More thoughts about pathetic fallacy

I was probably studying Thomas hardy when I first came across the notion of pathetic fallacy; when I was teaching French literature to A-level students, the head of department who taught the language side, asked me what on earth it was because the students were forever going on about it! It’s a literary device where the weather (or sometimes the landscape) reflect the mood, actions, inner thoughts, situation of the characters in the narrative. There are some wonderful and famous examples…


“The night has been unruly. Where we lay,
Our chimneys were blown down and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i’ th’ air, strange screams of death,
And prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion and confused events
New hatched to the woeful time. The obscure bird
Clamored the livelong night. Some say the Earth
Was feverous and did shake.”



The clouds swept across [the moon] swifter than the flight of the vulture and dimmed her rays, while the lake reflected the scene of the busy heavens, rendered still busier by the restless waves…
The storm appeared to approach rapidly… the heavens were clouded, and I soon felt the rain coming slowly in large drops, but its violence quickly increased… the darkness and storm increased every minute, and the thunder burst with a terrific crash over my head. …vivid flashes of lightning dazzled my eyes, illuminating the lake, making it appear like a vast sheet of fire; then for an instant everything seemed of a pitchy darkness…
This noble war in the sky elevated my spirits… I perceived in the gloom a figure… A flash of lightning illuminated the object, and discovered its shape plainly to me; its gigantic stature, and the deformity of its aspect, more hideous than belongs to humanity, instantly informed me that it was the wretch, the filthy daemon…

Mary Shelley 1818

Wuthering Heights

There was no sound through the house but the moaning wind, which shook the windows every now and then On the morrow one could hardly imagine that there had been three weeks of summer: the primroses and crocuses were hidden under wintry drifts; the larks were silent, the young leaves of the early trees smitten and blackened.
About midnight, while we still sat up, the storm came rattling over the Heights in full fury. There was a violent wind, as well as thunder, and either one or the other split a tree off at the corner of the building: a huge bough fell across the roof, and knocked down a portion of the east chimney-stack, sending a clatter of stones and soot into the kitchen-fire. We thought a bolt had fallen in the middle of us.

Emily Bronte 1847

Bleak House

Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers… Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city … people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.


Great Expectations

Day after day, a vast heavy veil had been driving over London from the East, and it drove still, as if in the East there were an Eternity of cloud and wind. So furious had been the gusts, that high buildings in town had had the lead stripped off their roofs; and in the country, trees had been torn up, and sails of windmills carried away; and gloomy accounts had come in from the coast, of shipwreck and death. Violent blasts of rain had accompanied these rages of wind, and the day just closed as I sat down to read had been the worst of all.”

Charles Dickens 1861

 The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

The fog still slept on the wing above the drowned city, where the lamps glimmered like carbuncles [jewels]; and through the muffle and smother of these fallen clouds, the procession of the town’s life was still rolling in through the great arteries with a sound as of a mighty wind. But the room was gay with firelight.  It was by this time about nine in the morning, and the first fog of the season.
A great chocolate-coloured pall lowered over heaven, but the wind was continually charging and routing these embattled vapours; so that as the cab crawled from street to street, Mr. Utterson beheld a marvellous number of degrees and hues of twilight; for here it would be dark like the back-end of evening; and there would be a glow of a rich, lurid brown, like the light of some strange conflagration; and here, for a moment, the fog would be quite broken up, and a haggard shaft of daylight would glance in between the swirling wreaths… like a district of some city in a nightmare. The thoughts of his mind, besides, were of the gloomiest dye

Robert Louis Stevenson 1886

I’m not for one moment comparing myself to these masters, but like most writers, I do use pathetic fallacy; I guess the best example is from my novel Night Vision; The main character Beualh is struggling to persuade her unreasonably jealous husband, that his belief that she has been unfaithful is totally groundless, she is completely innocent. They arrange to go out for a romantic meal, but on the way home from work he diverts to the rugby club and ‘accidentally’ gets drunk. When she comes to find him, a humiliating scene ensues, and she rushes out and jumps into her car and drives away:

Beulah drove at random, tears streaming down her face as the rain streamed down the windscreen. An oncoming vehicle flashed its lights aggressively and Beulah went to lower hers only to realise that she hadn’t even turned them on. She pulled over to the side of the road and wept, embarrassed, mortified, humiliated.
How could you, Neil, how could you? She wanted to run away, but where to? Her friends were all in Manchester… thank God the boys were thousands of miles away. She wouldn’t go back to the flat, Austin and Annie might see her arrive alone and wonder what was wrong, come to be kind…. She couldn’t face them.
She wiped her face, smearing her carefully applied make-up. She couldn’t help but think of her excitement and anticipation, her optimism and hope. It was an insult, an affront. Bad enough for anyone to do something like that, but for her own husband to make a mockery of her love for him… She was sobbing now, utterly miserable, the future absolutely black, no hope of ever regaining the relationship she’d had with Neil.
How could she ever trust him again? Their problems all came from him. When his jealousy exploded in his attack on Rafi she could honestly say that she was innocent. She blew her nose and got out of the car and walked up and down in the teeming rain. Her feet were wet in her slender strapped sandals, the soles so thin the water pooling on the pavement ran between her toes.
Back in the car, cold, very wet and more controlled but no calmer, she looked at her phone. Nothing from Neil. Should she ring him but what could she possibly say? Even if he’d been sober enough to understand what she meant, what could she say?
Beulah was shivering, as much with emotional trauma as with cold. She needed time to think… or not to think. She drove out of Easthope and through Strand, she didn’t want Neil finding her, even if he came looking. Her phone was on the seat beside her, its silence telling her that he didn’t care.
She pulled into a lay-by as a fresh wave of emotion and despair engulfed her…. but she couldn’t sit snivelling and sorry for herself, alone and lonely; she walked around again, the rain coming down even more heavily. She set off again, crawling along, the rain lashing down so heavily her wipers couldn’t clear the screen. Even with her lights full on she could hardly see where she was going until there was an illuminating blaze of lightning arcing above showing the flooded road, water running like a river. There was a sign to Westope and she drove down to the boatyard and parked against the fence.
The storm unleashed its torrential worst. She had some gloomy satisfaction in the sound of the roaring wind which buffeted the car, screaming and whistling through the boats’ rigging. Deafening thunder cracked and rolled above her and the sheets of viridian lightning matched her despair. She tried to remember Lear’s rage, tried to recall his anguished words, to block out her own thoughts.
The night was full of strange and deafening noises, crashes and bangs as invisible things were tossed about in the boat yard. She should have been frightened but she was beyond fear. She had no idea of the time, didn’t care, it didn’t matter.
She slept.

© Lois Elsden 2017

If you want to find out what led up to this, and to what happened next, here is a link to my boo, Night Vision:


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