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.
Post a Comment