Narrative Techniques: Pathetic Fallacy

A series exploring storytelling techniques. This essay looks at the pathetic fallacy and how to use it.

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While the term ‘pathetic fallacy’ was only coined in the 1800s, the use of it has been going on for as long as there has been storytelling. Coined by John Ruskin in his book Modern Painters, pathetic fallacy is a term used to describe applying human emotions and conduct to nature. For example, ‘the leaves danced’ or ‘the sullen clouds loomed overhead.’

The term was originally used as an attack on the sentimentalist style of poetry that was common at the time, found in the poetry of Burns, Blake, Keats and Shelley, for example. William Wordsworth supported the use of such personification within narration, stating that an object’s influence does not stem from inherent properties, “but from such as are bestowed upon them…”

While Ruskin’s attack on such stylistic choices helped refine poetic expression, it didn’t completely mar the use of it. Instead, the term has changed drastically from the ‘emotional falseness’ that Ruskin had described and criticised in writing. ‘Fallacy’ in Ruskin’s time was just this: a falseness. Now, however, it means a flawed logic, which is what we have come to describe a pathetic fallacy as. The clouds are not sullen because the protagonist is, or because the sky is being deliberately foreboding, but because the weather is overcast.

In narrative, the use of a pathetic fallacy can change depending on what the author intends. For example, bad weather to a Viking or Spartan could be a sign from the gods; characters who are religious or spiritual may consider a drastic change in weather as a sign they’ve just done something that higher powers are condemning them for. It can also be a reflection of mood or emotional state, as in a depressed individual may see the weather as grey because depression has been shown to diminish one’s ability to view colour. It can also set the tone of the narrative. Very rarely do horror films or stories start on a bright, cheerful day in August. The weather is used to mimic the tonality and theme of the story proper and possibly to forewarn the audience of what to expect out of this piece.

A protagonist that describes the leaves as dancing can also be described as a use of voice and a good way of getting across their personality subtly to the audience. Such is the case in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The night of the fated experiment is described as a “dreary night in November.” Victor Frankenstein regularly alludes to the weather, with its description often reflecting the character’s own mental state.

The pathetic fallacy can be a wonderful writing technique, adding flavour to a narrative and rewarding audiences for paying attention, but if used with too much gusto it can over-season your work. On the surface this narrative technique can look simplistic and easy to use – as a simple descriptor it shouldn’t take that much effort to get it on paper – but if it also serves to add to a motif, voice or foreshadowing, it is important to make note of it. To effectively utilise it for a deeper narrative tool requires understanding of the language you wish to portray, the characters whose point of view you wish to follow and your audience.

While the pathetic fallacy may have originally been designed as a slight on the poets of the age, it is now a common and often rewarding technique. Though it is simple in definition, it should be noted that this doesn’t mean it does not need to be practiced and perfected in order for it to reach its full potential.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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