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Understanding Personification: Meaning, Purpose and Examples

Personification is a very effective literary device, which you can employ in creating animated descriptions that leap off the pages of your writing and engage your readers' imagination. They provide a technique for communicating ideas effectively, an essential tool in your writing kit. In this article, we explore the meaning and purpose of personification, using examples from notable literature to illustrate its usage.

What is Personification?

Personification is a literary device that requires the non-literal use of language to express ideas. This makes these concepts more relatable to the audience. Writers use personification to give human attributes — feelings and conduct — to objects, animals, and ideas. Remember this line from Michael Jackson's Thriller, “You start to freeze as horror looks you right between the eyes?” That's an example of personification.

What is the objective of personification in writing?

Personification creates non-literal expressions that engage the imagination to make your prose and poems more vivid. You can also use it to achieve the following:

1. Explain concepts and ideas effectively. Personification offers an effective way to be precise and concise in describing ideas and concepts. Consider the phrase “time flies”: the peculiar subject-verb pairing is a clever and instantly straightforward way to explain the need for urgency and speed in meeting up with time.

2. Develop a deeper connection with your readers. When you give inanimate things living qualities, your readers can immediately grasp the idea you intend to convey. For example, the expression "life is coming at me a million miles per hour" creates a striking picture of someone facing too many problems at once. 

3. Describe settings vividly. Personification also offers writers an efficient technique for creating effective imageries that evoke scenes and give readers a vivid experience of setting elements. For example, "candlelight dancing in the dark" engages readers' imagination and allows them to visualize the tongue of flames flickering on a candle in the night. 

Examples of Personification in Literature

Writers can employ personification throughout their work to create a story more animated. And here are some examples of personification in notable works of fiction:

1John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). "THE WESTERN LAND, nervous under the beginning change. The Western States, nervous as horses before a thunderstorm. The great owners, nervous, sensing a change, knowing nothing of the nature of the change. The great owners, striking at the immediate thing, the widening government, the growing labor unity; striking at new taxes, at plans; not knowing these things are results, not causes. Results, not causes; results, not causes. The causes lie deep and simple—the causes are a hunger in a stomach, multiplied a million times; a hunger in a single soul, hunger for joy and some security, multiplied a million times; muscles and mind aching to grow, to work, to create, multiplied a million times." 

2. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927). "Nothing stirred in the drawing room or in the dining room or on the staircase. Only through the rusty hinges and swollen sea-moistened woodwork certain airs, detached from the body of the wind (the house was ramshackle after all) crept round corners and ventured indoors. Almost one might imagine them, as they entered the drawing-room questioning and wondering, toying with the flap of hanging wallpaper, asking, would it hang much longer, when would it fall? Then smoothly brushing the walls, they passed on musingly as if asking the red and yellow roses on the wall-paper whether they would fade, and questioning (gently, for there was time at their disposal) the torn letters in the waste-paper basket, the flowers, the books, all of which were now open to them and asking, Were they allies? Were they enemies? How long would they endure?" 


1. John Steinbeck, 1939, The Grapes of Wrath, The Viking Press-James Lloyd, United States 

2. Virginia Woolf, 1927, To the Lighthouse, Hogarth Press, United Kingdom.

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Frank Stephen