I. What is Personification?
Sometimes the sun smiles, the wind whispers to the trees, and the shadows of the leaves dance in the wind.
Although literally, the sun cannot smile, the leaves cannot dance without legs, and the wind cannot whisper because it doesn’t have a mouth, we apply human characteristics and create these metaphors to describe a scene. When we talk about non-human things as if they were human, we personify them. Personification is a kind of metaphor in which you describe an inanimate object, abstract thing, or non-human animal in human terms. It is used to create more interesting and engaging scenes or characters.
II. Examples of Personification
Personification is very common in both literature and everyday speech. Here are a few common examples of personification:
1. Science-fiction novels were his constant companions.
Only a person or animal can literally be a ‘companion’; books are just objects. But this personification tells us that the books meant a lot to him, like close friends, and probably brought him happiness, like friends would.
The tired old car coughed and weezed and crawled down the street.
This sort of description, common in literature, uses several human qualities to create a vivid image of a very old car for the reader.
That piece of chocolate cake is calling my name.
Chocolate cake doesn’t have the ability to call after someone, but this cliché uses personification to express the feeling of desire and hunger; we say that whatever object we desire is “calling our name.” Putting a character’s feelings into the objects around him or her is a very common technique in literature.
III. The Importance of Using Personification
Personification provides personality, energy, will, and emotion to an otherwise lifeless scene.
For example, “The sun rose” is a literal description. A more interesting description could be, “The sun stretched its golden arms, climbed above the mountains, and smiled down on us.” Giving the sun “golden arms” creates a vivid image of the sun’s rays and “climbed” makes the sun more like a person getting out of bed. “Smiled” gives you a positive feeling about the day. If the author wanted to convey a negative feeling, he or she could have said “the sun glared down at us angrily.”
Personification usually expresses characters’ feelings, and gives more life to a scene.
IV. Examples of Personification in Literature
Peace had deserted Devon. Although not in the look of the campus and village; they retained much of their dreaming summer calm. Fall had barely touched the full splendor of the trees, and during the height of the day the sun briefly regained its summertime power. In the air there was only an edge of coolness to imply the coming winter. But all had been caught up, like the first fallen leaves, by a new and energetic wind.
In this example, peace, an abstract idea, can desert a place. Also, the campus and village dream and the fall touches the trees.
Death is the mother of Beauty – from “Sunday Morning” by Wallace Stevens
This example shows that personification can be used for purposes more meaningful than merely making the description of a scene more vivid. After all, how can death be a person, let alone a mother?
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune – from Hamlet by William Shakespeare
In this famous line from Hamlet, “fortune” – a random event in life that is beyond our control — is described as “outrageous” and as shooting arrows and stones (from a sling) – which describe both how it can feel, and points out that it can really hurt you!
V. Personification in Pop Culture
Personification is a prominent feature of animated films and commercials alike. Personified animals can be fun and dynamic as well as cute and cuddly. Here are a few instances of personification in pop culture:
The Geico Gecko
In this anthropomorphism (which is extended personification, see Related Terms) the lizard stands upright, uses hand motions, laughs, and speaks with a Cockney accent. This makes people relate to the mascot, which makes them feel better about the product. The Geico Gecko is a strong example of successful personification in advertising.
The “Be Our Guest” Entourage
A charming French candlestick, dishes who sing and dance, an anxious clock with a moustache, synchronized diving spoons, a polite and matronly teapot, the list goes on! Beauty and the Beast is rich with personification, providing all sorts of household items with souls and personalities.
VI. Related Terms
Like personification, anthropomorphism is the giving of human characteristics to objects or animals. Anthropomorphism is a kind of personification in which animals or objects are described as if they really are people with abilities like talking, walking upright, and thinking critically. This is stronger than simple personification, which can be done with just a couple of words, such as “the angry sun.” Here is an example of simple personification versus anthropomorphism:
The owl laughed with a “hoot-hoot!”
In this example, the owl has taken on one human attribute: it laughs.
The wise owl said to the confused frog, “I know why you are suffering and I can help you find your way.”
In this example, the owl has become a person, with fully human abilities to think and talk.