Monday, February 20, 2012

Pathetic fallacy

Susan Hill, writing in Saturday's Guardian about her novel The Woman in Black, says something that really struck a chord with me:
I think the pathetic fallacy is less fallacious than is often supposed.
It's funny, the way people go on about the pathetic fallacy. I've been said to use it, but I don't think I actually do. John Ruskin, who coined the phrase, defined it as the attribution of human feelings and purpose to the inanimate, ie a form of personification. Thus the sea is termed 'cruel' and the sun can be seen as 'kind'. Ruskin saw such perceptions as the result of emotion and 'contemplative fancy', which I take to mean on the part of the author. In my fiction I do often make a linkage between the environment and emotion but for my characters: it's a psychological reality that our perceptions affect our view of our environment; the way characters feel affects the way they see their surroundings, and conversely, the ways they see their surroundings tell us how they feel. To convey this is essential, as far as I'm concerned, to make their psychology live for the reader. But it seems that Ruskin's 'contemplative fancy' remark has led to any linkage of emotion and the environment being seen as pathetic fallacy - and even, it seems to me, to a kind of contemporary fear of narrative description.

Susan Hill argues more boldly for something closer to the 'pathetic fallacy': that the reverse can happen, that the landscape itself can have an emotional effect on people:
...a harsh climate and a hard landscape toughen people. A low-lying, dank place tends to be lowering to the spirits, and we all know that constant wind drives people mad
and of course she's right; it's another psychological reality. But to entertain such a notion in fiction is not, technically, to employ pathetic fallacy - at least in Ruskin's definition - unless you are using personification.

5 comments:

Molly Drury said...

I remember being told at college that pathetic fallacy was when the environment or weather reflected a characters feelings. So, for example, if a character was angry or upset it might be stormy outside. I was also told to avoid as much as possible.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, this seems to be the common idea of the pathetic fallacy, though it doesn't actually conform to Ruskin's definition. I'd say it depends how it's done. The rule is obviously meant for avoiding using the environment in a crudely symbolic way, but, as I say, there are subtler, more psychological ways of linking the environment and characters' emotions that relate to psychological reality.

charlescharliecharles said...

great piece. but i think i'd go further. i think that even if the use of the weather conforms precisely to Ruskin's definition of the pathetic fallacy, it has a place. just as, i think, cliche has a place. we just need to view them as devices and not fall-backs, to be employed - with care - in the cause of subversion or wit...

Elizabeth Baines said...

Of course you're right, Charlie. As always, it just depends how you do it...

Bill Springstead said...

According to Ruskin, who coined the phrase, as he defined it in his essay in “Modern Painters” vol. iii, pt. 4 1856, a pathetic fallacy occurs when an author “under the influence of emotion” is caused to observe things not as they are, but inaccurately because his vision or ability to apprehend is affected by that emotion. In other words, a pathetic fallacy occurs when an emotional person describes “false appearances” of things.
One example of a pathetic fallacy is for an emotional person to see human attributes in inanimate objects, a second example is to see other “untrue” qualities. For instance, Ruskin in that same essay quotes a poet describing a crocus as “gold” when the flower is, in fact, “saffron”.
The first word of Ruskin’s phrase, “pathetic”, refers to the compassion being aroused, or the emotion that causes the false appearance.
The second word of the phrase is “fallacy”, which by definition requires a misapprehension, and that would be the false appearance.