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Pathetic fallacy

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The pathetic fallacy or anthropomorphic fallacy is the treatment of inanimate objects as if they had human feelings, thought, or sensations.[1] The pathetic fallacy is a special case of the fallacy of reification. The word 'pathetic' in this use is related to 'pathos' or 'empathy' (capability of feeling), and is not pejorative.

In the discussion of literature, the pathetic fallacy is similar to 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. "Personification" is a more obtrusive and formal use of human traits attributed to natural objects, according to M. H. Abrams. For example, "the sea is angry at us" would be the pathetic fallacy, but when the sea assumes a human form such as a sea god, that is overt personification.


The term was coined by the critic John Ruskin (1819–1900) in his 1856 Modern Painters, in which he wrote that the aim of the pathetic fallacy was "to signify any description of inanimate natural objects that ascribes to them human capabilities, sensations, and emotions". In the narrow sense intended by Ruskin, the pathetic fallacy is a scientific failing, since most of his defining paper[2] concerns art, which he maintains ought to be its truthful representation of the world as it appears to our senses, not as it appears in our imaginative and fanciful reflections upon it. However, in the natural sciences, a pathetic fallacy is a serious error in scientific reasoning if taken literally. M. H. Abrams in A Glossary of Literary Terms says that Ruskin's use of the term "pathetic fallacy" was derogatory. 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.

John Ruskin (1819–1900), Modern Painters

In legendEdit

According to legend, when Xerxes was crossing the Hellespont in the midst of the first Greco-Persian War, he built two bridges that were quickly destroyed. Feeling personally offended, he let his paranoia lead him to believe that the sea was consciously acting against him as though it were an enemy. As such Herodotus quotes him as saying "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".[3] He subsequently threw chains into the river, gave it three hundred lashes and "branded it with red-hot irons".[4]

In literature and popular cultureEdit

Literary critics after Ruskin have generally not followed him in regarding the pathetic fallacy as an artistic mistake, instead assuming that attribution of sentient, humanising traits to inanimate things is a centrally human way of understanding the world, and that it does have a useful and important role in art and literature. Indeed, to reject the use of the pathetic fallacy would mean dismissing most Romantic poetry and many of Shakespeare's most memorable images. Literary critics find it useful to have a specific term for describing anthropomorphic tendencies in art and literature and so the phrase is currently used in a neutral sense. Josephine Miles in Pathetic Fallacy in the Nineteenth Century: A Study of a Changing Relation Between Object and Emotion, influenced by William Wordsworth’s discussion of the practice, argues that “pathetic bestowal” is a neutral and therefore preferable label. However labeled, the practice occurs in any number of accomplished twentieth-century writers, including William Carlos Williams, Theodore Roethke, Mary Oliver, Eavan Boland, and John Ashbery.

It is a rhetorical figure and a form of personification. In the strictest sense, delivering this fallacy should be done to render analogy.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Other reasons to deliver this fallacy are mnemonic.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Examples Edit

Ruskin quotes a stanza from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Maud as an "exquisite" example 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)

In this poem the paradoxical events of flowers and animals talking are an explicit personification of non-human objects. But since this is merely a poem its not considered a fallacy, but a creative muse or literary device.

Other examples are:

In the ongoing comic book series Jack of Fables, the Pathetic Fallacy itself is embodied by a character named Gary, who has control over inanimate objects and treats them with a peculiar sense of kindness.

In scienceEdit

Historically, the properties and interactions of classical elements were described as if they were animate. For example, the fact that fire and smoke tend to rise was explained so that because fire belongs to the sphere of fire, located above the sphere of air, fire wants to go there. Another famous example is the phrase "Nature abhors a vacuum", (John Ruskin's translation of the well-known Medieval saying natura abhorret a vacuo, in Modern Painters), where abhor is a word describing an emotion (pathos).

A typical example of assigning feelings and emotions to the inanimate is the use of the words "want" or "try".[5] For example, "Air hates to be crowded, and when compressed it will try to escape to an area of lower pressure". However, the processes are inanimate. The pressure exerted by gases is a consequence of the kinetic energy of the gas molecules, not because the air would "hate" being compressed or "want to" expand. Its movement towards lower pressure is because of the pure probability of the gas molecules to be distributed evenly, such that a lower-pressure zone receives a net flow of molecules, not because air "tries to" move as a feeling, thinking unit.

Even in modern science it is difficult to speak about the physical world without personifying it. The philosopher Owen Barfield points out we say that two masses are gravitationally "attracted", or that an object tends to stay still and not accelerate unless a force "acts" on it.[How to reference and link to summary or text] However, use of the pathetic fallacy can be a good way to quickly explain complex scientific concepts in an easily understood form. For example, the examples above can often be found in elementary or middle school science classes.

See alsoEdit


  2. Ruskin, John. "Of the Pathetic Fallacy", from Modern Painters, volume iii, pt. 4, 1856. Retrieved 13 March 2007.
  3. Herodotus The Histories vii.35
  4. Green, Peter The Greco-Persian Wars (London 1996) 75.
  5. Fraser, A.B. The Pathetic Fallacy: Animism masquerading as science in education.

Further reading Edit

  • 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.Template:WP

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