I. What is a Pathetic Fallacy?
The pathetic fallacy is a figure of speech in which the natural world (or some part of it) is treated as though it had human emotions. The phrase “weeping willow” is an example of the pathetic fallacy, since it suggests that this tree is sad or dejected, which of course is not true – it just looks that way to our eyes. This is also a kind of personification, or describing non-human objects in human ways.
In the strictest sense, the pathetic fallacy can only be applied to nature – animals, trees, weather patterns, etc. However, it is also sometimes used more loosely to refer to an emotional metaphor regarding everyday objects that aren’t typically thought of as “natural.”
When used figuratively, the pathetic fallacy is not a logical fallacy (i.e. an error of reasoning), but rather a simple image or figure of speech. However, if taken literally it definitely constitutes a fallacy.
The term comes from the Greek word pathos, meaning “emotion,” and is only distantly related to the usual meaning of the word “pathetic.”
II. Examples and Explanations
Nature abhors a vacuum.
This common saying is a great example of the pathetic fallacy. Obviously, nature cannot literally abhor (hate) anything, since nature does not literally have emotions. (At least, for people who aren’t pantheist mystics or nature-worshippers it doesn’t.) However, this pathetic fallacy helps us understand an important truth about vacuums: they are inherently unstable under atmospheric conditions, and the laws of physics make them very difficult to sustain. Nature will always “try” to get rid of a true vacuum.
His favorite jeans, bitter after years of overuse, finally and spitefully ripped down the middle.
Obviously, blue jeans don’t feel emotions, but this metaphorical construction suggests that they do. In addition, it suggests a kind of personal relationship (and not a very friendly one) that the jeans have had with their owner over the years. Notice that on the strict definition of the pathetic fallacy, this would not be a good example, since blue jeans are not part of nature. It still fits within the looser definition, though.
III. The Importance of the Pathetic Fallacy
When used figuratively, the pathetic fallacy is just like any other metaphor – it lends depth and texture to a description, and can make the writing seem far richer. However, a metaphor can easily be overplayed, and this is equally true of the pathetic fallacy. It has to be used sparingly, at just the right moment, or it can start to get old pretty quickly.
Sometimes, the pathetic fallacy is mistakenly used literally, which is considered a sign of faulty reasoning in the hard sciences. For example, it’s easy to conceptualize electromagnetic attraction by saying that negative ions want to be near positive ions. This helps us visualize their behavior in the real world. But ions do not have minds and are not capable of wanting anything, in the emotional sense. Rather, they simply are attracted to one another by impersonal physical forces. This kind of pathetic fallacy can be useful as a teaching tool, but if taken too seriously it can lead to an overly sentimentalized view of the way the universe works. In formal science writing, it would be best to avoid this kind of pathetic fallacy.
IV. Examples of Pathetic Fallacy in Literature
“They rowed her in across the rolling foam, the cruel crawling foam, the cruel hungry foam” (Charles Kingsley, The Water Bubbles)
When the term “pathetic fallacy” was first coined by John Ruskin, he used this poem as his primary example. Notice that the words “rolling” and “crawling” are not part of the pathetic fallacy. These are metaphorical descriptions, but they don’t have an emotional component, which is a necessary part of the pathetic fallacy.
“I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high o’er vales and hills…” (William Wordsworth, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud)
Wordsworth’s famous metaphor is particularly noteworthy since it changes the usual dynamic. There are many clichéd versions of the pathetic fallacy (happy clouds, angry stormclouds, etc.), but the idea of a lonely cloud was quite inventive. In addition to the cloud’s loneliness, we can imagine it wandering all over the world, looking for a place to call home, and the connection to Wordsworth’s own wandering is clear.
“By th’clock ’tis day,/ And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp; is’t night’s predominance, or the day’s shame, That darkness does the face of earth entomb/ When living light should kiss it?” (William Shakespeare, Macbeth)
In this somewhat opaque line, the character is describing a solar eclipse, which blots out the sun and makes day seem like night. He ascribes a kind of murderous violence to the darkness (“strangle”), while light by contrast is described as gentle and loving (“kiss”). In addition, the metaphorical idea of the day feeling shame is definitely an example of the pathetic fallacy.
V. Examples of Pathetic Fallacy in Pop Culture
“Great milk comes from happy cows. Happy cows come from California.” (Real California Milk TV Commercial)
Can a non-human animal, such as a cow, experience human emotions? This is a matter of endless speculation, especially when it comes to mammals and other relatively complex organisms (as opposed to insects, say, or amoebas). Depending on your answer to this question, the notion of “happy cows” might be literally true, or it might be an example of the pathetic fallacy.
In Guardians of the Galaxy, the character Groot can be thought of as a kind of extended pathetic fallacy. Groot is a tree-like character who is capable of speaking and feeling a full range of human emotions. (Of course, since Groot is a fictional alien, the line between literal statements and metaphors is a little more blurry than if he were just an ordinary Earth tree.)
VI. Related Terms
The pathetic fallacy is just one version of anthropomorphism, or describing non-human objects and animals in human terms. (This is also known as personification.) Other forms of anthropomorphism might include animals that talk or wear clothes, or more figurative expressions like “shrieking hinges” (hinges, of course, don’t have voices and therefore cannot literally shriek).
Appeal to Pathos
In most contexts, the pathetic fallacy isn’t actually a fallacy – it’s just a figure of speech. However, there is a fallacy with a very similar name, called the “appeal to pathos” or “appeal to emotions.” This is a logical error in which the author uses emotions to get his or her point across, rather than employing rational, logical arguments.