Definition of Personification
Personification is a figure of speech in which an idea or thing is given human attributes and/or feelings or is spoken of as if it were human. Personification is a common form of metaphor in that human characteristics are attributed to nonhuman things. This allows writers to create life and motion within inanimate objects, animals, and even abstract ideas by assigning them recognizable human behaviors and emotions.
Personification is a literary device found often in children’s literature. This is an effective use of figurative language because personification relies on imagination for understanding. Of course, readers know at a logical level that nonhuman things cannot feel, behave, or think like humans. However, personifying nonhuman things can be an interesting, creative, and effective way for a writer to illustrate a concept or make a point.
For example, in his picture book, “The Day the Crayons Quit,” Drew Daywalt uses personification to allow the crayons to express their frustration at how they are (or are not) being used. This literary device is effective in creating an imaginary world for children in which crayons can communicate like humans.
Common Examples of Personification
Here are some examples of personification that may be found in everyday expression:
- My alarm yelled at me this morning.
- I like onions, but they don’t like me.
- The sign on the door insulted my intelligence.
- My phone is not cooperating with me today.
- That bus is driving too fast.
- My computer works very hard.
- However, the mail is running unusually slow this week.
- I wanted to get money, but the ATM died.
- This article says that spinach is good for you.
- Unfortunately, when she stepped on the Lego, her foot cried.
- The sunflowers hung their heads.
- That door jumped in my way.
- The school bell called us from outside.
- In addition, the storm trampled the town.
- I can’t get my calendar to work for me.
- This advertisement speaks to me.
- Fear gripped the patient waiting for a diagnosis.
- The cupboard groans when you open it.
- Can you see that star winking at you?
- Books reach out to kids.
Examples of Personification in Speech or Writing
Here are some examples of personification that may be found in everyday writing or conversation:
- My heart danced when he walked in the room.
- The hair on my arms stood after the performance.
- Why is your plant pouting in the corner?
- The wind is whispering outside.
- Additionally, that picture says a lot.
- Her eyes are not smiling at us.
- Also, my brain is not working fast enough today.
- Those windows are watching us.
- Our coffee maker wishes us good morning.
- The sun kissed my cheeks when I went outside.
Famous Personification Examples
Think you haven’t heard of any famous personification examples? Here are some well-known and recognizable titles and quotes featuring this figure of speech:
- “The Brave Little Toaster” (novel by Thomas M. Disch and adapted animated film series)
- “This Tornado Loves You” (song by Neko Case)
- “Happy Feet” (animated musical film)
- “Time Waits for No One” (song by The Rolling Stones)
- “The Little Engine that Could” (children’s book by Watty Piper)
- “The sea was angry that day, my friends – like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli.” (Seinfeld television series)
- “Life moves pretty fast.” (movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”)
- “The dish ran away with the spoon.” (“Hey, diddle, diddle” by Mother Goose)
- “The Heart wants what it wants – or else it does not care” (Emily Dickinson)
- “Once there was a tree, and she loved a little boy.” (“The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein)
Difference Between Personification and Anthropomorphism
Personification is often confused with the literary term anthropomorphism due to fundamental similarities. However, there is a difference between these two literary devices. Anthropomorphism is when human characteristics or qualities are applied to animals or deities, not inanimate objects or abstract ideas. As a literary device, anthropomorphism allows an animal or deity to behave as a human. This is reflected in Greek dramas in which gods would appear and involve themselves in human actions and relationships.
In addition to gods, writers use anthropomorphism to create animals that display human traits or likenesses such as wearing clothes or speaking. There are several examples of this literary device in popular culture and literature. For example, Mickey Mouse is a character that illustrates anthropomorphism in that he wears clothes and talks like a human, though he is technically an animal. Other such examples are Winnie the Pooh, Paddington Bear, and Thomas the Tank Engine.
Therefore, while anthropomorphism is limited to animals and deities, personification can be more widely applied as a literary device by including inanimate objects and abstract ideas. Personification allows writers to attribute human characteristics to nonhuman things without turning those things into human-like characters, as is done with anthropomorphism.
Overall, as a literary device, personification functions as a means of creating imagery and connections between the animate and inanimate for readers. Therefore, personification allows writers to convey meaning in a creative and poetic way. These figures of speech enhance a reader’s understanding of concepts and comparisons, interpretations of symbols and themes, and enjoyment of language.
