Pathetic Fallacy in Literature: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Pathetic Fallacy Definition
  • 1:10 Examples of Pathetic Fallacies
  • 2:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katie Surber

Katie has a Master's degree in English and has taught college level classes for ten years.

In this lesson, we will define the literary device pathetic fallacy, explain why an author may choose to use it, and then examine examples from several literary works.

Pathetic Fallacy Definition

Pathetic fallacy is a literary device wherein the author attributes human emotions and traits to nature or inanimate objects. For example, the following descriptions refer to weather and how it affects the mood, which can add atmosphere to a story: smiling skies, somber clouds, angry storm, or bitter winter. It is important to note that the term 'pathetic' doesn't mean negative or pitiful. When the device was named in the 19th century, the term 'pathetic' referred to feelings (pathos), so pathetic fallacy actually means 'fake emotions.'

An author may use pathetic fallacy to represent characters' emotions or the actions in a scene. This helps set the tone and mood while adding depth to characterizations. For instance, an angry character gets caught in a thunderstorm. We usually associate thunderstorms with darkness and anger, which would reflect the mood of the character. Thus, as a reader, we may gain a deeper perspective on the character. Similarly, when a character feels sad, it begins to rain. Both of these examples show the characters' emotions through the weather.

Examples of Pathetic Fallacies

Pathetic fallacy is very common, especially in Victorian and Gothic writing. It is this reason that the term was coined by Victorian literary critic John Ruskin. One popular Victorian author, Charles Dickens, used it quite often in his novels to help set the scene and mood. For example, in Great Expectations he writes:

'It was a rimy morning, and very damp. I had seen the damp lying on the outside of my little window, as if some goblin had been crying there all night...'

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