Pathetic Fallacy – not actually an insult

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.


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?)


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.


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.

by Paco CT


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.

6 thoughts on “Pathetic Fallacy – not actually an insult

  1. When one opens themselves to spirit and to the oneness of all things the idea of one feeling sad and rain falling is perfectly logical. Human consciousness is the weather! When one understands the devas, the builders of form, one understands why an autumn leaf might be the last of its clan. When one writes one should enter their heart not their head and write from there for it is the house of spirit.

  2. I was a little hazy on that distinction myself, which is why I turned to trusty Abrams. From what I can work out, personification is a subset of pathetic fallacy in the same way sarcasm is a subset of irony. So your example would be both. Personification seems to be used when talking about figures of *language*, especially when discussing poetry, whereas if you’re watching Chicken Run and it starts raining because all the chooks are in the doldrums, no words are used to describe that, so that would be better described as pathetic fallacy.

    That was my interpretation, anyway!

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