Here are instances in which it’s effective to use personification in writing:
Personification demonstrates a high level of creativity. To be valuable as a figure of speech, the human attributes assigned to a nonhuman thing through personification must make sense in some way. In other words, human characteristics can’t just be assigned to any inanimate object as a literary device. There must be some connection between them that resonates with the reader, demanding creativity on the part of the writer to find that connection and develop successful personification.
Exercise Poetic Skill
Many poets rely on personification to create vivid imagery and memorable symbolism. For example, in Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven,” the poet skillfully personifies the raven through allowing it to speak one word, “nevermore,” in response to the narrator’s questions. This is a powerful use of personification, as the narrator ends up projecting more complex and intricate human characteristics onto the bird as the poem continues though the raven only speaks the same word.
Personification can be an excellent tool in creating humor for a reader. This is especially true among young readers who tend to appreciate the comedic contrast between a nonhuman thing being portrayed as possessing human characteristics. Personification allows for creating humor related to incongruity and even absurdity.
Overall, personification is a literary device that allows readers to enhance their imagination by “believing” that something inanimate or nonhuman can behave, think, or feel as a human. In fact, people tend to personify things in their daily lives by assigning human behavior or feelings to pets and even objects. For example, a child may assign emotions to a favorite stuffed animal to match their own feelings. In addition, a cat owner may pretend their pet is speaking to them and answer back. This allows writers and readers to see a reflection of humanity through imagination. Readers may also develop a deeper understanding of human behavior and emotion.
Examples of Personification in Literature
Example #1: The House on Mango Street (Sandra Cisneros)
But the house on Mango Street is not the way they told it at all. It’s small and red with tight steps in front and windows so small you’d think they were holding their breath.
In the first chapter of Cisneros’s book, the narrator Esperanza is describing the house into which she and her family are moving. Her parents have promised her that they would find a spacious and welcoming home for their family, similar to what Esperanza has seen on television. However, their economic insecurity has prevented them from getting a home that represents the American dream.
Cisneros uses personification to emphasize the restrictive circumstances of Esperanza’s family. To Esperanza, the windows of the house appear to be “holding their breath” due to their small size, creating an image of suffocation. This personification not only enhances the description of the house on Mango Street for the reader, but it also reflects Esperanza’s feelings about the house, her family, and her life. Like the windows, Esperanza is holding her breath as well, with the hope of a better future and the fear of her dreams not becoming reality.
Example #2: Ex-Basketball Player (John Updike)
Off work, he hangs around Mae’s Luncheonette.
Grease-gray and kind of coiled, he plays pinball,
Smokes those thin cigars, nurses lemon phosphates.
Flick seldom says a word to Mae, just nods
Beyond her face toward bright applauding tiers
Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads.
In his poem about a former basketball player named Flick, Updike recreates an arena crowd watching Flick play pinball by personifying the candy boxes in the luncheonette. The snack containers “applaud” Flick as he spends his free time playing a game that is isolating and requires no athletic skill. However, the personification in Updike’s poem is a reflection of how Flick’s life has changed since he played and set records for his basketball team in high school.
Flick’s fans have been replaced by packages of sugary snacks with little substance rather than real people appreciating his skills and cheering him on. Like the value of his audience, Flick’s own value as a person has diminished into obscurity and the mundane now that he is an ex-basketball player.
Example #3: How Cruel Is the Story of Eve (Stevie Smith)
It is only a legend,
You say? But what
Is the meaning of the legend
To give blame to women most
And most punishment?
This is the meaning of a legend that colours
All human thought; it is not found among animals.
How cruel is the story of Eve,
What responsibility it has
In her poem, Smith personifies the story of Eve as it is relayed in the first book of the Bible, Genesis. Smith attributes several human characteristics to this story, such as cruelty and responsibility. Therefore, this enhances the deeper meaning of the poem which is that Eve is not to blame for her actions, essentially leading to the “fall” of man and expulsion from Paradise In addition, she is not to blame for the subjugation and inequality that women have faced throughout history and tracing back to Eve.
Eve’s “story” or “legend” in the poem is accused by the poet of coloring “all human thought.” In other words, Smith is holding the story responsible for the legacy of punishment towards women throughout history by its portrayal of Eve, the first woman, as a temptress and sinner. The use of this literary device is effective in separating Eve’s character as a woman from the manner in which her story is told.