‘Pathetic Fallacy’ is one of those terms you run into sooner or later if you study literature. Proper definition here http://literarydevices.net/pathetic-fallacy/ but the gist of it is the mapping of human emotions onto non-human things to get the point across. The classic example would be a story with rain at a funeral. The trouble with funerals in stories is that a bit of them has to happen outside, and therefore there has to be weather, and it impacts on the experience. I remember the weather at every funeral I’ve attended, and as they were all in England, grey and damp has been the norm. The one in torrential rain was interesting because the woman we were burying loved the rain. It felt more like a blessing than an expression of grief, as a consequence. I have a lot of problems with how we put weather into stories, so bear with me while I grumble because how we relate weather and emotion is, I think, rather important.
I type this on a cold, wet day in late July. I’m of somewhat depressed mood. I do not mention the weather because it conveniently expresses something about my feelings, but because it’s influencing them. If today was sunny and dry and I could sit out for a few hours reading and watching the birds, I would be happier. Not as a poetic device, but as a direct consequence of being cheered up by sitting in the sun. It’s not a human foible, this. Most mammals are cheery when they can lounge about and be warm, and sad when they are cold and wet.
There’s a big cause and effect issue here, and a lot depends on which you think causes what. Do we only notice the weather when it speaks to us of ourselves? For me, the weather is a big contributor to mood. Too many wet grey days in a row and I’ve no chance. My being depressed can be wholly separate from the weather, but isn’t immune to it – the sun lifts me, no matter what else is going on.
Inevitably there’s an overlap, because most of us aren’t trained in the use of precise meteorological language, and so are unlikely to talk about low fronts, wind speeds, and the number of centimetres of rain falling in a month. If the weather impacts on us, it does so as an immediate experience. I think because it’s emotionally affecting, we are more likely to frame it in emotional language. Thus a fast wind can seem angry, vengeful, violent simply because of what it does (tearing things and throwing them about) and how it affects us. I do not need to be experiencing inner rage or violence to find the wind threatening simply because of what it can do. If it drops a tree on me, I’m in trouble.
Warm, sunny days seem benevolent, and again I don’t think that’s about imposing a human sentiment onto the world. Sun powers the growth of plants and is the driving force of most ecosystems and life on earth. It seems reasonable to experience it as something benevolent. Rain after drought can also seem benevolent – and is equally life restoring, while torrential rain and flooding are literal threats and easily represented by more aggressive language.
I spend a lot of time watching whirlwinds. For reasons I cannot begin to fathom, I live in a place that gets them regularly. Tiny whirlwinds a foot or two across that play with the leaf litter. I can see a dozen in a week and it not be unusual. They fascinate me, and regardless of my mood, I see them as playful. If I am full of misery and the world seems a cruel and hostile place, the sun is still benevolent, and the whirlwinds are still playful. My sense of their emotional impact has nothing to do with my inner state, which is a big part of why I question the logic of the pathetic fallacy. I think the deliberate use of, and the inferring of the pathetic fallacy can be about a dislocation from lived experiences of weather and a failure to recognise that all fictional characters need to inhabit places with climates in order to be fully functioning people. They are an opportunity to explore the impact of weather on the psyche, but doing so should not automatically cast weather as reflections of an inner life. It can be deliberately used that way, but I don’t like it as either a strategy or an inference.
(This is a slightly unusual blog post in that it is a contribution to an ongoing conversation, that started over an as-yet unpublished novel of mine, in which there is a lot of rain. The relationship between rain and the inner lives of the characters is important to me, but for me this is not about weather as reflection of inner landscape. John, as ever, thank you for the prompts to go further and think more about things.)