Pathetic fallacy
The pathetic fallacy, anthropomorphic
Anthropomorphism is any attribution of human characteristics to animals, non-living things, phenomena, material states, objects or abstract concepts, such as organizations, governments, spirits or deities. The term was coined in the mid 1700s...

or sentimental
Sentimentality originally indicated the reliance on feelings as a guide to truth, but current usage defines it as an appeal to shallow, uncomplicated emotions at the expense of reason....

is the treatment of inanimate objects as if they had human feelings, thought, or sensations. The pathetic fallacy
In logic and rhetoric, a fallacy is usually an incorrect argumentation in reasoning resulting in a misconception or presumption. By accident or design, fallacies may exploit emotional triggers in the listener or interlocutor , or take advantage of social relationships between people...

 is a special case of the fallacy of reification
Reification (fallacy)
Reification is a fallacy of ambiguity, when an abstraction is treated as if it were a concrete, real event, or physical entity. In other words, it is the error of treating as a "real thing" something which is not a real thing, but merely an idea...

. The word 'pathetic' in this use is related to 'pathos
Pathos represents an appeal to the audience's emotions. Pathos is a communication technique used most often in rhetoric , and in literature, film and other narrative art....

' or 'empathy
Empathy is the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings that are being experienced by another sapient or semi-sapient being. Someone may need to have a certain amount of empathy before they are able to feel compassion. The English word was coined in 1909 by E.B...

' (capability of feeling), and is not pejorative
Pejoratives , including name slurs, are words or grammatical forms that connote negativity and express contempt or distaste. A term can be regarded as pejorative in some social groups but not in others, e.g., hacker is a term used for computer criminals as well as quick and clever computer experts...


In the discussion of literature, the pathetic fallacy is similar to 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. "Personification" is a more obtrusive and formal use of human traits attributed to natural objects, according to M. H. Abrams. For example, "the sea is angry at us" would be the pathetic fallacy, but when the sea assumes a human form such as a sea god, that is overt personification.


The term was coined by the critic John Ruskin
John Ruskin
John Ruskin was the leading English art critic of the Victorian era, also an art patron, draughtsman, watercolourist, a prominent social thinker and philanthropist. He wrote on subjects ranging from geology to architecture, myth to ornithology, literature to education, and botany to political...

 (1819–1900) in his 1856 Modern Painters
Modern Painters
Modern Painters is book on art by John Ruskin which argues that recent painters emerging from the tradition of the picturesque are superior in the art of landscape to the old masters. The book was primarily written as a defence of the later work of J.M.W. Turner. Ruskin used the book to argue...

, 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. M. H. Abrams in A Glossary of Literary Terms says that Ruskin's use of the term "pathetic fallacy" was derogatory. In addition to the “usual condition of prophetic inspiration”, Ruskin defines three classes:

In legend

According to legend, when Xerxes
Xerxes I of Persia
Xerxes I of Persia , Ḫšayāršā, ), also known as Xerxes the Great, was the fifth king of kings of the Achaemenid Empire.-Youth and rise to power:...

 was crossing the Hellespont in the midst of the first Greco-Persian War, he built two bridges that were quickly destroyed. Feeling personally offended, he let his paranoia lead him to believe that the sea was consciously acting against him as though it were an enemy. As such Herodotus
Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus, Caria and lived in the 5th century BC . He has been called the "Father of History", and was the first historian known to collect his materials systematically, test their accuracy to a certain extent and arrange them in a...

 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 and popular culture

Literary critics after Ruskin have generally not followed him in regarding the pathetic fallacy as an artistic mistake, instead assuming that attribution of sentient
Sentience is the ability to feel, perceive or be conscious, or to have subjective experiences. Eighteenth century philosophers used the concept to distinguish the ability to think from the ability to feel . In modern western philosophy, sentience is the ability to have sensations or experiences...

