Pathetic fallacy

Pathetic fallacy

The pathetic fallacy or anthropomorphic fallacy is the treatment of inanimate objects as if they had human feelings, thoughts, or sensations. The pathetic fallacy is a special case of the fallacy of reification. The word "pathetic" in this use is related to empathy (capability of feeling), and is not pejorative.

The pathetic fallacy is also related to the concept of personification. Personification is direct and explicit in the ascription of life and sentience to the thing in question, whereas the pathetic fallacy is much broader and more allusive.


The term was coined by the critic John Ruskin (1819–1900) in his 1856 work Modern Painters, in which he wrote that the aim of the pathetic fallacy was “to signify any description of inanimate natural objects that ascribes to them human capabilities, sensations, and emotions." In the narrow sense intended by Ruskin, the pathetic fallacy is a scientific failing, since most of his defining paper concerns art, which he maintains ought to be its truthful representation of the world as it appears to our senses, not as it appears in our imaginative and fanciful reflections upon it. However, in the natural sciences, a pathetic fallacy is a serious error in scientific reasoning if taken literally.

In history

When Xerxes was crossing the Hellespont in the midst of the first Greco-Persian War, he built two bridges that were quickly destroyed. Feeling personally offended, his paranoia led him to believe that the sea was consciously acting against him as though it were an enemy. As such Herodotus quotes him as saying "You salt and bitter stream, your master lays his punishment upon you for injuring him, who never injured you. Xerxes will cross you, with or without your permission." He subsequently threw chains into the river, gave it three hundred lashes and "branded it with red-hot irons".

In literature

Literary critics after Ruskin have generally not followed him in regarding the pathetic fallacy as an artistic mistake, instead assuming that attribution of sentient, humanising traits to inanimate things is a centrally human way of understanding the world, and that it does have a useful and important role in art and literature. Indeed, to reject the use of pathetic fallacy would mean dismissing most Romantic poetry and many of Shakespeare's most memorable images. Literary critics find it useful to have a specific term for describing anthropomorphic tendencies in art and literature and so the phrase is currently used in a neutral sense.

It is a rhetorical figure and a form of personification. In the strictest sense, delivering this fallacy should be done to render analogy. Other reasons to deliver this fallacy are mnemonic.


Ruskin quotes a stanza from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Maud as an "exquisite" example of pathetic fallacy:

 There has fallen a splendid tear
   From the passion-flower at the gate.
 She is coming, my dove, my dear;
   She is coming, my life, my fate.
 The red rose cries, "She is near, she is near;"
   And the white rose weeps, "She is late;"
 The larkspur listens, "I hear, I hear;"
   And the lily whispers, "I wait." (Part 1, XXII, 10)

Other examples are:

Macbeth also contains numerous examples. The weather often changes to coincide with events.

In science

The pathetic fallacy is not confined to fiction, but was a generally accepted convention of pre-World War I prose. For example, the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica abounds in use of the pathetic fallacy even though it is ostensibly a purely factual work. For example, "Nature abhors a vacuum" (John Ruskin's translation of the well-known Medieval saying natura abhorret a vacuo, in Modern Painters).

In popular culture

The Vertigo Comics series Jack of Fables depicts the pathetic fallacy as a human-like individual capable of bestowing anthropomorphic life and emotion to inanimate objects. Fittingly, the literary device of the fallacy has been applied to the character itself, personifying it as an overly sensitive man who prefers to be called "Gary—or Lance".


4. Robert A. Harris, A Handbook of Rhetorical Devices, Version Date: April 6, 2005

Further reading

  • Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms, 7th edition. Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999. ISBN 015505452X.
  • Crist, Eileen. Images of Animals: Anthropomorphism and Animal Mind. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999. ISBN 1566396565.
  • Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth (eds.). The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. ISBN 0801845602.

See also

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