Pathetic Fallacy: Not actually an insult

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?)


Pathetic fallacy is an important tool when writing melodrama, and is also a tool when writing a mood piece. An example of a mood piece would be Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”. Mood pieces emphasise atmosphere over plot. There’s often a lot of surrealism and loose allegory. “Tales of Terror” are often mood pieces. These are a subcategory of horror.

Therefore, in a mood piece, the setting ‘comes alive’. The author picks characters, settings and objects to represent an idea and reinforce it. Terror is invoked when the physical surroundings appear nearly alive.

When the person feels gloomy the whole world looks drab. In fiction, a character is presumed to feel gloomy because the whole world IS drab.

This is the kind of backwards emotional projection we’re talking about.

On the other end of the emotional scale, utopias in children’s stories tend to be sunny and temperate, symbolising the characters’ emotional state.


This is straight out of M.H. Abrams, the 1990s 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.


Rain Pathetic Fallacy

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.)

It also happens in a song by Simple Minds.

A character feels threatened and there’s a storm. (Storms tend to be more than just atmospheric.)

and so on.

Wolf Children is full of weather related pathetic fallacy. Even the chidren are named after weather events.
Wolf Children is full of weather related pathetic fallacy. Even the chidren are named after weather events.

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.)

It was a dark and stormy night.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle


I tore all the roses off a single sad bush and threw them, one after the other, into the angry sea.

— We Were Liars by e. lockhart (2014). Lockhart ends a chapter with this. The first person narrator has just realised the boy she likes has picked a flower for another girl instead.

As you can see, pathetic fallacy is still used.

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 called.