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Pathetic Fallacy

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English Literature

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. 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 in literature/poetry

  • Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847): features a ‘violent thunderstorm’ when the protagonist, Cathy, has to choose between her love interests. Effect: Cathy feels turbulent about this decision.

  • Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Raven’ (1845): ‘each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor’ (verse 8). Effect: the narrator feels dread or gloom as they watch the lover lament the loss of his love.

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.

Pathetic Fallacy, wooden rocking chair in dimly lit space, StudySmarterA rocking chair, pixabay.

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. A woman standing in the sun. StudySmarter.A woman standing in the sun, pixabay.

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.

    • The purpose of pathetic fallacy is to convey the characters’ inner feelings.

    • Pathetic fallacy can also 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.

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. 

Final Pathetic Fallacy Quiz

Question

What is pathetic fallacy?

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Answer

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

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Question

What are the major features of pathetic fallacy?

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Answer

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

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Question

Why is pathetic fallacy used?


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Answer

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.

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Question

How to use pathetic fallacy in a sentence?


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Answer

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.

Show question

Question

What is the difference between personification and pathetic fallacy?


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Answer

Pathetic fallacy is a type of personification. Personification attributes human characteristics in general to animals, inanimate objects or treats them as though they were alive, pathetic fallacy attributes human emotions specifically.

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Question

When is pathetic fallacy used?


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Answer

Pathetic fallacy can be used in literary novels and poetry. It can be one phrase long or more than a paragraph long.

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What effect does pathetic fallacy have?


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Answer

Pathetic fallacy shows a reflection of how a character is feeling, allowing for their inner experience to be understood.

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Question

What is the difference between pathetic fallacy and anthropomorphism?


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Answer

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.

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Question

How can you remember what ‘pathetic fallacy’ means?


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Answer

‘Pathetic’ is from Greek ‘pathos’ meaning ‘emotion’, ‘experience’ and ‘fallacy’ meaning ‘logical absurdity’. So the logical absurdity of giving human emotion/moods to things that cannot feel human emotion.

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Question

Who coined the term ‘pathetic fallacy’?


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Answer

John Ruskin, a Victorian critic.

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Question

How is pathetic fallacy used in English? 

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Answer

In English, pathetic fallacy (the attribution of human characteristics to inanimate objects, is used to convey emotion in a literary text. This emotion cannot typically be attributed to the inanimate object it is being used to describe, and this makes the inanimate object seem 'alive'.  

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