Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland is filled with personification, most of it involving animals. Above are a few examples.
Photo Credit: Original illustration of the Fish Footman and the Frog Footman by John Tenniel from Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1865: Liftarn/Wikimedia Commons/ PD Art (PD Old 100)
“On the face of it, the concept of personification seems pretty crazy, the stuff of fantasy and magical thinking.” (Luu, par. 4)
I first learned about personification in college and I remember it as one of those literary devices that was pointed to, defined, and then gladly tossed aside. It wasn’t until I read Chi Luu’s article “Personification is Your Friend: The Language of Inanimate Objects” that I realized just how much I use it in my writing and how valuable it can be.
For Luu, personification is “[applying] human attributes to inanimate objects, to nature, to animals, or to abstract concepts, sometimes complete with dramatic stories about their social roles, emotions and intentions” (par. 2). Personification defies logic, thus belongs to the world of imagination, creativity, and psychological reality. We may have thought of objects like dolls, houses, and tees as human, with voices, thoughts and feelings, as children but we’re taught, shamed even, early on how silly, stupid, and even unbalanced this is.
Because of this, personification has for a long time gotten a bad rap. In 1856, writer and lecturer John Ruskin wrote against personification in poetry, though he called it pathetic fallacy. For Ruskin “[a]ll violent feelings … produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things” (par. 14). For Ruskin, personification was worse than being illogical – it was untrue and the writer who used it was no better than a liar.
As a theorist with his feet firmly planted in the cult of rationality that began a century before, we can understand why Ruskin was so viciously against personification. Even these days, some literary critics have similar feelings about personification and, indeed, all literary language. Luu observes “[personification is] often derided by some literary critics as an ‘unimportant’ and ‘reality-drained’ type of symbolic language…” (par. 7). What these critics ignore is the way language shapes and affects our thinking and feeling, not just in literature and art but in everyday life. I agree with Luu that “[personification] increases empathy and understanding” (par. 11).
It is ironic to me that literary critics like Ruskin object to personification because “more than other types of metaphorical language … [it plays] fast and loose with the truth…” (Luu, par. 8). For me, personification and other literary language are effective because they reveal the truth underneath the truth. Direct expression isn’t always the best way to convey the kind of deep emotions that writers try to bring forth in their work.
Personification, as all literary language, forces readers to actively engage in the story rather than take it in passively. In her book The Novel of the Future, Anais Nin notes “[i]n poetic prose a demand is made upon our senses and imagination. The magic use of words is intended as an invitation to participate” (Chap. 7, 3066; emphasis added). Nin’s short story “Houseboat” from her collection Under a Glass Bell and Other Stories fictionalizes Nin’s experience of living on a houseboat in the 1930’s. Nin’s description of the Seine is that of a living, breathing thing rather than a passive body of water. Note the humanizing descriptions in the following passages (highlighted in bold text)
“The river communicated with [the fishermen] through the bamboo rods of their fishing tackle, transmitting its vibrations… The perpetual waltz of lights and shadows emptied one of all memories and terrors.” (“Houseboat”, location 35)
“Nothing was displaced. The nightmare might appear here, but the river knew the mystery of continuity. A fit of anger and only the surface erupted, leaving the deep flowing body of the dream intact.” (“Houseboat”, location 46)
We see the river as something that is alive rather than stagnate, interacting with those who chose to honor it, like the fishermen, the tramps, and the houseboat dwellers.
In The Order of Actaeon (Waxwood Series: Book 1), the first book of my upcoming series, the main character, Jake, sees a ghost ship caught in the shallow waters of the Waxwood beach as something more than just an abandoned vessel. He describes the ship in this way:
“The ship’s mast flared up like the arms of a beautiful woman. Its massive height made him cringe and his chest tightened, expecting the rusty railing to topple down on him at any moment. But most of all, he felt the seductive power of the nautical monster try to sweep him into its unhappy entrapment in the shallow waters.”
The ship is not only human to him but specifically feminine and has a dangerous seduction for him. This parallels the dangerous seduction Stevens, a charismatic older man staying at the same hotel as Jake, and the Order of Actaeon have that eventually destroy him and, to an extent, his family.
Personification is, like most literary language, natural in everyday life, though perhaps not used in such a poetic way. I talked a little bit about this idea of translating everyday language into literary language in my blog post about symbolism. Like symbolism, writers use personification to get at a bigger truth than the one on the surface.
Luu, Chi. “Personification is Your Friend: The Language of Inanimate Objects”. JStor Daily. Ithaka, 2016. 23 March 2016. Web. 28 December 2016.
Nin, Anais. “Houseboat”. Under a Glass Bell and Other Stories. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2010 (original publication date 1944). Kindle digital file.
Nin, Anais. The Novel of the Future. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2014 (original publication date 1968). Kindle digital file.
Ruskin, John. “Of The Pathetic Fallacy”. A Theory of Civilization, http://www.ourcivilisation.com/smartboard/shop/ruskinj/. Accessed 28 December 2016.