The Pathetic fallacy ascribes human, emotional qualities (feelings, thought, sensation) to inanimate objects, as if possessed of human awareness.1 2 As such, in the term pathetic fallacy, the word pathetic communicates feelings of two types, pathos (emotion) and empathy (capability of emotion). An example is the Swedish proverb "The wisdom has long ears and a short tongue. 3
In the critical discussion of literature and criticism of the Arts, the pathetic fallacy is akin to Anthropomorphism (ascribing humanity to animals), to Personification (ascribing personal, human qualities to an abstraction), and to Animism (ascribing a soul to animate and inanimate things).4
The term Pathetic fallacy was coined by the 19th-century cultural critic John Ruskin, who introduced and used the term in the book Modern Painters (1856), as an expression of æsthetic judgement, and the disapproval of excessive sentiment in the execution of a work of art; yet, the pathetic fallacy occasionally is countered by the poetic license exercised by the artist.
The term Pathetic fallacy was coined by the cultural critic John Ruskin (1819–1900) in Modern Painters (1856), with which he defended the later works of J. M. W. Turner, a painter of landscape pictures; and to propose that art should accurately document nature.6 In 1909, nine years after the death of John Ruskin, the first edition of The Oxford English Dictionary quoted him:
All violent feelings . . . produce . . . a falseness in . . . impressions of external things, which I would generally characterize as the ‘Pathetic fallacy’.
Ruskin demonstrates his meaning with a quotation from the concluding stanzas of the poem “The Sands of Dee”, by Charles Kingsley:
They rowed her in across the rolling foam — The cruel, crawling foam . . .
About the poet’s ascription of human emotions to a body of water, Ruskin said that “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.”
— John Ruskin, “Of the Pathetic Fallacy”, Modern Painters, 1856, volume iii, part. 4.
Although Ruskin recognised that some literary and poetic applications of sentiment were valid, he coined the term pathetic fallacy to attack the sentimentality (the over-use of sentiment) that was common to the poetry of the late 18th century, and which use continued among his contemporaries. That fashion for sentimentality in poetry and literature was waning just as John Ruskin addressed the matter; nonetheless, as a critic, Ruskin proved influential in curbing such creative excess, and so is credited with having helped to refine poetic expression.8
In A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), H.W. Fowler, said that the phrase “Pathetic fallacy” had been neglected by lexicographers, and that its meaning had deviated from its original denotation. In the Dictionay, Fowler retains the mention of human emotion, as 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 the occurrence of two significant alterations to the meaning of the term Pathetic fallacy. First, Ruskin intended that the application of Pathetic fallacy not be conceptually limited to ascribing human qualities to an inanimate object, but also be applied delimit the ascription of any “untrue” quality: as in the description of a crocus as “gold” in colour, when the flower is saffron-yellow in colour.6 Second, Fowler removes the sense of “human emotion” as cause of a Pathetic Fallacy, and suggests that it is instead considered the “effect”.
In A Glossary of Literary Terms (1957), M.H. Abrams, said that the term is relatively diminished in 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.”10
Moreover, with A Glossary of Literary Terms, the evolution of the denotation of Pathetic fallacy progressed, and without the original denotation by John Ruskin, thus excluding pathos and fallacy. In The Classical Journal article “Palm Trees and the Pathetic Fallacy in Archaic Greek Poetry and Art” (1982), Jeffrey M. Hurwit said that “the pathos has largely gone out of the pathetic fallacy”; and that “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 [its] inanimate parts . . . whatever the stimulus — passion, ‘contemplative fancy’ or cold-blooded convention.”11
In drama of sufficient psychological authenticity and emotional power, the critic 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.11 In the narrow sense intended by Ruskin, only a faithful representation of experience, as it genuinely appears to the senses, escapes the pathetic fallacy. Moreover, besides 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.
— John Ruskin, “Of the Pathetic Fallacy”, Modern Painters (1856), volume iii, pt. 4, § 8.
Military legend has it that, when King Xerxes I of Persia (r. 486–465 BC) was crossing the Hellespont during the first Græco–Persian War (449–499 BC), he ordered built two bridges, which the defending Greeks quickly destroyed. Feeling personally offended, the Persian King allowed his emotions to lead him to believe that the sea was consciously acting against him and his armies, as though it also was an enemy of Persia. As such, the Greek historian Herodotus quotes King Xerxes the Great:
You salt and bitter stream, your master lays his punishment upon you for injuring him, who never injured you. Xerxes will cross you, with or without your permission.
