Difference between personification, anthropomorphism and pathetic fallacy

What’s the difference between personification, anthropomorphism & pathetic fallacy?

The poetry of earth is never dead:
When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;
That is the Grasshopper’s – he takes the lead
In summer luxury, – he has never done
With his delights; for when tired out with fun
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.
[…]

— On the Grasshopper and Cricket (1884), by John Keats 

‘The wind howled in anger’, ‘the trees danced in the wind’, ‘the keyboard said, “are you done with typing already?!”

What do these three phrases share? 

A seasoned English student may say, “That’s easy, they’re all examples of personification.”

And she’d be right, kind of. 

For purposes of general understanding, this is a good enough answer. But if you actually care about doing well in English literature (or if you’re a pedantic nerd like yours truly), then you’d have suspected that the answer isn’t quite so straightforward. 

While it’s true that all three expressions personify the subject (wind howling, trees dancing, keyboard complaining), they are examples of three different personifying techniques, which is the topic of this post. 

 

What are ‘personifying techniques’? 

In general, there are 3 key ‘personifying techniques’ – 

  • Personification 

  • Anthropomorphism 

  • Pathetic fallacy 

If you come across the scary term ‘prosopopoeia’, just know that it’s the Greek term for personification, and not some complex rhetorical concept which contains way too many ‘o’s and syllables for any sane person to remember. 

That said, it is important for us to be able to distinguish between personification, anthropomorphism and pathetic fallacy. So let’s start with some definitions. 

 

According to the Cambridge English dictionary,

Personification: the act of giving a human quality or characteristic to something which is not human

Anthropomorphism: the showing or treating of animals, gods, and objects as if they are human in appearance, character, or behaviour

Pathetic fallacy: the use by a writer or poet of words that give human feelings or qualities to objects, nature, or animals

By now, regular readers of this blog would know that I mostly cite ‘dictionary definition’ to expose how inadequate it tends to be when it comes to literary terminology. 

Indeed, the three definitions above do not disappoint in this respect, confusing and utterly useless as they are in showing us how these terms differ from one another.

Judge Judy Reaction GIF

Instead, let’s consider the alternatives below – 

a)     Personification vs anthropomorphism 

  Personification Anthropomorphism
Explanation  When you imagine that an animal or object possesses human qualities (including emotions, actions, character traits) When an animal or object literally behaves like a human being 
Example  “My dog is jealous that I’m paying more attention to the TV than I am to him.”  “While I was watching the TV, my dog grumbled and said, ‘Hmph, when are you going to switch that darn thing off?!'”

In the personification example, my dog is given a human emotion (jealousy), but it’s not actually behaving in a way that’s out of character for an animal. 

On the other hand, in the anthropomorphism example, my dog is acting as if it were a real person, since it’s grumbling, complaining and speaking directly to me (none of which are things that dogs can do). 

This is personification:

My cat is in love

This is anthropomorphism:

Walt Disney Animation Studios Love GIF by Disney

To summarise, the best way to tell whether something qualifies as personification or anthropomorphism is to examine whether the animal or object is actually behaving like a human being in all respects – does it act, move, speak, feel just like the way we would? (Personification)

Or is it simply given an emotion or human trait in the narrator’s mind? (Anthropomorphism)

Personification vs anthropomorphism explanation
Dog image credit: Perry Levine; Shakespeare image credit: Stock Montage/Getty Images

 

b)     Pathetic fallacy 

In my post on rhetorical modes of persuasion, I explain that the word ‘pathetic’ doesn’t always carry a negative connotation, and that its original meaning is ‘relating to pity and sympathy’. 

This definition of ‘pathetic’ also applies to the term ‘pathetic fallacy’, which is defined as ‘an erroneous matching of things with emotions’.

It was first coined by John Ruskin, the 19th century English art critic, in his 1856 book Modern Painters, where he explains the term as being – 

the difference between the ordinary, proper, and true appearances of things to us; and the extraordinary, or false appearances, when we are under the influence of emotion, or contemplative fancy; false appearances, I say, as being entirely unconnected with any real power or character in the object, and only imputed to it by us.

Most of the time, writers use pathetic fallacy to intensify the link between one’s inner state (human psychology) and the external world (natural environment). 

