Saturday, September 24, 2011

Pathetic Fallacy

So, we have been known to declaim in our charming *cough*ranty*cough* way about the dangers of adjectival phrases forming misalliances with nouns which they can never modify. For example--

Relaxing on the sofa, the pizza tasted great.

I have never yet met a pizza which was capable of relaxing on a sofa. Structurally, though, that left-branching present participial phrase modifies the subject, pizza. And that's a problem. The concept of pizza behaving this way is nonsensical.

But there are times -- rare times, authors, with an accent on rare -- when a similar construction might be used to achieve a thematic effect. Then, we might call such a construction a form of pathetic fallacy. Pathetic fallacy is a poetic device where, for the purpose of creating symbolic value or another higher-order creative expression, we attribute human emotions to items which don't feel emotions.

Shocked at his sudden appearance, her feet skittered backward.

Now, obviously, feet cannot feel the emotion of shock in the literal sense. But if the goal is to make the emotion come across as almost disembodied, or if there is some other symbolic value or thematic resonance achieved by attributing shock to her feet, then this might work in context.

Pathetic fallacy comes up often enough in creative writing that some simpler forms have become cliches or near-cliches.
Angry clouds
Happy flowers
One lonely tree
And so on. I'm sure you can think of other examples. Obviously, clouds don't feel anger, flowers don't feel happiness, and trees don't feel lonesome, yet we accept these concepts because the emotion attributed to the object creates a context for interpretation.

The danger in pathetic fallacy is the same as the danger in a botched modifier. If not handled appropriately, they can be confusing or even laughably bad. This is why I advocate for using this form rarely, especially when you're still learning the craft. You might not always be able to accurately gauge how your words will come across to your reader, and until you get better at that, it might be safer to avoid anything that might confuse or inadvertently amuse the reader. But as you gain in skill and insight, don't be afraid to try out this form for extra impact from time to time. It can add good things to a story if it's done right.


1 comment:

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Ahh, this is perfect. It's something that's come up for me of late.