BlogEnglishLiterary Technique: Pathetic Fallacy

Literary Technique: Pathetic Fallacy

Person standing in the rain - Pathetic Fallacy

Finding it hard to grasp the concept of pathetic fallacy as a literary technique, especially without examples?

If you’re feeling confused about what it is and how it should be analysed in texts, we’re here to help!

Let’s dive in!

What is Pathetic Fallacy and Its Effect?
Examples of Pathetic Fallacy
Why is Pathetic Fallacy Used in Writing?
How to Use Pathetic Fallacy in Writing
Where to Use Pathetic Fallacy in Writing
Pathetic Fallacy VS Personification
How to Analyse Pathetic Fallacy
Pathetic Fallacy Analysed Examples
Quick Summary of Pathetic Fallacy

What is Pathetic Fallacy and Its Effect?

Pathetic fallacy is a specific form of personification in which human qualities and emotions are attributed to non-human objects, such as things in nature. This technique is often used by composers to make an environment — the weather, surrounding objects, nature, and animals — reflect the inner experience of characters.

Pathetic Fallacy Literary Definition

Pathetic fallacy is used to externalise emotions and portray a character’s feelings towards a situation through related imagery. This allows authors to better immerse their readers in the world of their stories, and make stories more interactive.

A key indicator of pathetic fallacy is the use of epithets, which are adjectives or phrases expressing a quality or attribute.

Common tropes include rain to signify sadness (for instance, during a funeral), bright skies and sunlight to portray a character’s happiness, and wilting/drooping flowers to symbolise heartbreak.

Weeping Willow

Why is Pathetic Fallacy Used in Writing

Pathetic fallacy is a common technique in nearly all forms of text, including novels, poems, plays, and films. It is commonly used in conjunction with other techniques, especially figurative language such as simile, metaphor, analogy, and personification.

Many composers explore emotion outside of their characters’ minds, often by giving these emotions to something external.

In the case of pathetic fallacy, the literary device is used to more deeply show a character’s emotions by externalising them in a visual way, and portray a character’s feelings towards a situation through related imagery.

How to Use Pathetic Fallacy in Writing

Because of its value in creating and deepening imagery, pathetic fallacy  isoften used to set the tone or mood of a text, to layer emotion and visual description, and to more deeply engage readers.

Commonly, it is linked to weather and seasons. Common tropes include rain to signify sadness, bright skies and sunlight to portray a character’s happiness, and wilting/drooping flowers to symbolise heartbreak. 

Where to Use Pathetic Fallacy in Writing

Because pathetic fallacy is tied up in visual cues, it’s an excellent way for authors to introduce new layers of imagery alongside other forms of figurative language, better immersing readers in the world of the text.

Generally, these are placed before the thing they’re describing — so if you have a non-human object with an epithet, it might be an example of pathetic fallacy.

Of course, you should first look at the big picture and figure out whether or not the characteristic expressed is an emotion, or just a general description.

For instance, in ‘weeping willow’, ‘weeping’ denotes the posture and sadness of the tree, therefore exposing that a character is grieving or deeply upset. However, in the case of ‘the dancing sunlight’, the phrase is just personification, as it does not express any emotional qualities.

Examples of Pathetic Fallacy

The Truman Show Rain

Let’s take a closer look at some examples of pathetic fallacy in both literature and film!

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

“So furious had been the gusts… Violent blasts of rain had accompanied these rages of wind, and the day just closed as I sat down to read had been the worst of all.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

“For a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face… then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret…”

Peter Weir, The Truman Show (film)

When Truman is upset, the rain falls directly on him to symbolise his sadness (of course, there’s other metafictive elements at play in this scene). 

Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights:

Upon the departure of Heathcliff, one of the main character Cathy’s love interests, from the house, the weather is described as immediately becoming a “violent thunderstorm”, depicting her turmoil that a loved one has left.

Pathetic Fallacy VS Personification 

It’s often easy to mix up pathetic fallacy and personification.

Personification refers to a technique in which non-human and non-living or inanimate objects are given any human characteristics. These characteristics can include behaviours, thoughts, feelings, and actions.

It may also refer to abstract concepts given human form. In a way, pathetic fallacy can be thought of as falling under the general technique of personification. The crucial difference is that:

Personification attributes any human quality or trait to a non-human object. This could be a behaviour, an emotion, an action, or a pattern of speech (to the extent that it’s figurative).

An example: “The rain sang against the window pane.”

By contrast, pathetic fallacy occurs when human emotions alone are given to something non-human.

Most commonly, this is used in conjunction with weather or seasons as a way of representing a particular mood, often the mood of the character through whom the text is narrated.

Let’s use F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby as an example: “For a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face…then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret…” (Emotions ascribed = love, regret.)

Sunset

To recap, here’s a quick summary of the differences between the two:

Pathetic FallacyPersonification
The attribution of human qualities to non-human things.

The attribution of human emotions to non-human things.
Personification is a broader term, encapsulating a variety of techniques.Pathetic fallacy is a specific form of personification.

Personification is used to create vivid and beautiful imagery in a text.

Pathetic fallacy is used to reflect the actions and emotions of the story in nature/objects.

