Pathetic Fallacy

By Mark Nichol

Is a pathetic fallacy really all that pathetic? Although some literary critics condemn the technique, the person who coined the phrase was attacking not its use but its overuse.

Pathetic fallacy is the association of feelings, sensations, or thoughts to inanimate objects, such as when a writer describes a cruel sea or a brooding cliff or an unyielding boulder. Nineteenth-century critic John Ruskin wasn’t being pejorative when he first described the concept; pathetic, in his usage — indeed, in its original sense — refers not to something pitiful, as the dominant modern connotation implies, but to something associated with feeling. (Pathos, the Greek word from which pathetic is derived, means “emotion, experience, or suffering.”)

Pathetic fallacy also applies to scientific and technical contexts. For example, the widely misquoted and misunderstood statement “Information wants to be free” imputes a motive to information. (The entire comment by technology writer Stewart Brand has been manifested variously, including this version: “Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive. . . . That tension will not go away.”)

However, as the noted philosopher-warrior Yoda sagely observed, “Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.” Strictly speaking, no inanimate object or phenomenon can attempt something; it can only accomplish or fail to accomplish it. But even scientific and technical writers often indulge in poetic license, describing how, for example, electricity tries to complete a circuit, as if the force were engaged in an endeavor prompted by a cognitive cue. That’s not too far removed from, for example, a novelist’s or a poet’s reference to icy fingers of gusting wind trying to penetrate a ramshackle cabin during a blizzard.

So, don’t hesitate to employ pathetic fallacy — ascribing emotion to phenomena (“Nature abhors a vacuum”) is a sensible analogy, and sensible and subtle literary use is likely to be effective and unobtrusive — but put your critical faculties on full alert to recognize when overreaching produces purple prose or poesy.

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8 Responses to “Pathetic Fallacy”

  • John White

    I recall the comical way in which my French lit teacher introduced us to this construct.

    On the board he spelled out “pathetic”, then followed it with the letters “pha”. With exquisite timing he feigned distraction, said, “Oh!,” erased the “pha” and wrote out “fallacy.”

    Guess ya had to be there.

  • Liz Herselman

    This is the first of your entries that I have read. I like it but my high school English teacher mind is wondering how to distinguish personification from pathetic fallacy because, reading your piece, I realise I didn’t note or appreciate the subtlety of pathetic fallacy. I’d have thought ‘nature abhors a vacuum’ was personification? (Here in SA we perhaps do not place as much emphasis on pathetic fallacy?)

  • venqax

    Maybe saying, “nature, who I call Herbert, abhors a vacuum” would be personification. Or maybe I’m confusing that with the pathetic humor fallacy.

  • rob

    “Nature abhors a vacuum.”

    That is quite ambiguous — as to whether its personification or pathetic fallacy. The capitalization indicates personification, but it is required punctuation to begin a sentence with a capital letter!

    Oh boy.

  • Mark Nichol

    Rob:

    I think the issue with “Nature abhors a vacuum” is not Nature, which is indeed personification, but abhors, which imputes emotion to an impersonal phenomenon.

  • EdW

    After having students come to theatre studies armed with this from literature studies, I need to raise a big misconception in my opinion. A playwright or I daresay a novelist who creates some ominous weather when something is about to happen or is happening is not committing pathetic fallacy – there is no lie, nothing but pure truth. there has been no personification of the weather it is presented as a particularly apt coincidence. id say it becomes pathetic fallacy when a character then ascribes an attribute to the weather. or if the novelist in the narrative voice desciribes the weather using some human quality.

    What do you think?

    What I could do with is a handy literary device to roll out as a response to the hegemony of ‘it’s pathetic fallacy’.

  • venqax

    EdW: I would agree that use of weather in thearter or writing is symbolism- which can be sublte or heavy-handed– not pathetic fallacy. That is what I would say to it: All symbolism is not pathetic fallacy, let alone personification. It probably hurts symbolism’s feelings to suggest otherwise.

  • Nia

    According to Ruskin, who coined the phasre, as he defined it in his essay in Modern Painters vol. iii, pt. 4 1856, a pathetic fallacy occurs when an author under the influence of emotion is caused to observe things not as they are, but inaccurately because his vision or ability to apprehend is affected by that emotion. In other words, a pathetic fallacy occurs when an emotional person describes false appearances of things. One example of a pathetic fallacy is for an emotional person to see human attributes in inanimate objects, a second example is to see other untrue qualities. For instance, Ruskin in that same essay quotes a poet describing a crocus as gold when the flower is, in fact, saffron . The first word of Ruskin’s phasre, pathetic , refers to the compassion being aroused, or the emotion that causes the false appearance. The second word of the phasre is fallacy , which by definition requires a misapprehension, and that would be the false appearance.

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