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What is the Pathetic Fallacy?

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While skilled writers use this technique to their advantage, students hardly ever use it. And why not? In my estimation, it is because it just isn't taught in writing classes--even college writing centers!

To begin with, let's have a quick definition: the pathetic fallacy attributes human feelings to nature and also to human-created objects.

Here's an example from Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers:

"The evening grew more dull every moment, and a melancholy wind sounded through the deserted fields, like a distant giant whistling for his house-dog. The sadness of the scene imparted a somber tinge to the feelings of Mr. Winkle. He started as they passed the angle of the trench--it looked like a colossal grave."

People grow dull or sharp, not evenings. What Dickens is doing is setting up a scene with which he intends to startle his readers, to put them in a state of suspense and terror. And if Dickens doesn't fully intends to terrorize his readers at least he would have achieved a good scare--or at worst, get their attention and prompt them to go on reading.

Likewise, people grow melancholy and not the wind.

If you read closely you'll see the main elements (imagery) that Dickens uses to achieve that primeval fear we all carry within: dogs howling, whistling as we pass a cemetery and its graves. And by using the word ‘giant' he magnifies, elongates, and distorts --like El Greco does with his paintings--the nature and the objects to animate them and thus cause strangeness. Related to the pathetic fallacy are the techniques of ‘animation' and ‘objective correlatives.'

Retired. Former investment banker, Columbia University-educated, Vietnam Vet (67-68). For the writing techniques I use, see Mary Duffy's e-book: Sentence Openers. To read my book reviews of the Classics visit my blog: Writing To Live

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