, 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 the pathetic fallacy would mean dismissing most Romantic poetry
Romantic poetry
Romanticism, a philosophical, literary, artistic and cultural era which began in the mid/late-1700s as a reaction against the prevailing Enlightenment ideals of the day , also influenced poetry...

 and many of Shakespeare's
William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon"...

 most memorable images. Literary critics find it useful to have a specific term for describing anthropomorphic
Anthropomorphism is any attribution of human characteristics to animals, non-living things, phenomena, material states, objects or abstract concepts, such as organizations, governments, spirits or deities. The term was coined in the mid 1700s...

 tendencies in art and literature and so the phrase is currently used in a neutral sense. Josephine Miles in Pathetic Fallacy in the Nineteenth Century: A Study of a Changing Relation Between Object and Emotion, influenced by William Wordsworth’s discussion of the practice, argues that “pathetic bestowal” is a neutral and therefore preferable label. However labeled, the practice occurs in any number of accomplished twentieth-century writers, including William Carlos Williams
William Carlos Williams
William Carlos Williams was an American poet closely associated with modernism and Imagism. He was also a pediatrician and general practitioner of medicine, having graduated from the University of Pennsylvania...

, Theodore Roethke
Theodore Roethke
Theodore Roethke was an American poet, who published several volumes of poetry characterized by its rhythm, rhyming, and natural imagery. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1954 for his book, The Waking.-Biography:...

, Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver is an American poet who has won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The New York Times described her as "far and away, this country's [America's] best-selling poet".-Early life:...

, Eavan Boland
Eavan Boland
-Biography:Boland's father, Frederick Boland, was a career diplomat and her mother, Frances Kelly, was a noted post-expressionist painter. She was born in Dublin in 1944. At the age of six, Boland's father was appointed Irish Ambassador to the United Kingdom; the family followed him to London,...

, and John Ashbery
John Ashbery
John Lawrence Ashbery is an American poet. He has published more than twenty volumes of poetry and won nearly every major American award for poetry, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. But Ashbery's work still proves controversial...


It is a rhetorical figure and a form of personification. In the strictest sense, delivering this fallacy should be done to render analogy
Analogy is a cognitive process of transferring information or meaning from a particular subject to another particular subject , and a linguistic expression corresponding to such a process...

. Other reasons to deliver this fallacy are mnemonic
A mnemonic , or mnemonic device, is any learning technique that aids memory. To improve long term memory, mnemonic systems are used to make memorization easier. Commonly encountered mnemonics are often verbal, such as a very short poem or a special word used to help a person remember something,...



Ruskin quotes a stanza
In poetry, a stanza is a unit within a larger poem. In modern poetry, the term is often equivalent with strophe; in popular vocal music, a stanza is typically referred to as a "verse"...

 from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Maud as an "exquisite" example of the 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)

In this poem the paradoxical
Paradox (literature)
In literature, the paradox is an anomalous juxtaposition of incongruous ideas for the sake of striking exposition or unexpected insight. It functions as a method of literary composition - and analysis - which involves examining apparently contradictory statements and drawing conclusions either to...

 events of flowers and animals talking are an explicit personification of non-human objects. But since this is merely a poem it's not considered a fallacy, but a creative muse or literary device.

Other examples are:
  • "The stars will awaken / Though the moon sleep a full hour later"—Percy Bysshe Shelley
    Percy Bysshe Shelley
    Percy Bysshe Shelley was one of the major English Romantic poets and is critically regarded as among the finest lyric poets in the English language. Shelley was famous for his association with John Keats and Lord Byron...

  • "The fruitful field / Laughs with abundance"—William Cowper
    William Cowper
    William Cowper was an English poet and hymnodist. One of the most popular poets of his time, Cowper changed the direction of 18th century nature poetry by writing of everyday life and scenes of the English countryside. In many ways, he was one of the forerunners of Romantic poetry...

  • "Nature must be gladsome when I was so happy"—Jane Eyre
    Jane Eyre
    Jane Eyre is a novel by English writer Charlotte Brontë. It was published in London, England, in 1847 by Smith, Elder & Co. with the title Jane Eyre. An Autobiography under the pen name "Currer Bell." The first American edition was released the following year by Harper & Brothers of New York...