How To Analyse Pathetic Fallacy and Its Effect

When analysing a text, a crucial aspect to guide your analysis is the use of epithets. Usually placed before the non-human thing, these are adjectives or phrases expressing a quality or attribute regarded as a characteristic of the person/thing mentioned.

When reading through a text, underline or highlight the epithet. These words/phrases reveal what emotion the character is feeling, by describing the ‘emotion’ of the object.

For instance, in ‘weeping willow’, ‘weeping’ denotes the posture and sadness of the tree, therefore exposing that a character is grieving or deeply upset.

Pathetic Fallacy Analysed Examples

Pathetic Fallacy in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a play famous for its tragedy, conflict, and turmoil.

Often, Shakespeare reflects the torment of his characters through pathetic fallacy, most commonly by referring to the weather around them.

Shakespeare uses pathetic fallacy to both explore his character’s emotions. He cleverly sets the gloomy and sombre atmosphere of the setting in which events are occurring. Here are some key phrases:

Pathetic Fallacy Macbeth Example #1

(Thunder and lightning. Enter three Witches) “When shall we three meet again? / In thunder, lightning or in rain?”

(Act 1 Scene 1, 1-2)

From the very beginning, Shakespeare establishes that the weather will play a key role in establishing the mood of the text.

By bringing in thunder and lightning, Shakespeare asserts the ominous nature of the witches, whilst the double entendre of “thunder and lightning” signifying both the physical weather, and also the conflict and turmoil to come.

Pathetic Fallacy Macbeth Example #2

“The night has been unrulyLamentings heard i’th’ air…Some say the earth / Was feverous and did shake.”

(Act 2, Scene 3, 55-62)

Audiences are aware that a brutal murder has occurred during the night.

This passage, therefore, viscerally depicts to them the darkness and horrifying nature of the crime committed by depicting the night following the murder as immensely troubled, ill-tempered, and melancholic.

By combining this imagery with ‘night’, typically understood as dark and somewhat dangerous, Shakespeare effectively externalises the conflict the characters have at Duncan’s death, while simultaneously setting the tone of the play going forward.

La Push

Another key example in Macbeth is the constant fog that seems to pervade in the land, and which also accompanies the three Witches. In the play, fog is used as pathetic fallacy for a number of things, including:

  • The deceit of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth;
  • The obscured intentions of many characters within the play
  • Great confusion and trepidation
  • Prophecy (as it often comes before great revelations, either from the witches or other characters).

Rain as Pathetic Fallacy

Pathetic fallacy is a very common technique in films, as it’s incredibly easy to visually depict weather and seasons: sunlight and summer typically express joy and happiness, whilst darkness, rain, and winter set a much darker, more depressing tone.

In these cases, the lighting and weather are deliberately chosen to match the sombre, heartbroken, and grieving mood that the characters feel at the loss of a close friend.

These choices are deliberate, as in some cases, it would be inappropriate and jarring for such scenes to be well-lit, as the association of ‘light’ is happiness, rather than sorrow!

For Example

Many funeral scenes are similarly set during a thunderstorm or heavy rain (Tadashi’s funeral in Big Hero 6), or in dark lighting/at night (Dumbledore’s death in The Half-Blood Prince).

By contrast, sunlight signifies happiness, joy, celebration, and often hope. The connotations of sunrise colours (red, yellow, orange) are also emotional, often signifying passion, strength and bravery, and cheerfulness. 

For Example

In the opening screenshot of The Lion King, the rising sun, combined with the clearing skies, signifies a new age for the land, bringing with it triumph and hope for a bright (no pun intended) future.

Seasons as Pathetic Fallacy

Seasons are also used extensively in pathetic fallacy, with the heat of summer often being used to represent happiness, and the coldness of winter used to depict sadness or melancholy.

For instance, movies such as Grease and High School Musical 2 are set during the summer. These films depict themes of romance, love, and friendship, all typically associated with the summer holiday

Fog

Quick Summary of Pathetic Fallacy

We know that was a lot to digest, so here’s a quick summary of pathetic fallacy:

  • Pathetic fallacy is a technique where non-human objects or things are ascribed human emotions.
  • It’s often used as a tool to enhance imagery and emotion in a text, and is a great form of visual imagery.

Look out for these aspects when analysing pathetic fallacy:

Epithets 

What are the key phrases or adjectives signifying emotion?

These will be incredibly useful in determining whether or not something is pathetic fallacy.

The Pathetic Fallacy Itself 

What emotion is it portraying? Is there a particular character or event it’s attached to?

If so, what is the overall effect of the pathetic fallacy? How and why has the author decided to use it at this particular time?

Other Techniques

Be wary that personification looks a lot like pathetic fallacy, and try not to get them mixed up.

Also look out for how pathetic fallacy is used in conjunction with other techniques, and what overall effect this creates. For instance, look for other visual imagery (i.e. lighting), as well as other figurative language, in order to create a holistic picture and analysis.

And, that’s our guide for pathetic fallacy!

You can check out other language features we’ve written about below:

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Rujuta Banhatti is currently a third year Law/International Studies student at UNSW. As a Content Writer at Art of Smart, she is super keen to be able to write (read: academically rant) about texts that she’s absolutely loved, both at school and in general.

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