Let’s talk about pathetic fallacy for a moment. For students, it’s a tricky writing feature to get to grips with – to be able to identify it in the writing of others and then to incorporate into their own descriptive pieces – nevertheless, students are required to understand what a pathetic fallacy is as part of their GCSEs.
The GCSE objectives state that students should be able to:
Evaluate a writer’s choice of vocabulary, grammatical and structural features: analyse and evaluate how language (including figurative language), structure, form and presentation contribute to quality and impact; using linguistic and literary terminology for such evaluation (such as, but not restricted to, phrase, metaphor, meter, irony and persona, synecdoche, pathetic fallacy)
It’s a powerful and effective tool to have in your writer’s toolkit and if crafted with some nuance, the impact on your writing is transformative.
How is pathetic fallacy different to personification?
Pathetic fallacy is similar to personification in the sense that human attributes are applied to inanimate objects however, pathetic fallacy is a more specific type of personification whereby human emotion is applied to inanimate objects to emphasise a particular emotional state and create an atmosphere.
A favourite example of mine that I’d often bring into the classroom to illustrate pathetic fallacy being used is the opening to The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe.
Poe himself was an American writer, renowned for his Gothic tales during the first half of the 19th century.
The Fall of the House of Usher opens with an unnamed narrator as he gradually arrives at the home of his friend who has recently fallen ill. And it becomes clear fairly quickly that something is amiss and not quite right.
Right away, you’ll find pathetic fallacy lurking throughout the opening paragraph. Actually, scratch that – it doesn’t really lurk at all. It’s overtly there for all to see and overall, creates a reading experience that is extremely uncomfortable for the reader.
It begins, ‘During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher’.
This is a juicy piece of writing right here, ready to be pulled apart by secondary students.
Poe creates an atmosphere that is ‘dull, dark and soundless’ in the daytime which is pretty unusual in itself. Although evening is drawing near, there’s no daylight where this guy is and certainly no birds to be heard singing in the trees which is what I’d typically expect from a ‘dreary tract of country’. Instead, the clouds ‘hung oppressively low’ – here, the verb ‘hung’ is used to personify the clouds as if they’re about to slide out of the sky for lack of motivation, but it’s the ‘oppressively low’ part of this sentence which is the pathetic fallacy. Poe uses a description of the weather to push down on our narrator, both emotionally and physically, creating a sense of insufferable closeness.
Is anyone else feeling a little claustrophobic at this point? Just me? Nevermind then.
And then there’s the description of the ‘melancholy’ House of Usher itself.
I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation
Pathetic Fallacy in Gothic Literature
There’s a few language devices at play here that you’ll notice right away like Poe’s listing and the repetition of ‘upon’ to return the reader’s focus back to this structure again and again.
But it’s the ‘melancholy’ house, the ‘‘bleak’ walls and ‘eye-like windows’ which impart a living, breathing element to the house, as though the structure has a sad disposition. It’s this pathetic fallacy, this combining of human emotions to describe the house and its surroundings, that creates a setting that is most uncomfortable and irksome.
It’s a great piece of writing to share with your students and can be incorporated into a Gothic scheme of work easily. If your Gothic scheme is fully booked up with other fantastic texts, this is a lovely piece to discuss atmosphere and setting with an older class, especially for English Language Paper 1, Question 5.
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