    , by Charlotte Brontë
    Charlotte Brontë
    Charlotte Brontë was an English novelist and poet, the eldest of the three Brontë sisters who survived into adulthood, whose novels are English literature standards...

In the comic book series Jack of Fables
Jack of Fables
Jack of Fables was a spin-off of the comic book Fables, both of which were published by DC Comics as part of that company's Vertigo imprint. It shows the adventures of Jack Horner after his exile from Fabletown. A preview of the series was shown in Fables #50, and the series itself debuted in July...

, the Pathetic Fallacy itself is embodied by a character named Gary, who has control over inanimate objects and treats them with a peculiar sense of kindness.

In science

Historically, the properties and interactions of classical element
Classical element
Many philosophies and worldviews have a set of classical elements believed to reflect the simplest essential parts and principles of which anything consists or upon which the constitution and fundamental powers of anything are based. Most frequently, classical elements refer to ancient beliefs...

s were described as if they were animate. For example, the fact that fire and smoke tend to rise was explained so that because fire belongs to the sphere of fire, located above the sphere of air, fire wants to go there. Another famous example is the phrase "Nature abhors a vacuum"
Horror vacui (physics)
In physics horror vacui, or plenism, is a theory first proposed by Aristotle in the Fourth book of Physics that nature abhors a vacuum, and therefore empty space would always be trying to suck in gas or liquids to avoid being empty. The theory was widely accepted for a long time and supported by...

, (John Ruskin
John Ruskin
John Ruskin was the leading English art critic of the Victorian era, also an art patron, draughtsman, watercolourist, a prominent social thinker and philanthropist. He wrote on subjects ranging from geology to architecture, myth to ornithology, literature to education, and botany to political...

's translation of the well-known Medieval
Middle Ages
The Middle Ages is a periodization of European history from the 5th century to the 15th century. The Middle Ages follows the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and precedes the Early Modern Era. It is the middle period of a three-period division of Western history: Classic, Medieval and Modern...

 saying natura abhorret a vacuo, in Modern Painters), where abhor is a word describing an emotion (pathos
Pathos represents an appeal to the audience's emotions. Pathos is a communication technique used most often in rhetoric , and in literature, film and other narrative art....


A typical example of assigning feelings and emotions to the inanimate is the use of the words "want" or "try". For example, "Air hates to be crowded, and when compressed it will try to escape to an area of lower pressure". However, the processes are inanimate. The pressure exerted by gases is a consequence of the kinetic energy of the gas molecules
Kinetic theory
The kinetic theory of gases describes a gas as a large number of small particles , all of which are in constant, random motion. The rapidly moving particles constantly collide with each other and with the walls of the container...

, not because the air would "hate" being compressed or "want to" expand. Its movement towards lower pressure is because of the pure probability of the gas molecules to be distributed evenly, such that a lower-pressure zone receives a net flow of molecules, not because air "tries to" move as a feeling, thinking unit.

Even in modern science it is difficult to speak about the physical world without personifying it. The philosopher Owen Barfield
Owen Barfield
Owen Barfield was a British philosopher, author, poet, and critic.Barfield was born in London. He was educated at Highgate School and Wadham College, Oxford and in 1920 received a 1st class degree in English language and literature. After finishing his B. Litt., which became the book Poetic...

points out we say that two masses are gravitationally "attracted", or that an object tends to stay still and not accelerate unless a force "acts" on it. However, use of the pathetic fallacy can be a good way to quickly explain complex scientific concepts in an easily understood form. For example, the examples above can often be found in elementary or middle school science classes.

Further reading

  • Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms, 7th edition. Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999. ISBN 0-15-505452-X.
  • Crist, Eileen. Images of Animals: Anthropomorphism and Animal Mind. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999. ISBN 1-56639-656-5.
  • Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth (eds.). The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-8018-4560-2.
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