For a wonderful explanation of this literary technique:
Pathetic fallacy is a poetic device where, for the purpose of creating symbolic value or another higher-order creative expression, we attribute human emotions to items which don’t feel emotions.
- see more from Edit Torrent.
A LITTLE HISTORY
The term ‘pathetic fallacy’ was coined in 1856 by a man called John Ruskin (an art critic). He meant it as an insult. For John, the most important thing about art was ‘truth’. He was getting a little sick and tired of art (and descriptions in books) which did not represent the ‘true appearances’ of things. He hated when poets let their ‘emotions’ get in the way.
As an example of pathetic fallacy, John Ruskin offered the following:
The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
That dances as often as dance it can.
- from Christabel by Coleridge.
He said that was ‘morbid’. Of course, this makes almost every author of fictional prose and poetry throughout history ‘morbid’, including Shakespeare. Nowadays the phrase ‘pathetic fallacy’ is used in a neutral way.
But hang on. Isn’t that example above simply called ‘personification’? (When inanimate objects are described using the emotions and actions of people?)
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN *PATHETIC FALLACY* AND *PERSONIFICATION*?
This is straight out of M.H. Abrams, the literature student’s bible:
“Pathetic fallacy” is now used, for the most part, as a neutral name for a very common phenomenon in descriptive poetry, in which the ascription of human traits to inanimate nature is less formal and more indirect than in the figure called personification.
- A Glossary of Literary Terms, 7th Ed.
A COMMON EXAMPLE
Across all forms of art, Pathetic Fallacy is frequently used in regards to weather.
A character feels sad and it rains. (It happens in Chicken Run, but there are a million other examples.)
A character feels threatened and there’s a storm. (Storms tend to be more than just atmospheric.)
and so on.
I really like this kind of pathetic fallacy. Especially storms. Love me a storm. (Except when a lightning bolt renders your TV aerial useless. Not a fan of that.)
But as mentioned by EditTorrent, when making use of this figure, we need to be careful of our sentence structures, and doubly careful about accidentally writing cliché.
That’s why it’s important to know what this is.