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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