The clearest way to spot examples of pathetic fallacy is to focus on descriptions of weather, climate, atmosphere etc., and to check if they are assigned human emotions. It’s pretty much just like personification, but specifically for nature or natural phenomena. 

layne-lawson-2uOcrLACf_4-unsplash
“It was a dark and stormy night, when the skies howled in anger…”

For a more detailed explanation of what pathetic fallacy is, you can check out ‘Interesting Literature’s’ post here

To understand how we can identify and analyse the use of personification, anthropomorphism and pathetic fallacy in literature, let’s close read excerpts from John Milton’s Paradise Lost

Analysing the use of personification, anthropomorphism and pathetic fallacy in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) 

Personification, anthropomorphism, pathetic fallacy paradise lost_cover
Bottom left image credit: Print Collector/Getty Images

 

But first… what even is Paradise Lost

First published in 1667, Paradise Lost is the magnum opus of the 17th century poet and statesman John Milton. 

Paradise Lost: Penguin Classics (English Edition) eBook: Milton ...
Image credit: Penguin Classics

It’s widely considered to be one of the greatest works in English Literature, and is a rich, imaginative, and philosophical epic concerned with the Fall of Man. 

In the Judeo-Christian view, God created Adam and Eve, who lived sin-free in the Garden of Eden until Satan came a-knocking in serpentine disguise and tempted Eve (who then tempted Adam) into eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.

With this came the birth of the ‘Original Sin’, which represents human evil, and is the reason for all the suffering and death we see on Earth. 

Adan and Eve painting, Paradise, picture, mythology, Jan Brueghel the younger, HD wallpaper
Jan Brueghel the Younger, The Temptation of Adam in Paradise

This, of course, is the Biblical interpretation of man’s origins, so even if you’re not religious or Christian, understand that Milton was writing in a deeply religious time, and was himself a staunch Puritan. 

As a side note, it helps to know some of the key Bible narratives or theological ideas if you want to excel in English Literature (and this post on allusion can help), since so much of English literary production has been influenced by Judeo-Christian thought and belief. 

 

Personification in Book 11 of Paradise Lost: “For see the morn, all unconcerned with our unrest” 

analysis of personification in paradise lost John Milton

After Adam and Eve are busted for eating the forbidden fruit, God decides to banish them from Paradise. He asks Michael, his Archangel, to deliver this message to the fallen pair. 

Upon hearing of her and Adam’s “perpetual banishment”, Eve responds with a mix of regret, sadness, but also gratitude (for being “graced with… life”, despite her transgression): 

To [Michael] thus Eve with sad demeanour meek.
Ill worthy I such title should belong
To me transgressor, who for thee ordained
A help, became thy snare; to me reproach
Rather belongs, distrust and all dispraise:
But infinite in pardon was my Judge,
That I who first brought Death on all, am graced
The source of life; next favourable thou,
Who highly thus to entitle me vouchsafed,
Far other name deserving. But the Field
To labour calls us now with sweat imposed,
Though after sleepless Night; for see the Morn,
All unconcerned with our unrest, begins
Her rosy progress smiling’ let us forth,
I never from thy side henceforth to stray,
Wherehere our days work lies, though now enjoined
Laborious, till day droop; while here we dwell,
What can be toilsome in these pleasant walks?
Here let us live, though in fallen state, content.

(Book XI, lines 162-180) 

Here, both “the field” and “the morn” are personified. Toil and hard work beckon Adam and Eve – “the field/to labour calls us now with sweat imposed”, which they never had to worry about in their prelapsarian state. 

Personified as a master who’s “calling” them, the cornfield is turned into a figure superior to Eve, as if it’s commanding her to get on with the grind, which won’t be pleasant.

The field, then, isn’t visualised by Eve as a happy place, because she understands that the life ahead of her will be one in which she must be a servant to hard labour and sweaty discomfort. 

As a result of her disobedience to God, her right to carefree enjoyment is revoked.

The personification of ‘Morning’ as an indifferent agent highlights that Eve has lost the ‘special status’ of her prelapsarian self. No longer is she the centre of a paradisal cosmos, but is instead reduced to an insignificant mortal “in fallen state”, one whose existence is now beneath, not on par, with the sun. 

As such, Morning doesn’t care that Eve and Adam couldn’t sleep out of anxiety and remorse, as she – “all unconcerned with our unrest” – rises at dawn “smiling”, seemingly oblivious to these suffering humans. If she isn’t oblivious, then the implication is that her ‘smile’ is a cruel snub, a reminder that the universe carries on regardless of the pair’s foolish error and concomitant strife. 

 

Anthropomorphism in Book 9 of Paradise Lost: “Language of Man pronounced by tongue of brute” 

anthropomorphism in paradise lost John Milton

Backtracking a little, let’s zoom in on the moment when all went awry – Satan’s notorious temptation of Eve. 

