The recent loss of a beloved pet has reminded me of how unconsciously we impute human thoughts and feelings to inanimate natural objects. During the weeks leading up to her passing, I assumed she was feeling the same sadness and grief for the impending separation as I was, and I tried to comfort her with the very words I needed to hear. Intellectually, I realize she was likely feeling only discomfort, lethargy, and perhaps pain. Emotionally, however, I subscribed to the erroneous belief that we suffered alike.
In literature, personification or the notion of “pathetic fallacy” aims “to signify any description of inanimate natural objects that ascribes to them human capabilities, sensations, and emotions” and is typically a response to grief or other violent feelings (John Ruskin, “Of the Pathetic Fallacy,” Modern Painters, 1856). According to Ruskin, who coined the term, our favorite poetry (such as Tennyson’s Maud) is replete with “exquisite” fallacy of this kind and is considered more beautiful and more pleasurable because of it.
None like her, none.
Just now the dry-tongued laurels’ pattering talk
Seemed her light foot along the garden walk,
And shook my heart to think she comes once more.
But even then I heard her close the door;
The gates of heaven are closed, and she is gone. (Maud, Part I, XVIII, 2)
While Ruskin nonetheless considered pathetic fallacy an artistic mistake, “produc[ing] in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things,” other critics, artists, and writers disagree, regarding it as a natural way for humans to comprehend and relate to the world. To dismiss it would mean rejecting most poetry and literary images – not to mention the bittersweet final moments of understanding and love between a girl and her cat.
Rest in peace, sweet Tabitha.