Pathetic fallacy

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Pathetic fallacy

Pathetic fallacy: A term coined by Victorian art critic John Ruskin in Modern Painters (v.3, 1856) to describe the attribution of human traits and emotions to inanimate nature. Ruskin considered such attribution a sign of artistic weakness, an “error … which the mind admits when affected strongly by emotion.” Citing the lines “They rowed her in across the rolling foam — / The cruel, crawling foam” from Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke (1850) as an example, he noted 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.” While subsequent critics have generally used the term neutrally, modern poets have tended to avoid the device.

The pathetic fallacy is a limited form of personification, a figure of speech that bestows human characteristics upon anything nonhuman. It has a narrower scope, applying to inanimate nature rather than animals, places, synthetic objects, and so forth. Furthermore, its “humanizing” characterization is typically less sustained than that effected by personification.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: The “howling storm” in William Blake’s “The Sick Rose” (1794); William Wordsworth’s treatment of the moon in “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” (1807):

The Moon doth with delight

Look round her when the heavens are bare, …

Giving hurricanes human names and representing their results as purposeful exemplify a modern, journalistic use of pathetic fallacy. An August 1995 headline in the Miami Herald read: “Killer Storm Swirls Toward Open Seas: East Coast May Be Spared Luis’s Fury.” Similarly, when Katrina hit the U.S., the story aired on CNN was headlined “Hurricane Katrina Pummels Three States” (Aug. 29, 2005), with anchor Aaron Brown noting that Katrina had “spared New Orleans a direct hit.”