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Pathetic Fallacy | Definition and Examples in Narrative

When you engage with a narrative, whether a timeless classic or a modern novel, you might notice moments when the environment mirrors the mood of a scene or character. This mirroring is no mere coincidence; it’s a deliberate literary technique known as Pathetic Fallacy.

Pathetic Fallacy can transform a simple description into an immersive experience, creating a fascinating interplay between nature and human emotion.

In this article, we’ll explore what it is, its origins, and how to use it in your writing.

Pathetic Fallacy meaning

Pathetic Fallacy is a literary device that attributes human feelings and responses to nature, inanimate objects, or animals. This technique is used to reflect the inner world of a character or to set the emotional tone of a scene.

When you come across a stormy sea as a metaphor for turmoil or a gentle breeze that seems to whisper secrets, you’re witnessing Pathetic Fallacy at work. It imbues the environment with a sense of consciousness and emotional resonance, which can profoundly affect how you perceive the narrative.

The term ‘pathetic‘ in this context doesn’t mean ‘pitiable‘ or ‘sad‘ as it might in everyday language. Instead, it derives from the Greek word ‘pathos‘, meaning ‘feeling‘ or ‘emotion‘. Therefore, Pathetic Fallacy is essentially a ‘false’ attribution of human feelings to the non-human world. It’s a creative lie told to express truth – the emotional truth of a character or situation.

This literary device is versatile, finding its place across various genres and forms of writing. From poetry to prose, Pathetic Fallacy is a tool writers use to create mood, foreshadow events, or draw connections between the environment and the characters’ internal states.

Understanding this concept enriches your reading experience by allowing you to recognize the layers of meaning embedded within descriptive passages.


What is Pathetic Fallacy?

Pathetic Fallacy is a literary device where human emotions or characteristics are attributed to inanimate objects or nature. It involves the projection of human feelings onto aspects of the natural world. This literary technique is often used to create a particular mood or atmosphere within a piece of writing.

The origins

The concept of Pathetic Fallacy has been around since ancient times, evident in myths and stories where the natural world interacts with human emotion. However, the term itself was coined much later, in the 19th century, by the art critic and philosopher John Ruskin. In his work “Modern Painters,” Ruskin critiqued the tendency of poets to endow the natural world with human traits, arguing that it led to false impressions of reality. Despite his criticism, this literary device has continued to be a staple in creative writing.

Ruskin’s stance on Pathetic Fallacy was nuanced. He acknowledged that this device could be powerful but cautioned against its overuse or employment for mere sentimental effect. Ruskin believed that there was a fine line between using Pathetic Fallacy to reveal emotional truth and using it to manipulate the reader’s feelings without a basis in the story’s reality.

The origins of Pathetic Fallacy are deeply rooted in the Romantic movement, where the connection between the natural world and human emotion was often emphasized. Romantic poets like William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley frequently employed Pathetic Fallacy to express their characters’ feelings or the collective mood of an era.

Examples of Pathetic Fallacy in literature

Pathetic Fallacy has graced the pages of countless literary works throughout history. One of the most renowned examples is in William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” where the stormy weather reflects the tumultuous events of the play, particularly the upheaval following King Duncan’s murder. The thunder and lightning are not just atmospheric elements; they symbolize the chaos and moral disorder unleashed by Macbeth’s actions.

In Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” the bleak, icy landscape mirrors Victor Frankenstein’s isolation and despair as he pursues his creation across the Arctic. The harsh environment externalizes his internal suffering, creating a palpable sense of desolation. Similarly, Charles Dickens often used the weather to mirror his characters’ emotional states, such as in “Great Expectations,” where the misty marshes around Pip’s home convey a sense of uncertainty and obscurity that echoes his feelings.

Contemporary literature also makes frequent use of Pathetic Fallacy. For example, J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series often features weather that reflects the emotional tone of key scenes. The joyful atmosphere of the Triwizard Tournament is suddenly darkened by a storm, foreshadowing the following tragic events.

Pathetic Fallacy vs Personification

While Pathetic Fallacy often involves giving human qualities to the natural world, it’s essential to distinguish it from Personification. Though the two literary devices are similar, they serve different purposes and have subtle nuances that set them apart. Personification involves giving human characteristics to non-human entities, while Pathetic Fallacy specifically relates to attributing human emotions to nature or inanimate objects.

Personification is more generalized; it can attribute any human quality, such as thought, speech, or movement, to non-human entities. For example, saying “the sun smiled down on the field” is Personification because it gives the sun the human ability to smile. Pathetic Fallacy, on the other hand, would be “the sun smiled warmly on the field, sharing in the joy of the day” because it attributes the emotion of joy to the sun, reflecting the mood of the scene.

The distinction between Pathetic Fallacy and Personification can be subtle; sometimes, a single sentence may contain elements of both. However, recognizing the difference can enhance your analytical skills when reading literature. It allows you to understand the author’s intent and the emotional undertones they wish to convey more precisely.

