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Pathetic Fallacy in Literature: Definition & Examples -

Pathetic Fallacy In Literature: Definition & Examples

What is Pathetic Fallacy?

Pathetic Fallacy is quite common in English poetry and literature. It is highly useful in literature and poetry to set the tone or context of a scene. The term Pathetic Fallacy represents a figure of speech where the natural world or environment is treated like it has emotions like human beings. In other word, this figure of speech attributes the human emotions and qualities to the inanimate objects of the nature.

The term Pathetic in the phrase is not used in a derogatory sense to depict something to be highly miserable, instead, it implies for imparting emotions to something else like an inanimate object. The word comes from the Latin word Pathos, which means feeling, and the word Fallacy comes from another Latin word, ‘fallax, which means false or deceitful. When put together, both these imply that attributing human emotions to non-human objects is a falsehood, however, that does not mean that pathetic fallacy indicates a mistake. Rather, it is often used on purpose to create a certain emotional atmosphere in the literature.

Thus, pathetic fallacy can be found when the author or a poet attributes the human emotions to weather, animals or objects in the nature.

Difference between Personification and Pathetic Fallacy

In the English literature and poetry, this term is often used by the authors for reflecting the inner experience of the narrator or any other character. It is also considered as a specific type of personification. However, there are some differences in pathetic fallacy and personification in terms of function. Pathetic fallacy is a type of personification, which gives human emotions or feelings to the inanimate objects of the nature, such as, reference to the features of the weather as mood of the human beings. For example, in the sentence, ‘The somber clouds have darkened our mood for the day’, it can be seen that the phrase, ‘somber cloud’ is an application of pathetic fallacy.

On the other hand, personification is a much broader term, which gives human characteristics to various types of objects and ideas, like abstract concepts or ideas, animate or inanimate objects of the nature. For example, when an author writes that ‘the tree was talking to us’, he implies personification of the natural animate object, that is, the tree, and the human quality of talking was attributed to the tree.

‘Weeping Willow’ is one of the very common examples of pathetic fallacy. The term implies that the willow tree is sad, which cannot be true in reality, but due to the structure of the tree and its branches, it appears to be sad or weeping. Hence, this is not only a pathetic fallacy, but also an example of personification.

In a strict sense, pathetic fallacy can be applied to natural inanimate objects only, like, trees, animals, weather patterns, storms, clouds, wind and so on. At the same time, it can also be used for referring to an emotional metaphor in regards to the everyday objects, which might not be considered as natural. In figurative usage, pathetic fallacy cannot be considered as a logical fallacy, that is, an error in the reasoning. It can simply be considered as a figure of speech or a simple image. However, in literal sense, it is definitely a fallacy.

Importance of Pathetic Fallacy

Similar to other types of figure of speech, like, onomatopoeia, simile, etc. pathetic fallacy is also used to enhance the quality of the literature. It helps in creating an image of the context by invoking a feeling into the inanimate or animate natural objects and thereby improving the literal quality of the writing. In figurative usage, pathetic fallacy is similar to any other metaphor, lending depth as well as texture to the description, and thus, making the writing much richer.

However, it should be used sparingly, as overuse of this can make the writing lose its charm. Even in case of technical writing, use of pathetic fallacy can make the concept of science to the readers much easier to understand.

For example, in physics, for explaining the electromagnetic attraction, it is often written as the positive ions want to be near the negative ions. This makes a clearer picture of the behaviour of the ions in the real world, although in literal sense, ions do not have minds of their own and are not capable of wanting something. Hence, in this case, the pathetic fallacy is used to depict an impersonal physical event.

Pathetic Fallacy examples

“I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high o’er vales and hills…” (William Wordsworth, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud)

Clouds have been depicted as angry, happy and so on in many literature and poems, however, the image of a lonely cloud and its wandering in the high sky present the mood of William Wordsworth in the poem. Thus, this pathetic fallacy presents a dynamic feature of the cloud, that is, loneliness, when it wanders over the hills and valleys.

Wuthering Heights (By Emily Bronte)

This novel is full of pathetic fallacies, with the title itself containing one. The meaning of Wuthering is to blow strongly with a roaring sound. Hence, Wuthering Heights implies aggressive and uproarious weather which represents the nature of the residents.

In this novel, the writer have presented many examples of pathetic fallacy. She shows that the character Lockwood gets trapped in a severe snow storm just before the nightmare scene, there was a violent thunderstorm on the particular night when Heathcliff leaves the Wuthering Heights, and the stormy weather at the time Cathy was making a choice between Edgar and Heathcliff, which represented her inner turmoil.


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