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What is Anthropomorphism? Definition, Functions and Examples

Many famous and compelling tales prevalent among people of various cultures are mostly not about humans. Humanity's early storytellers told stories about animals and objects with human traits and experience. This storytelling technique, called anthropomorphism, has continued in modern fiction writing, giving writers the means to create fantastical characters, fascinating settings, and intriguing plots. In this article, we explore the meaning, effects, and examples of anthropomorphism.

What is Anthropomorphism?

Anthropomorphism refers to attributing human behavior to nonhuman entities. This storytelling and artistic device features in most cultures and traditional fables. Here, animals receive human qualities and intelligence and illustrate beliefs and origin stories. It comes from the Greek word that translates human form, which was used first in 1753 to refer to the heresy of giving the Christian God human attributes. Remember Thomas the Tank Engine? That's anthropomorphism.

Anthropomorphism differs from personification, and you shouldn't confuse both of them. Personification refers to an expression that gives particular human or living qualities to nonhuman or nonliving things. The candy bar calling your name, the wind screaming, the sky getting angry, all these expressions are examples of personification. But when the wind becomes a person, with maybe a face, a name, some friends, and can love, think and cuss, that's anthropomorphism.

Effect of Anthropomorphism

Here are a few effects writers intend to achieve from using anthropomorphism to bring their characters to life:

1. It helps create whimsical, imaginative, and endearing characters that captivate the reader with their high degree of humanity. 

2. It indicates the universality of human characteristics even among nonhuman things.

3. It allows writers to craft stories that would be impossible to narrate with human characters.

4. It includes a symbolic aspect to a character and helps in infusing allegory into a story.

5. It helps make stories more significant to children, piquing their interest and provoking their imagination.

Examples of Anthropomorphism in Literature

Anthropomorphism is very common among children's stories, and here are a few well-known children's books that feature this literary device:

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). In this famous "nonsense" tale, animals and things behave like people. Alice sees a rabbit check his pocket watch, gets into a conversation with a caterpillar smoking a hookah pipe, and hears a Mock Turtle sing a song. Here, Carroll uses anthropomorphism to create a hilarious, illogical story.

Carlo Collodi, The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883). Here, we have a shouting wood log that Geppetto carves into a puppet that's alive, a boy named Pinocchio. He has dealings with a talking cricket, a dubious fox and a cat, and other talking puppets like Harlequin, Pulcinella, and Signora Rosaura. This story is a universal anthropomorphic icon and metaphor for the human condition.

Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902). This is the story of Peter, a mischievous, disobedient young rabbit, and his family. The rabbits wore clothes and shoes and spoke. In fact, Mr. McGregor, a human, uses Peter's clothes to dress his scarecrows. The use of anthropomorphism here is remarkable, and Peter Rabbit has remained popular amongst children for over a century.

A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh (1926). This is a story about a honey-loving bear, Winnie-the-Pooh, and his friends Rabbit, Piglet, Eeyore (a donkey), Kanga (a mother kangaroo), Baby Roo (a young kangaroo), and Mr. Christopher Robin; all of them living in the Hundred Acre Wood. Milne's anthropomorphic children's story has had a universal appeal, as it portrays the nostalgia of a rural and innocent world.

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Frank Stephen