Pathetic fallacy: Definition and Examples, Figure of Speech

Pathetic fallacy is a literary device in which an author attribute human emotions and traits to inanimate objects, animal, plant or other parts of nature.

For example, the phrase “smiling sky” is an example of the pathetic fallacy, since it suggests that the sky is very happy which of course is not true – it just looks that way to our eyes. Other examples include “angry ocean”, “sad forest”, “sullen wind”. This is also a kind of personification or describing non-human objects in human ways.

This phrase is invented by John Ruskin in 1856 in Modern Painters. According to Ruskin, a writer was pathetically fallacious when he ascribed human feelings to the inanimate. ‘Pathetic’ means ’emoton’, and ‘fallacy’ means ‘false’. So pathetic fallacy is the act of describing animals and things as having human feelings. For Ruskin it was a derogatory term because it applied, so he said, not to the true appearances of things to us’, but to the extraordinary, or false appearances, when we are under the influence of emotion or contemplative fancy’. To illustrate his point Ruskin quotes from Kingsley’s The Sands of Dee:

They rowed her in across the rolling foam –
The cruel, crawling foam.

And from Coleridge’s Christabel:

The one red leaf, the last of its clan
That dances as often as dance it can.

Such passages are, according to Ruskin, ‘morbid’, however beautiful they may be.

Such a form of personification has been used countless times from Homer onwards, and still is. By Ruskin’s criterion, therefore, many of the greatest poets would qualify as morbid. Nowadays the phrase is used in a non-pejorative and therefore neutral way to define this common poetic phenomenon.

Also read: Asyndeton and Polysyndeton

Also read: Innuendo: Definition, Features, and Examples