The words in these introductory pages connected themselves with the succeeding vignettes, and gave significance to the rock standing up alone in a sea of billow and spray; to the broken boat stranded on a desolate coast; to the cold and ghastly moon glancing through bars of cloud at a wreck just sinking.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

The role of Pathetic Fallacy in storytelling

Pathetic Fallacy is more than a decorative flourish in storytelling; it can play an important role in shaping the narrative. By aligning the external environment with the characters’ internal experiences, writers can create a cohesive and evocative atmosphere that engages you on a deeper level.

These are the main roles of Pathetic Fallacy in storytelling.

  • Mood setting. By describing a setting that reflects the scene’s emotions, writers can prepare you for what will come. A somber, overcast sky can create a sense of foreboding, while a vibrant sunrise might signify hope or new beginnings. This use of Pathetic Fallacy draws you into the story and establishes an emotional connection with the characters and their experiences.
  • Foreshadowing device. When the weather or environment changes in a way that seems disproportionate to the current action, it can hint at future developments in the story. For instance, an unexpected storm might signify turbulent times ahead for the characters, or a sudden calm could suggest a resolution. This technique can build suspense and anticipation, keeping you invested in the narrative.
  • Reveal character emotions without explicitly stating them. Instead of telling you how a character feels, the author can show you through the environment. A character walking through a dreary, rain-soaked street might reflect their sense of loss or despair. By externalizing emotions, writers can convey complex psychological states in a compelling and accessible way.

How to use Pathetic Fallacy in your writing

There are some strategies you should consider to use Pathetic Fallacy effectively.

First, it’s essential to ensure that the emotions you attribute to the environment align with the mood you want to convey in your scene. The key is subtlety; the connection between the setting and the characters’ emotions should feel natural and not forced.

Think about the type of emotion you want to evoke in your reader. Do you want them to feel tension, sadness, joy, or dread? Choose environmental elements that naturally correspond with these emotions. A tense scene might benefit from the oppressive heat of a summer’s day, while a gentle rain could accentuate a moment of sadness. Be mindful of the imagery you use, as it can powerfully affect the reader’s experience.

It’s also important to balance Pathetic Fallacy with other descriptive techniques. Over-reliance on this device can make your writing feel contrived or melodramatic. Use it judiciously to enhance your story rather than as a crutch. When employed skillfully, Pathetic Fallacy can add a layer of sophistication to your writing, making your narrative more engaging and memorable.

Criticisms and limitations of Pathetic Fallacy

While Pathetic Fallacy is a valuable tool in literature, it has its critics and limitations. Some argue it can lead to sentimentality or melodrama when overused or applied heavy-handedly. Instead of enhancing the narrative, it can detract from it, making the connection between the environment and the characters’ emotions feel contrived. This criticism harks back to John Ruskin’s original concerns about the device.

Another limitation of Pathetic Fallacy is that it can sometimes overshadow the characters’ agency in a story. If the environment consistently mirrors the characters’ emotions, it might suggest that the characters are not in control of their feelings or actions. This can potentially reduce the complexity of the characters, making them seem like mere products of their surroundings rather than fully realized individuals.

Furthermore, some modern readers and writers prefer a more realistic approach to storytelling, where the natural world is presented as indifferent to human affairs. The Pathetic Fallacy might seem outdated or out of place in such narratives. It’s essential to consider the tone and style of your writing when deciding whether or not to use this device.

Mastering emotional landscapes with bibisco writing software tools

Writers can use bibisco novel writing software features to implement the Pathetic Fallacy technique in their narratives effectively. The dedicated setting section allows authors to create evocative and immersive atmospheres in tune with the emotions and moods of the characters.

bibisco's tools for creating settings | Pathetic Fallacy | Definition and Examples in Narrative
bibisco’s tools for creating settings

With bibisco, writers can hone their ability to manipulate the setting to amplify their narratives’ meaning and emotional impact, bringing forth a world rich in symbolism and depth.


Pathetic Fallacy is a timeless literary device that continues to captivate readers and enrich narratives. Its ability to link the natural world with human emotion creates a vivid emotional landscape that resonates with readers.

As with any literary device, the key to using Pathetic Fallacy effectively is balance and purpose. When used thoughtfully, it can provide profound insights into the characters and themes of a narrative. However, it’s crucial to be aware of its limitations and potential for overuse. By judiciously applying Pathetic Fallacy, you can craft emotionally compelling and deeply human stories.

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6 Responses

  1. Good Points. Have always use rainy or stormy weather, or just a cloud filled night coming with sunset to show the emotional or mental mood of the character experiencing the weather or the overcast sky.

  2. Excellent article! Thank you. I was familiar with this device, but the history of it, and the caution of overuse, were spot-on.

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