and relatable.

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