“What is Personification?”: A Guide for English Students and Teachers

“What is Personification?”: A Guide for English Students and Teachers

November 29, 2019 0 By Stanley Isaacs


I’m having the worst day! My alarm clock yelled at me to get out of
bed this morning. My dog scorned me when I tried to pet her. Then the wind absolutely howled when I was
riding my bike to campus. Now I’m here . . . and the camera is not
known to love English professors. So why am I here? To illustrate the uses of personification,
of course. That little story I just told about my day
so far? Each sentence featured personification, where
something not human was described as if it had human emotions or characteristics: the
alarm clock yelled, my dog scorned, and the wind howled. Personification can lend atmosphere to a scene
or give lifelikeness to an object or animal that might otherwise seem dull. It can help readers connect with the parts
of a story or poem that aren’t the characters. Once we see human-like emotions being portrayed
– even by an alarm clock – we react with our human emotions. We might find the alarm clock infuriating
or pathetic or funny. So, personification can create a connection
between the reader and the thing being described. To dig into how this works, let’s check
out a scene featuring the infamous Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles’s Dickens’s short
story, “A Christmas Carol.” As you might already know, Scrooge was a mean
and dismal miser who only lived to make money. He didn’t have any family, any friends,
or any sources of real joy. So, it’s probably no surprise that he lives
in an apartment in a building that’s also pretty miserable. Here’s how Dickens describes Scrooge’s
apartment, which he calls his “rooms”: “They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a
lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one
could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing
at hide-and-seek with other houses, and forgotten the way out again.” The building where Scrooge lives is personified
as lonely and forgotten. It doesn’t have any “business” being
where it is – in fact, only Scrooge lives there and the rest of the rooms are rented
out to businesses, so it’s cold and empty most of the time that he’s there. This out-of-place building seems to have ended
up there by accident, a leftover from a more joyful, youthful time. Dickens helps us imagine that this building
might have been playing hide-and-seek – a game that children play – but instead of
being found, it was abandoned when nobody came to find it. So, now the building is just stuck there,
discarded and almost deserted. Dickens is a master of personification – readers
have been commenting on his use of the device from the time “A Christmas Carol” was
first published in 1843 all the way until today. And one thing they usually agree on is that
Dickens uses personification so that the setting will amplify something essential about the
characters, deepening the reader’s understanding and emotional reaction. The building that Scrooge lives in reflects
his own miserable existence. He might once have been young and playful,
but now he’s all alone, forgotten and out of the way, just like his home. So, to sum up: personification makes the world
more vivid by illustrating an idea or reflecting a character’s mood. It helps us see our humanity in the world
all around us.