The Pathetic Fallacy – or you, me and the weather – Elizabeth Kay

I always had trouble with the phrase pathetic fallacy. It seemed like an extremely harsh condemnation of the British obsession with The Weather, and a wagging finger at attributing any sort of malevolence to it. We Brits all know The Weather has a particular delight in ruining Wimbledon fortnight, bank holidays and test matches. So it was with some surprise that I discovered the words have changed their meaning, and when Ruskin first coined the phrase it didn’t mean stupid misconception but simply emotional falseness. What’s wrong with the occasional foray into personification, if it’s deliberate? When I’m writing a fantasy involving a desert it’s quite nice to have a callous sun with a definite mind of its own. Writing has fashions, and the fact that a Greek chorus is as yesterday as a codpiece shouldn’t stop you using one if you feel that’s exactly what your story needs.
            All that was just a way of getting me into writing about the weather, of course. I’m sitting here with the uncaring rain beating down outside, waiting for a friendly and benevolent sun to show its smiling face so that I can get out into the garden. But it’s The Weather that adds or subtracts colour from our writing. Of course, if you’ve set something in a mine or a spaceship it isn’t relevant, but even in a hospital a glimpse of a snowflake through a window can bring a tear to the eye.
            One of the things I’ve always admired about C.S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia was the way he used different locations, with their differing weathers, to bump up the atmosphere. The journey to Harfang in The Silver Chair makes me shiver just thinking about that driving snow, and crossing the desert in The Horse and His Boy usually has me heading to the fridge for a cold drink. The storm at sea on the Voyage of the Dawn Treader is terrific stuff, and I tried something similar in Ice Feathers:

…The following afternoon the sky darkened to the colour of a rotten tooth and the wind started to blow with serious intent one moment, only to die away altogether the next. It was odd. The sails would be pulling hard for a while; a moment later this furious activity would be followed by an eerie period of quiet, as though the vessel were holding its breath. Then the boat took to lurching to and fro in a very unpredictable way, and Kura had to fix her eyes on the horizon to stop herself feeling ill.
The storm overtook them with frightening speed this time round, and the waves just got bigger and bigger. The deck became awash with foam, stranded fish, and splintered wood from damaged crates. As if the deck weren’t wet enough already, the rain lashed at it with real violence, and one of the water barrels broke free and rolled into the mast with considerable force. The horizon vanished behind towering cliff-faces of water, and the ship shuddered as it hit a gigantic wave full-on.

Getting sufficient intensity into a piece of work isn’t easy, as the weather is such a common theme and finding new ways to describe it is tricky. Even in a rain forest rain is still rain. It’s the effect it has on the environment that’s the telling point – the effect the wind has on the waves, and the effect the waves have on the boat. I’ve encountered two lots of rain that I thought were particularly memorable. The first was in Costa Rica (and what an inspiration that place was – it gave me the opening of The Divide).
I was sitting in a bar, drinking a beer, and the glasses all came with little paper pads underneath them, as the condensation was so extreme. The glasses cried dribbles of water down the sides in a constant stream of misery, and the rain hammered on the corrugated iron roof like an entire troupe of tap-dancers. The second time was in Zambia, driving along in the back of an open-topped truck. The raindrops hurtled down like bullets; they were the biggest raindrops I’ve ever seen, and they actually hurt when they hit you. Really hurt – we were given a tarpaulin to pull over us, as protection. It’s extremes like this that you remember.
            Times change, too. How do you describe a sunset these days, when so many have done it before you and a photograph does it so well? Jane Austen’s use of the weather was more about the effect it had on her characters; no photographs to grace the covers of her novels in those days, and everyone was only too familiar with the weather as most people were out and about in it far more than we are with our climate-controlled cars and centrally-heated homes. In John Mullen’s excellent book What Matters in Jane Austen he says:

 Sense and Sensibility is kicked into life by a misjudgment about the weather: Marianne goes walking on the Devon hills with her younger sister Margaret, convincing herself that "the partial sunshine of a showery sky" bodes well. Marianne's "declaration that the day would be lastingly fair" is utter folly, revealed when "a driving rain set full in their face". Fleeing for home, Marianne trips and is rescued by the handsome Willoughby. It might seem a fortunate accident, the beginning of a romance, but Marianne's determination to delude herself about the weather bodes ill.

So what next for the weather? It’s more extreme than it used to be. Bad news for people living on a flood plain, or for those who rely on the rain for their crops. For the writer, though, it’s out and about in the thick of it. Hailstones, snowdrifts and mist are the clothes worn by our countryside; make sure you’re up to date with the latest fashions on the catwalk.


JO said…
I think the weather can make a huge difference to how we think and feel - ask any primary school teacher about trying to control a class during a high wind. But the best literary quote I came across was in Gabriel Garcia Marquez - 'it was raining too hard to think' - I know exactly what that's like!!
Lydia Bennet said…
yes weather is vital to our moods and important for setting the scene in literature. the pathetic fallacy is also about how weather in lit seems to mirror or mock the protagonist's feelings or experiences and in fact in real life it often feels as if it does!
Elizabeth Kay said…
Love that, Jo - it was raining too hard to think.
Kathleen Jones said…
Lovely post Elizabeth - and the description is fabulous!

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