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Personification of Death

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

Since the days of Greek mythology, authors have attempted to make Death into a character all its own. In this lesson, we will learn how authors personify death by looking at some specific examples in literature.

The Grim Reaper

If death was a person, how would he or she look? What type of personality would he or she have? Would death enjoy what they do? Personification is endowing something that is not a person with human characteristics. Throughout literature, death is personified in many ways. One of the most typical portrayals of death personified is the Grim Reaper. The Grim Reaper is typically cloaked in black, carries a scythe, and shows up only to take a person to their death. Some form of the Grim Reaper has been around since the days of Greek mythology. In some stories, the Reaper is given a sense of humor, cunning, or other personality traits. Let's look at some examples of how death is personified in literature.

Grim Reaper
Grim Reaper

The Book Thief

In The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, a story about a German girl during the Holocaust, Death is the narrator. In this story, Death provides some comic relief as he demonstrates that he is just as confused about human behavior as humans are about him. Rather than being the typical Grim Reaper, Death chuckles at the human view of death. 'I do not carry a sickle or scythe. I only wear a hooded black robe when it's cold,' narrates Death. 'And I don't have those skull-like facial features you seem to enjoy pinning on me from a distance. You want to know what I truly look like? I'll help you out. Find yourself a mirror while I continue.'

Death views Hitler as a tiring boss who is never satisfied but just demands more. He views himself as being neither good nor bad, but necessary. At times, he even appears to have a heart. Death views his work with an attitude many of us understand: it's just a job that someone has to do.

A Christmas Carol

In Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (the third ghost to visit Ebenezer Scrooge) takes the form of a Grim Reaper. This ghost wears black robes and remains silent as he shows Scrooge a morbid future of loneliness and neglect in death if he is unable to change his ways.

Dickens described the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come like this: 'The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came near him, Scrooge bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.'

Although Ebenezer is frightened of death, he realizes that the ghost has a lesson to teach him that can improve his life before it's too late. Death is seen in A Christmas Carol as inevitable, but the legacy a person leaves behind is within control of each person. Mystery surrounding death is alarming, but despite its frightening appearance, the ghost's intention is not to frighten, but to inform.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

In the seventh book of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling, Hermione reads a story entitled 'The Tale of the Three Brothers' from a book called 'The Tales of Beedle the Bard'. The story's brothers are greeted by a hooded figure while using magic to cross a river: '...Death spoke to them. He was angry that he had been cheated out of three new victims, for travelers usually drowned in the river. But Death was cunning.'

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