Personification

Definition of Personification

As a literary device, personification is the projection of characteristics that normally belong only to humans onto inanimate objects, animals, deities, or forces of nature. These characteristics can include verbs of actions that only humans do or adjectives that describe a human condition. The characteristics can also be emotions, feelings, or motives given to objects incapable of thought. For example, if someone said, “the trees whispered their discontent,” this would personify the trees both as able to whisper and of feeling unhappy. Personification is also sometimes referred to as anthropomorphism when it is used to give human feelings and actions to animals.

Personification can also mean the embodiment of an abstract idea or quality. This definition of personification can extend even to humans. For example, a person can be said to personify the patriotism of his country or the ambition of her company. We could say, “She is the personification of the grit and determination needed to make this start-up work.”

Examples of Personification from Common Speech

We use many examples of personification in every day speech. Some characteristics have become quite common to attribute to certain things, such as the following:

  • Justice is blind
  • Her heart skipped a beat
  • The sun smiled down on them
  • The stars winked
  • The party died down
  • The city never sleeps
  • The wind howled
  • The iron gates looked down at them cruelly
  • The house sighed
  • The car sputtered and coughed before starting

Significance of Personification in Literature

Personification and anthropomorphism has been a part of storytelling for thousands of years, evident in Aesop’s Fables and fairy tales from many different cultures. Gods in myths and legends are often given human qualities even though they are distinctly not human. This makes them examples of personification.

Personification has remained popular throughout the centuries, given that it can add aesthetic qualities to a work and provide a way for authors to describe inanimate objects. It also inserts more meaning into the inexplicable things like forces of nature. Often the use of personification also helps to show a character’s own attitudes toward a certain thing if they project or ascribe their own feelings onto an inanimate object.

Anthropomorphism is also still very popular, especially in stories for children and the fable genre. It is also sometimes used in satirical works, such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and graphic novels, such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus.

Examples of Personification from Literature

Example #1

TITANIA: No night is now with hymn or carol blessed.
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound.

(A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare)

In this example of personification, Shakespeare uses the concept of the moon as a character. The moon is feminized (as often it is in literature, if given a gender) and said to be a governess of floods. The color of the moon lends to the depiction of “her anger” and she is said to cause more disease to spread due to her displeasure. Shakespeare thus gives the moon new descriptive qualities, emotions, and motivation.

Example #2

Her heart was divided between concern for her sister, and resentment against all the others.

(Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen)

In this excerpt from Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen writes about a heart that feels concern and resentment. The heart in question is of the character Elizabeth. It’s clear that Elizabeth is the one divided between concern for her sister Jane and resentment for the others, yet Austen personifies Elizabeth’s heart to have these feelings to add some poetic sensibility to the sentence.

Example #3

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

(“Mending Wall” by Robert Frost)

Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” contains the famous line “Good fences make good neighbors.” This excerpt is from the beginning of the poem, and sets up a contrast between the neighbors who keep fixing the wall between them and the “something” that doesn’t love this wall. Though Frost never specifies what it is that “doesn’t love a wall,” we can take it to mean that nature revolts against artificial separations and borders. Winter cold causes the wall to break in different places, and Frost gives winter the motivation for doing this.

Example #4

The Western States nervous under the beginning change.
Texas and Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas, New Mexico,
Arizona, California. A single family moved from the land.
Pa borrowed money from the bank, and now the bank wants
the land. The land company–that’s the bank when it has land
–wants tractors, not families on the land. Is a tractor bad? Is
the power that turns the long furrows wrong? If this tractor
were ours it would be good–not mine, but ours. If our tractor
turned the long furrows of our land, it would be good.
Not my land, but ours. We could love that tractor then as
we have loved this land when it was ours. But the tractor
does two things–it turns the land and turns us off the land.
There is little difference between this tractor and a tank.
The people are driven, intimidated, hurt by both. We must think
about this.

(The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck)

John Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes of Wrath is set during the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. This personification example begins with the “Western States” being nervous. Of course the states themselves did not feel anxiety, but the people in those states started to feel nervous about the diminishing returns from the land. Bankers started repossessing land, and thus Steinbeck personifies the banks to want the land.

Example #5

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut…

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

(“When Death Comes” by Mary Oliver)

Mary Oliver’s poem “When Death Comes” uses several different ways to describe death. She begins here with the image of death as a hungry bear. Then Oliver gives death the human characteristics of having money and wanting to make a purchase, thereby personifying it. Thus death is full of desire in this poem. Oliver uses this concept to contrast her own desire to live her life as fully as possible before death comes for her.

Example #6

But, on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-bush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him.

(The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne)

In this excerpt from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, there is a juxtaposition between the wild rose-bush and its location, namely the prison. The rose-bush is “delicate” and has “fragile beauty,” whereas the “condemned criminal” is going “forth to his doom.” Hawthorne uses personification to say that the rose-bush offers its fragrance, and thus a measure of its innocence, to the prisoner. He goes on to personify Nature as full of both kindness and pity.

Test Your Knowledge of Personification

1. Choose the correct personification definition:

A. The act of literally making something human.
B. A person who strives to be the best he or she can be.
C. A literary device which gives human qualities to nonhuman things.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of these lines from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 contains personification?

A. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
B. Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade…
C. So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see…

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the parts of this excerpt from Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” make it an example of personification?

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination

A. Whoever you are
B. No matter how lonely
C. The world offers itself
D. To your imagination

Answer to Question #3 Show

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