In this lesson, explore how writers use personification to give human characteristics to objects, ideas, and animals. Learn about apostrophe, or when characters speak to objects, ideas, and even imaginary people as if they were also characters.
What Is Personification?
'Have you got a brook in your little heart,
Where bashful flowers blow,
And blushing birds go down to drink,
And shadows tremble so?'
Pretty isn't it? Obviously, Emily Dickinson doesn't think flowers can actually be bashful or that birds can blush and shadows can tremble. She's being poetic, or, to be more precise, she's using personification.
Personification is a type of figurative language where animals, inanimate objects, and ideas are given human characteristics. Only in literature (and Disney cartoons) are flowers bashful and birds blushing, with rosy cheeks and all.
We use personification all the time in our everyday speech. We ascribe human-like emotions and desires to almost everything, from a storm's 'unrelenting attack' to time 'marching on.'
Examples of Personification
Personification shows up - see what I did there? - in lots of different ways in literature. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's long poem 'Paul Revere's Ride' (from 1860) also contains personification used as a poetic device.
Revere was one of the express riders responsible for letting American revolutionaries know that British troops were on their way to Lexington, Massachusetts, riding across the countryside and into American history books.
'It was one by the village clock,
When he galloped into Lexington.
He saw the gilded weathercock
Swim in the moonlight as he passed,
And the meeting-house windows, blank and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon.'
Take a minute and stop the video. See if you can spot the personification in there. The rooster weathervane (or 'gilded weathercock') swims while the 'meeting-house windows, blank and bare,/Gaze at him with spectral glare.' Longfellow takes it one step further here, imagining the windows reacting to the bloodshed of the coming battle.
Sometimes we will say so-and-so is the personification of evil or the personification of good. In John Bunyan's 'The Pilgrim's Progress' (1678), characters have names like Obstinate, Piety, Faithful, and Hopeful, with each meant to be the physical embodiment of the trait they are named after.
It is also not uncommon for the devil to be personified through different characters, from the Grim Reaper to a slick businessman. Markus Zusak's 2006 novel, 'The Book Thief', is narrated by Death himself, a fitting choice since the story takes place in Nazi Germany:
'I could introduce myself properly, but it's not really necessary. You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables. It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms. A color will be perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away.'
While the personification of traits through characters like Hopeful and Faithful in 'The Pilgrim's Progress' is meant to instruct people on how to live more virtuous lives, the personification of death in 'The Book Thief' has a different effect. Death is more than just death, but a multifaceted character you can get to know.
What Is Apostrophe?
Another literary device used by writers is apostrophe. Not to be confused with the punctuation mark used in contractions (like 'don't') and to show possession (like 'the student's grade'), this apostrophe is a figure of speech, where a character addresses either an object, idea, or imaginary person as if they were there in the room with them.
At the very end of Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet,' Juliet, seeing that there is no poison left to take her own life, decides to use Romeo's discarded dagger.
'O happy dagger!
This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die.'
As you can see, Juliet addresses the dagger directly as if it was a character there to hear her.
The difference between personification and apostrophe is that personification gives human qualities to animals, objects, and ideas, while apostrophe has characters talking aloud to objects and ideas as if they were human.
In the Gothic novel 'Frankenstein' (1818) by Mary Shelley, one of the book's narrators addresses the 'stars and clouds and winds' as if they were characters there to hear her pleas:
'Oh! Stars and clouds and winds, ye are all about to mock me; if ye really pity me, crush sensation and memory; let me become as naught; but if not, depart, and depart, and leave me in darkness.'
Personification is a literary device where writers describe non-human animals, objects, and ideas using human characteristics. For example, 'The stars danced in the sky' personifies stars by describing them as dancing. Apostrophe is a literary technique where a character addresses an imaginary person, object, or idea as if they were a person. So a character saying, 'Oh stars, won't you dance with me' would be an example of an author using apostrophe.
This lesson should prepare you to differentiate between personification and apostrophe and provide examples of each.