It seems like personification is easier to analyze in poetry form than in prose. However, analyzing personification in both prose and poetry illuminates themes, complexity, and figurative meanings. Here is a free lesson to help you analyze personification in prose and how it enhances a text’s meaning and complexity.
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Warm-Up Activity: Where the Crawdads Sing excerpt
There’ still some controversy about Delia Owen’s Where the Crawdads Sing being included on the 2021 exam as a suggested title. I’m not sure if people are down on this book because it contains elements like a love triangle and a murder mystery, but I loved it. It’s been a big hit with my AP Lit students in independent reading. This is true especially for reluctant readers or those who struggle with analysis.
As a warm-up, ask your students to read these first few paragraphs from Crawdads, looking specifically for personification.
Marsh is not swamp. Marsh is a space of light, where grass grows in water, and water flows into the sky. Slow-moving creeks wander, carrying the orb of the sun with them to the sea, and long-legged birds lift with unexpected grace—as though not built to fly—against the roar of a thousand snow geese.
Then within the marsh, here and there, true swamp crawls into low-lying bogs, hidden in clammy forests. Swamp water is still and dark, having swallowed the light in its muddy throat. Even night crawlers are diurnal in this lair. There are sounds, of course, but compared to the marsh, the swamp is quiet because decomposition is cellular work. Life decays and reeks and returns to the rotted duff; a poignant wallow of death begetting life.
On the morning of October 30, 1969, the body of Chase Andrews lay in the swamp, which would have absorbed it silently, routinely. Hiding it for good. A swamp knows all about death, and doesn’t necessarily define it as tragedy, certainly not a sin. But this morning two boys from the village rode their bikes out to the old fire tower and, from the third switchback, spotted his denim jacket.
Something that Crawdads offers that many others don’t is a setting that that emerges as a character itself. In these opening paragraphs, the marsh is described as a living organism with love for its inhabitants. When you read the novel, it becomes clear that Kya, the protagonist, is a friend to the marsh while Chase, the antagonist, is an enemy. Therefore, the marsh is actively working to cover up the murder of Chase Andrews by absorbing his body. The marsh’s plan is thwarted, unfortunately, when two boys accidentally find the body.
This explains how the personification affects the plot. How does does it enhance the text? What connections can you make to themes, complexity, and figurative meaning?
Focus Text: “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury
You can find Ray Bradbury’s short story “There Will Come Soft Rains” online here. Ask your students to read it and then ask the following questions:
- Which nonhuman entity is described with or ascribed human traits?
- What are specific human traits are exemplified in the examples of personification?
- How does a narrator, speaker, or character convey an attitude toward a nonhuman entity by personifying it?
- How does making a comparison between the house and its human emotions characterize the house and convey meaning?
- In this text, the automated mechanisms of the house are personified, such as the voice clock, the garage, the sink, and more. Bradbury uses words like “glided under electric eyes” to bring the mechanisms to life like a team of workers, rather than robotic parts of someone’s home.
- Bradbury describes the mechanisms with words that connote activity and life, such as the voice clock described “as if it were afraid that nobody would” or when the sprinklers “fill[ed] the soft morning air with scatterings of brightness.”
- It isn’t until the second page of the text that we learn what happened to the inhabitants of the house (“The five spots of paint – the man, the woman, the children, the ball- remained. The rest was a thin charcoaled layer”). The family has died, but their futuristic house lives on. Bradbury describes the house has having “an old-maidenly preoccupation with self-protection which bordered on a mechanical paranoia.” Later, when the dog arrives, the house shows resentment at having to clean after the only living inhabitant of the house. (“Behind it whirred angry mice, angry at having to pick up mud, angry at inconvenience.”) The house’s attitude is to demand perfection and normalcy even when life ends. Even when the house’s mechanisms break down in the fire, “The house tried to save itself.”
- The personification of the house extends our human desire for life to go on in a luxurious and comfortable way. The house continues in its normal fashion even when the human inhabitants, and later the dog, are gone. While the house may not technically have feelings, it conveys the feelings of the family who inhabited it, the person who wrote it, and the people who read it. We crave routine, comfort, and ease. However, when paired with the Sara Teasdale poem, it becomes clear that this way of life is unnatural. Nature, represented as spring in the poem, will always prevail, even when catastrophe alters our plans. Like so many of Bradbury’s texts, the story conveys a warning about over-relying on technology and losing our sense of self for a desire for luxury or comfort.
Additional Text Suggestions for Personification in Prose
Here are a few other text suggestions for analyzing personification in prose.
- Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
- The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
- Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
- A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
- Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
- The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
- Beloved by Toni Morrison
- “Greasy Lake” by T. Coraghessan Boyle
- Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
- “The Rifles of the Regiment” by Aidan Fay
- Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
- A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
- “202 Checkmates” by Rion Amilcar Scott
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
- Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
- The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
- Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
- The Awakening by Kate Chopin