Pathetic fallacy  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The pathetic fallacy or anthropomorphic fallacy is the treatment of inanimate objects as if they had human feelings, thought, or sensations. The pathetic fallacy is a special case of the fallacy of reification. The word "pathetic" in this use is related to empathy (capability of feeling), and is not pejorative.

The pathetic fallacy is also related to the concept of personification. Personification is direct and explicit in the ascription of life and sentience to the thing in question, whereas the pathetic fallacy is much broader and more allusive.


The term was coined by the critic John Ruskin (1819–1900) in his 1856 work Modern Painters. Nine years after Ruskin’s death, the first edition of The Oxford English Dictionary quotes Ruskin: “All violent feelings ... produce ... a falseness in ... impressions of external things, which I would generally characterize as the ‘Pathetic fallacy’”.

To demonstrate his meaning Ruskin quotes Charles Kingsley’s poem, “The Sands of Dee”:

"They rowed her in across the rolling foam -
The cruel, crawling foam"

Ruskin then points out “The foam is not cruel, neither does it crawl. The state of mind which attributes to it these characters of a living creature is one in which the reason is unhinged by grief.”

Yet Ruskin did not disapprove of Kingsley’s use of the pathetic fallacy:

“Now so long as we see that the feeling is true, we pardon, or are even pleased by, the confessed fallacy of sight which it induces: we are pleased, for instance, with those lines of Kingsley's, above quoted, not because they fallaciously describe foam, but because they faithfully describe sorrow.” (Ruskin, John (1856). "Of the Pathetic Fallacy". Modern Painters,. volume iii. pt. 4.) While Ruskin saw that indeed some uses of it were valid, he created the term in order to attack the sentimental over-use of it found in the poetry of the late 18th Century and which continued to flourish among Ruskin’s contemporaries.

The fashion may have begun to diminish just as Ruskin addressed the issue, but Ruskin was influential and is credited for helping refine poetic expression. (“Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics”, ed. Alex Preminger, Princeton University Press, 1974 ISBN 0-691-01317-9)

In 1927, H. W. Fowler in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage would note the phrase had been neglected by dictionaries, and that its meaning had shifted away from the one given to it originally. Although Fowler retains a mention of human emotion, an essential aspect in Ruskin, “[in] ordinary modern use pathos and pathetic are limited to the idea of painful emotion; but in this phrase, now common though little recognized in dictionaries, the original wider sense of emotion in general is reverted to, and... [pathetic fallacy] means the tendency to credit nature with human emotions.”

Fowler’s description indicates that two significant alterations to the meaning have occurred. First, Ruskin intended that Pathetic Fallacy not be limited to ascribing human qualities, but any “untrue” quality: as an example of Pathetic Fallacy Ruskin quotes a poet describing a crocus as “gold” when the flower is, in fact, “saffron”. Secondly, Fowler removes the sense of “human emotion” as cause of a Pathetic Fallacy, and suggests that it is instead considered the “effect”.

In 1971, M. H. Abrams, in A Glossary of Literary Terms, notes that the term has undergone a relative diminishment of form and defines pathetic fallacy as “a common phenomenon in descriptive poetry, in which the ascription of human traits to inanimate nature is less formally managed than in the figure called personification.”

With Abrams the evolution of meaning continued, and a lack of reference to Ruskin’s original sense of either pathos or fallacy indicates a shift away from the original meaning is largely complete. “The pathos has largely gone out of the pathetic fallacy,” says Jeffrey M. Hurwit, writing in The Classical Journal in 1982: “Today it is generally regarded simply as a variety of personification ... The pathetic fallacy is widely held to operate when there is any projection of human traits into nature or its animate or inanimate parts ... whatever the stimulus — passion, ‘contemplative fancy,’ or cold-blooded convention.”

In a drama of sufficient authenticity and power, Ruskin accepts the portrayal of pathetic fallacy by fictional characters. It is the disingenuous contrivance of the poet losing touch with reality, to which he objects. In the narrow sense intended by Ruskin, only a faithful representation of experience, as it genuinely appears to the senses, escapes the pathetic fallacy. In addition to the “usual condition of prophetic inspiration,” Ruskin defines three classes:

The temperament which admits the pathetic fallacy, is, as I said above, that of a mind and body in some sort too weak to deal fully with what is before them or upon them; borne away, or over-clouded, or over-dazzled by emotion; and it is a more or less noble state, according to the force of the emotion which has induced it. For it is no credit to a man that he is not morbid or inaccurate in his perceptions, when he has no strength of feeling to warp them; and it is in general a sign of higher capacity and stand in the ranks of being, that the emotions should be strong enough to vanquish, partly, the intellect, and make it believe what they choose. But it is still a grander condition when the intellect also rises, till it is strong enough to assert its rule against, or together with, the utmost efforts of the passions; and the whole man stands in an iron glow, white hot, perhaps, but still strong, and in no wise evaporating ; even if he melts, losing none of his weight.

So, then, we have the three ranks: the man who perceives rightly, because he does not feel, and to whom the primrose is very accurately the primrose, because he does not love it. Then, secondly, the man who perceives wrongly, because he feels, and to whom the primrose is anything else than a primrose: a star, or a sun, or a fairy's shield, or a forsaken maiden. And then, lastly, there is the man who perceives rightly in spite of his feelings, and to whom the primrose is for ever nothing else than itself—a little flower, apprehended in the very plain and leafy fact of it, whatever and how many soever the associations and passions may be, that crowd around it. And, in general, these three classes may be rated in comparative order, as the men who are not poets at all, and the poets of the second order, and the poets of the first; only however great a man may be, there are always some subjects which ought to throw him off his balance; some, by which his poor human capacity of thought should be conquered, and brought into the inaccurate and vague state of perception, so that the language of the highest inspiration becomes broken, obscure, and wild in metaphor, resembling that of the weaker man, overborne by weaker things.

See also

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