The Pathetic Fallacy in Swift's Novels

Barry J. Fishman '89

In Shuttlecock, Prentis inquires of his wife:

"Marian," I say (she is still talking to her plants), "do you believe in the pathetic fallacy? That it's really a fallacy, I mean?" (p.215)

These two sentences form an entire chapter of Shuttlecock. According to the Reader's Encyclopedia, Second Edition (Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1965), the pathetic fallacy is:

A phrase invented by John Ruskin to designate the illusion that external objects seem actuated by human feelings, particularly when one is under great emotional strain. Thus when a poet is tormented by grief, he is apt to ascribe to inanimate nature either sympathy or heartless cruelty. Tennyson's "In Memoriam," Shelly's "Adonais," and other elegies are especially noteworthy for eloquent effects gained by the use of the pathetic fallacy.

How is this important in Shuttlecock? Is the pathetic fallacy important in Waterland? How about in Great Expectations? For the pathetic fallacy to be active, the author must first invoke some form of description (of Nature?) (As a wise man once said: "It's not really the heat, it's not really the humidity. . . it's all the damn clichés about the weather.

Consider for example the descriptions of weather conditions given by Swift in Waterland on the occasion of Thomas Atkinson's funeral:

. . . the day of Thomas's funeral was one of those dazzling mid-winter Fenland days in which the sky seems to cleanse every outline and make light of distances. . . Nor does [History] record whether the people of Gildsey, who so confidently scorned the genuine grief of Thomas for his wife, failed to notice the lack of grief of Thomas's sons for their father. (p.61)
Contrast this incident with the heavy rains of Sarah's funeral:
Rain is good for a funeral: it masks human tears and suggests heavenly ones. . . those who hold that the rain is a good sign (compare the unbefitting sunshine of old Tom's funeral day) far outnumber those who hold it is bad." (p.73)


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