This lesson will examine the use and significance of the literary technique personification in John Steinbeck's classic 1937 novella, 'Of Mice and Men.'
What Is Personification?
You're sitting on the bench at the bus stop on a particularly rainy, sad day. You look down and see a speck of a green plant peering through the sidewalk as if to say, 'I will make it through somehow.' Logically, you know the plant cannot speak, but somehow the thought of this little plant weathering the storm gives you a glimmer of hope. Despite the pouring rain and your soggy shoes, you look at that plant and smile. Things will get better.
Giving that small plant human-like qualities is a common literary technique known as personification. Personification is a literary technique where objects, animals, and/or ideas are given human-like qualities. Authors use personification as a way to captivate the reader by making an otherwise unlikely idea or scenario more relatable or interesting.
In the 1991 Walt Disney animation, Beauty and the Beast, personification is heavily used for secondary characters. Cogsworth is an uptight talking clock, Lumiere is a romantic talking candelabra, and Mrs. Potts is a motherly talking teapot. Giving each of these characters distinct personalities through the use of personification makes them more likable and relatable to the audience.
The personification of animals is one of the most common forms of this literary technique. In the famous folktale, The Three Little Pigs, the wolf says, 'I'll huff, and I'll puff, and I'll blow your house in!' in regards to the homes of the three little pigs. In this story, the reader can see through the use of personification in the wolf's actions and dialogue that he is bad news.
Emily Dickinson, a famous 19th-century poet, describes death in her poem 'Because I could not stop for death.' The lines read:
Because I could not stop for Death-
He kindly stopped for me-
The Carriage held but just Ourselves-
Here, death is an idea being personified as a kind, male carriage driver.
Personification in Of Mice and Men
Set in California during the Great Depression, this story follows two ranch workers, George Milton and Lennie Small, on their quest for the American Dream: their own patch of land, a farm of their own, and the freedom to be their own boss. Author John Steinbeck uses personification in his classic novella Of Mice and Men to envision the detailed setting of California and to better understand one of the key characters of the novel, Lennie Small.
Steinbeck uses personification in nature when describing the setting in order to paint a more vivid picture for the reader. 'The sycamore leaves whispered in a little night breeze.' While sycamore leaves do not actually possess the ability to whisper, giving this human quality helps the reader envision how the leaves blew quietly in the wind.
'The deep green pool of the Salinas River was still in the late afternoon. Already the sun had left the valley to go climbing up the slopes of the Gabilan Mountains, and the hilltops were rosy in the sun. But by the pool among the mottled sycamores, a pleasant shade had fallen.' The sun cannot physically climb the mountains, but this description helps the reader understand that the sun is setting, indicating that the setting of this chapter is in the evening in a more descriptive and pleasant manner.
Lennie's character is physically large and strong as an ox, but cognitively is like a small child. Lennie's lifetime dream in the novel is simple: to tend to rabbits on the farm. However, Lennie's strength betrays his intelligence due to his desire to pet soft things and his squeezing those things to death. Lennie accidentally kills several mice, a puppy, and a woman, all by being too rough or squeezing too hard.
In the last chapter of the novella, Lennie Small is sitting alone in a brush after accidentally killing the wife of the boss's son. A vision appears to Lennie from his imagination as a giant rabbit. The giant rabbits speaks to Lennie and scolds him for his behavior: 'Tend rabbits,' it said scornfully. 'You crazy bastard. You ain't fit to lick the boots of no rabbit. You'd forget 'em and let 'em go hungry. That's what you'd do. An' then what would George think?' Throughout the novella, Lennie describes to George how he just wants to tend to the rabbits on their dream farm. However, because Lennie has the mind of a child, Steinbeck uses the rabbit, something gentle and sweet, to reveal a very harsh truth to Lennie, as well as the reader. Lennie will never be able to tend to rabbits because of his cognitive ability and the fact that he has accidentally murdered another human being.
Personification is a literary technique in which animals, objects, and ideas are given human qualities. Authors use this to make these characters more relatable and interesting to the audience. John Steinbeck uses personification in his novella, Of Mice and Men, to give the reader a clear vision of the setting and to better understand Lennie Small's character.