— Herodotus, The Histories.12
In the event, the Persian King Xerxes subsequently ordered chains thrown into the Greek river, had it given three hundred lashes, and had it branded with red-hot irons.13
The Pathetic fallacy, the attribution of sentience, of human traits to an inanimate thing, is central to human psychology, because it is a way by which men and women understand the world they inhabit; thus, it is important to art and to literature, and thus occurs in the works of writers of the 20th century, such as William Carlos Williams, Theodore Roethke, Mary Oliver, Eavan Boland, and John Ashbery. Moreover, literary criticism applies the term Pathetic fallacy to describe anthropomorphism in the arts and in literature, hence, contemporary usage of the term Pathetic fallacy is ideologically neutral. Influenced by William Wordsworth’s discussion of the practice, in Pathetic Fallacy in the Nineteenth Century: A Study of a Changing Relation between Object and Emotion, Josephine Miles said that “pathetic bestowal” is a neutral and therefore preferable label.
- Some examples of the Pathetic fallacy
This stanza from the poem “Maud” (1855), by Alfred Lord Tennyson, demonstrates what John Ruskin said was an over-use of the pathetic fallacy:
There has fallen a splendid tear
From the passion-flower at the gate.
She is coming, my dove, my dear;
She is coming, my life, my fate.
The red rose cries, "She is near, she is near;"
And the white rose weeps, "She is late;"
The larkspur listens, "I hear, I hear;"
And the lily whispers, "I wait." (Part 1, XXII, 10)
Whether or not Tennyson read the Ruskin essay “Of the Pathetic Fallacy” (1856), his poetry shows the continual refinement of his handling of personification; the example is “Crossing the Bar” (1899):
CROSSING THE BAR
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.
Further examples of the application of the Pathetic fallacy are:
- “The stars will awaken / Though the moon sleep a full hour later” — Percy Bysshe Shelley
- “The fruitful field / Laughs with abundance” — William Cowper
- “Nature must be gladsome when I was so happy — Jane Eyre: An Autobiography (1847), by Charlotte Brontë
In science, the pathetic fallacy occurs as pejorative technical jargon, and communicates the original meaning established by John Ruskin in the 19th century. Although not limited by his criterion of pathos, the term nonetheless communicates the sense of an informal fallacy, which is meant to encourage faithful, true, and accurate communication among scientists, and to discourage figurative speech (metaphor and simile) that might unintentionally communicate a false impression of a natural phenomenon; the example phrase is “Nature abhors a vacuum”.
In The Pathetic Fallacy: Animism Masquerading as Science in Education, Alistair B. Fraser said that explanations of natural phenomena must be free of the inappropriate modal force introduced by words such as want and try.14 An example of the animism conveyed by the pathetic fallacy is:
Air hates to be crowded, and, when compressed, it will try to escape to an area of lower pressure.
Yet, such natural phenomena have no conatus — they strive for nothing, they simply do something, or they do not do something — but natural phenomena do not try to do something. The pressure exerted by a gas is explained by kinetic theory: movement towards lower pressure occurs because of the probability that unobstructed gas molecules will be more evenly distributed between high- and low-pressure zones, by a net flow from the former to the latter.
- The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy Second Edition (2005). Thomas Mautner, Editor. p. 455.
- Topelius Bokförlag (1974). Ur Folkets Mun. Linköping: AB Östgötatryck. p. 90. ISBN 91-85160-03-2.
- The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology (1995), Arthur S. Reber, Editor. pp. 42, 560.
- Ruskin and Millais at Glenfinlas, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 138, No. 1117, pp. 228–234, April 1996. (Accessed via JSTOR, UK.)
- Ruskin, John (1856). "Of the Pathetic Fallacy". Modern Painters,. volume iii. pt. 4.
- “Pathetic”. The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 1st ed. 1909.
- Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Alex Preminger, Ed., Princeton University Press, 1974 ISBN 0-691-01317-9
- Fowler, H.W. (1994) . A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Wordsworth Collection. Wordsworth Editions. p. 425. ISBN 9781853263187.
- Abrams, M.H.; Harpham, G.G. (2011) . A Glossary of Literary Terms. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning. p. 269. ISBN 9780495898023. LCCN 2010941195.
- Hurwit, Jeffrey M. (1982). "Palm Trees and the Pathetic Fallacy in Archaic Greek Poetry and Art". The Classical Journal (The Classical Association of the Middle West and South) 77 (3): 193–199. JSTOR 3296969.
- Herodotus The Histories vii. 35.
- Green, Peter The Greco–Persian Wars (London 1996) p. 75.
- Fraser, A.B. "Teaching | Bad Science | The Pathetic Fallacy: Animism masquerading as science in education".
- Robert A. Harris, A Handbook of Rhetorical Devices: 31. Personification, Version Date: April 6, 2005.
- Ruskin, J., "Of the Pathetic Fallacy", Modern Painters III (1856) http://www.ourcivilisation.com/smartboard/shop/ruskinj/
- Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms, 7th edition. Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999. ISBN 0-15-505452-X.
- Crist, Eileen. Images of Animals: Anthropomorphism and Animal Mind. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999. ISBN 1-56639-656-5.
- Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth (eds.). The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-8018-4560-2.