AP Lit Skill Spotlight: Personification

Most students can identify personification, especially when an animal does something a human would do. However, that’s not exactly what AP* Lit teachers are looking for in analyzing personification. The AP® Lit CED includes the skill question, “How does making a comparison between a nonhuman entity and some human trait characterize the nonhuman entity and convey meaning?” This means that to analyze personification you need to focus on the effect of the comparison, not necessarily the personified object itself.

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Teaching Personification with Inside Out

To teach personification, I suggest using Pixar’s popular film, Inside Out. Most of your students will probably be familiar with this movie, but that’s actually ideal. If they aren’t, this introductory clip will give them all the groundwork they need.

Will There Be an Inside Out 2? Pixar's Official Word on the Sequel
“Riley’s First Date” is available on Disney+

As a class, watch the Pixar short “Riley’s First Date?” Unfortunately, you’ll need a Disney + account, since it’s not available online anywhere. If that’s not possible, almost any scene in “headquarters” from Inside Out will work as an alternative.

While students watch the clip, ask them to analyze the emotions in the heads of Riley, her mom, her dad, and Jordan (Riley’s date). How do the animators use details to characterize each emotion? Look at the colors used for each emotion (fear, sadness, joy, anger, and disgust), as well as the details used to differentiate between Riley’s emotions versus her parents’ or Jordan’s.

The Effect of Personification

As the students share their responses, acknowledge that the animators have personified the emotions throughout Inside Out. That’s obvious. Now, ask the students to analyze the effect of this personification. Even consider the graphic below. How do the animators convey the aspects of each emotion using colors, facial expressions, and posture? Finally, what is the effect of of the comparison? What’s the effect of using Joy (the character) to convey joy (the emotion)? How about Disgust? Anger? Fear? And my personal favorite, Sadness?

Why are two of Riley's five emotions in Inside Out male? - Movies & TV  Stack Exchange

If you have the luxury of time, I would even consider watching the full movie, asking students to analyze the effect of the personification throughout. This movie is so beautiful because it explains how just one 11-year-old girl is unique and complicated. This implies that each of us is also unique and complicated. It also teaches that all emotions are important and okay to feel, an important message for those dealing with mental health crises.

Focus Poem: “Plants”

My selected poem for this skill is well-known among AP® Lit teachers, as it was the poem selection for the poetry essay of the 2018 AP® Lit exam. I still remember my students discussing the essay after the exam (after the allotted amount of time had passed as well). My students were absolutely perplexed by the poem, looking for some hidden meaning. The online community was all abuzz as well. Some theorized that Senior’s poem was a message on colonialism, others used a feminist lens, others compared it to war, and some took it literally at face value. It is because this poem’s open-ended nature that I’m using it for this skill.

Questions for Olive Senior’s “Plants”

  1. Senior uses many different claims and observations to compare plants to humans. What are some of the different analogies or comparisons she uses?
  2. How would you describe the speaker of this poem? What tone does the speaker use to warn about plants?
  3. What are the most interesting or effective examples of personification you found in this poem?
  4. Let’s examine stanzas 6-7 closely. What is the effect of calling flowers “special agents?” What attitude is then conveyed towards flowers?
  5. The CED says, “By assigning the qualities of a nonhuman object, entity, or idea to a person or character, the narrator, character, or speaker communicates an attitude about that person or character.” Overall, what attitude does the speaker convey about plants in this poem?

Teacher’s Guide for “Plants”

  1. Senior compares plants to exhibitionists (6), armies (10), hitchhikers (18), surfers (19), parachutists (20), special agents (22), and ovaries (28) in outright comparisons. Many more subtle comparisons and metaphors are employed throughout the poem as well.
  2. The speaker employs a kind of “psst, hey you, lemme tell you a secret” kind of demeanor. The tone seems serious and almost worrisome at times (especially near the end), but also playful, like in “the way they breed (excuse me!)” (line 5).
  3. Answers here will vary, but the comparisons made to armies and spies (stanzas 3-4), seductive flowers (stanzas 6-7), and the description of their overall motives in the final two stanzas are probably the most effective examples of personification.
  4. Stanza 6-7 claim that flowers are “special agents” that are “made-up for romancing insects, bats, birds, bees, even you.” The next stanza makes it personal with the speaker saying, “Believe me, Innocent,” as if opening our eyes to the obvious truth. The attitude is that we all have been “seduced” by flowers and are blind to their evil intentions. It turns our love for flowers (because of their beauty) into suspicion (because they use their beauty to disarm).
  5. Overall, the attitude is of suspicion and conspiracy. The speaker notes the “deceptive” nature of plants, allowing the reader to see it in a different light. These personified traits could work in a metaphorical reading, like many students tried to do. However, the attitude of suspicion, brought on through personification, works mostly establish that anything could be dangerous or deceptive. Even something as simple and common as plants.

Suggested Poems for Studying Personification

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Thanks to the educators on the AP® Lit Facebook group for all of the great suggestions for poems with personification!

  • “Eyes Fastened With Pins” by Charles Simic
  • “Death Be Not Proud” by John Donne
  • “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell (song)
  • “The Wind Cries Mary” by Jimi Hendrix (song)
  • “Abandoned Farmhouse” by Ted Kooser
  • “Mirror” by Sylvia Plath
  • “Chicago” or “Fog” by Carl Sandburg
  • “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” or “She Sweeps With Many-colored Brooms” by Emily Dickinson
  • “The Bells” by Edgar Allan Poe
  • “Out, Out––” by Robert Frost
  • “Take a Poem to Lunch” by Denise Rodgers
  • “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” by William Wordsworth
  • “The Brook” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
  • “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley
  • “the drone” by Clint Smith
  • “The Convergence of the Twain” by Thomas Hardy
  • “Baked Goods” by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
  • “Oxygen” by Mary Oliver
  • “The Whole Mess…Almost” by Gregory Corso
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