Pathetic Fallacy

Definition of Pathetic Fallacy

As a literary device, pathetic fallacy refers to giving human emotions and actions to animals, plants, and other parts of nature. Examples of this type of attribution include cats that think devious thoughts, a brook that seems happy, and trees that are worried.

British cultural critic John Ruskin created the definition of pathetic fallacy in the mid-1800s in his book Modern Painters. The term sounds derogative, and indeed Ruskin coined it to denounce the sentimentality that he saw as being overused in poetry in the late 18th century. The two terms “pathetic” and “fallacy” have changed quite a bit since Ruskin first joined them. In his day, “pathetic” meant anything pertaining to emotion, while “fallacy” meant “falseness.” Thus, the original definition of pathetic fallacy was simply emotional falseness.

Pathetic fallacy is a phrase used in science to discourage the attribution of emotions to natural phenomena. Thus, it is still pejorative in this field, while it is not negative when used in literature. Scientists consider pathetic fallacies such as “Nature abhors a vacuum” to be inaccurate and overly vague.

Difference Between Pathetic Fallacy and Anthropomorphism

Pathetic fallacy and anthropomorphism are related literary devices. Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human form and characteristics to non-human creatures, especially animals and deities. Anthropomorphism can be seen in many legends and children’s stories, where animals can speak and reason. Pathetic fallacy, on the other hand, is the projection of human emotions and actions onto plants and animals to reflect the narrator’s own emotional state.

Common Examples of Pathetic Fallacy

There are many examples of pathetic fallacy in popular songs, films, and advertising. Here is an example from music:

I look at you all see the love there that’s sleeping
While my guitar gently weeps
I look at the floor and I see it needs sweeping
Still my guitar gently weeps

—The Beatles, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”

Here is an advertising slogan that employs pathetic fallacy:

Goldfish: The snack that smiles back.

Disney films often use pathetic fallacy examples, such as gathering storms when something is going wrong, or chirping birds when things are hopeful.

Significance of Pathetic Fallacy in Literature

Authors have used pathetic fallacy for many centuries to add poetic expression to their works of literature. One key reason to use pathetic fallacy is to show the narrator or character’s own emotions by assigning them to nature. If a character sees the clouds as menacing, this is probably because the character is worried about some upcoming event. If the character is sad, he or she may instead see clouds as melancholic. John Ruskin, the creator of the term, imagined that only people who feel unhinged by extreme emotions such as grief or anger end up projecting their own emotions onto the natural world. Thus, characters use pathetic fallacy examples most often when experiencing intense emotions. Readers may more clearly understand the mental state in which the character is feeling.

Examples of Pathetic Fallacy in Literature

Example #1

KING LEAR: Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!
You cataracts and hurricanes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!
You sulfurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world,
Crack nature’s molds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!

(King Lear by William Shakespeare)

William Shakespeare used many examples of pathetic fallacy in his poems and plays. In this example, King Lear is viewing the upcoming storm in a dramatic way. He employs the common image of the wind as being blown by an indeterminate face, and instructs the winds to “crack your cheeks.” The fires are “sulfurous and thought-executing,” while the “all-shaking thunder” is able to “smite flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world.” This storm occurs in the second scene of Act 3, while Lear is in the midst of personal despair and hopelessness, and responds to the storm as though it will end the world. Lear, indeed, feels his world coming to an end.

Example #2

  There has fallen a splendid tear
From the passion-flower at the gate.
She is coming, my dove, my dear;
She is coming, my life, my fate;
The red rose cries, “She is near, she is near;”
And the white rose weeps, “She is late;”
The larkspur listens, “I hear, I hear;”
And the lily whispers, “I wait.”

(“Maud: Part 1” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

Alfred, Lord Tennyson uses pathetic fallacy in lovely way in his poem “Maud.” The narrator awaits his love, Maud, in a garden. As he waits he begins to feel just a bit of anxiety that she may not come at all. The narrator has no one to talk to but the flowers, and imagines them responding to him. The different flowers perhaps represent the different parts of his mind in this interminable waiting period—the red rose is the hopeful one, exclaiming that Maud is near, while the white rose sadly thinks only of her being late. The larkspur is neutral, only listening. The narrator in this moment is caught in this trio of emotions, feeling hopeful, sad, and trying to listen for her footsteps.

Example #3

 Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;

(“The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe)

Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “The Raven” is famous for the narrator, who becomes more and more deranged with grief as the night goes on. He has recently lost his love, Lenore, and is feeling his sorrow intensify. Poe writes that, “each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor,” showing the doom the narrator is contemplating. He also writes of the “silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain.” The curtains are, of course, neither sad nor uncertain, but show that the narrator is indeed feeling both of these emotions deeply.

Example #4

They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

(“Birches” by Robert Frost)

Robert Frost often incorporated many images of nature in his poems. In his famous poem, “Birches,” Frost contemplates a forest of birch trees as they sway. In this example of pathetic fallacy, Frost thinks of them “trailing their leaves on the ground like girls on hands and knees.” Thus, even though some person might see the trees bent over as a sad thing, the narrator in this poem compares them to a more optimistic image of girls drying their hair in the sun. The narrator is clearly not feeling grief in this poem, but instead thinking only of the beauty and strength of the trees.

Test Your Knowledge of Pathetic Fallacy

1. Which of the following statements is the best pathetic fallacy definition?
A. A statement that is embarrassingly bad and wrong.
B. Attribution of human elements to nature.
C. A minor, yet misleading, turn of phrase.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Consider the following excerpt from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

ROMEO: But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.

Which of the lines contains an example of pathetic fallacy?
A. But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
B. It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
C. Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon…

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following lines from Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “The Bells” contain a pathetic fallacy example?
A. What a liquid ditty floats    
To the turtle-dove that listens, while she gloats              
On the moon!
B. Hear the loud alarum bells–                  
Brazen bells!
C. Yet, the ear distinctly tells,        
In the jangling,        
And the wrangling,      
How the danger sinks and swells,

Answer to Question #3 Show

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