Having already been chased out of Paradise once in the form of a toad, Satan tried again to infiltrate the Garden, this time in the guise of a serpent.

While Eve is going about her own work, Satan catches her eye with “fawning” gestures and a “gentle dumb expression”, after which he starts complimenting her on her beauty: 

“Wonder not, sovereign Mistress, if perhaps
Thou can, who art sole Wonder, much less arm
Thy looks, the Heaven of mildness, with disdain,
Displeased that I approach thee thus, and gaze
Insatiate, I thus single, nor have feared
Thy awful brow, more awful thus retired.
Fairest resemblance of thy Maker fair,
Thee all things living gaze on, all things thine
By gift, and thy Celestial Beauty adore
With ravishment beheld, there best beheld
Where universally admired; but here
In this enclosure wild, these Beasts among,
Beholders rude, and shallow to discern
Half what in thee is fair, one man except,
Who sees thee? (And what is one?) who should be seen
A Goddess among Gods, adored and served
By Angels numberless, thy daily train.” 

(Book IX, lines 532-548) 

This is cringe worthy stuff for sure, but while the sycophancy of Satan’s compliments is nauseatingly hyperbolic, it’s also incredibly poetic. 

The more relevant point, though, is that this is a perfect example of anthropomorphism. The serpent is literally behaving as if it were a human being, endowed as it is with speech and reason – qualities which are supposedly exclusive to man. 

William Blake, ‘The Temptation of Eve’

This is different from the personification of the fields and the morn in our previous example, because neither of those things are portrayed to be acting like real people.

The fields aren’t actually calling out to Eve – she’s just imagining that it is to highlight her reluctant anticipation of a postlapsarian life filled with laborious suffering. Likewise, the rising morning sun isn’t actually spurning her with its waking light, or being apathetic towards her sadness – she’s just imagining that it is given the contrast between morning’s brightness and her own dark, melancholic state over having sinned. 

In fact, even Eve is surprised by the serpent’s ability to verbalise so eloquently, and her initial response is very much a comment on the wondrous behaviour of an anthropomorphised creature – 

So glozed [lied] the Tempter, and his Proem tuned;
Into the heart of Eve his words made way,
Though at the voice much marvelling; at length
Not unamazed she thus in answer spake.
“What may this mean? Language of Man pronounced
By Tongue of Brute, and human sense expressed?
The first at least of these I thought denied
To beasts, whom God on their Creation-Day
Created mute to all articulate sound;
The latter I demure, for in their looks
Much reason, and in their actions oft appears.
Thee, Serpent, subtlest beast of all the field
I knew, but not with human voice endued;
Redouble then this miracle, and say,
How camest thou speakable of mute…

(Book IX, lines 549-563) 

“What may this mean?”

The antithesis of “Language of Man” and “Tongue of Brute” is certainly an ironic one, as the fact that the serpent is able to speak man’s language shows us the tongues of man and brute aren’t very much different from one other. 

Sex And The City Reaction GIF

But hold on – is the serpent really speaking the “Language of Man”, or rather, that of the Devil? Given his real identity as Satan, these blandishments he showers on Eve are not, it seems, God’s created language for humanity. 

In this sense, Eve isn’t wrong – what God has denied beasts – the true, pure language of man, the sort used not for leading others astray but for celebrating the glory of the Father (and other virtuous deeds) – remains denied to the serpent at this point (since man hasn’t ‘fallen’ yet, as neither Eve nor Adam has eaten the fruit). 

This is an intriguing example of anthropomorphism, as we see an animal ostensibly behaving like a human, and yet, the possibility of this is nullified not on evolutionary grounds (i.e. the understanding that animals can’t speak), but on theological ones (i.e. the ‘animal’ in question is actually Satan, who doesn’t speak a human language, but a demonic one). 

 

Pathetic fallacy in Book 9 of Paradise Lost: “Nature gave a second groan, skies lowered, and muttering thunder” 

pathetic fallacy_PL cover
There are two key moments in Book 9 when pathetic fallacy appears, and they come right after Eve and Adam each eat the forbidden fruit. 

By ascribing to Nature the tremendous sadness and disappointment which God (and perhaps also Milton himself) feels towards what the pair have done, the poet reinforces the gravity of Eve’s tragedy – all of nature shakes in response to her one single, but defining, act for all of man. 

Her rash hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the Fruit, she plucked, she eat:
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her Works gave signs of woe,
That all was lost…

(Book IX, lines 780-784) 

Alas, Eve, what have you done?!

Kristen Wiig No GIF by The Lonely Island

She hasn’t just eaten the fruit, but also inflicted a deep “wound” on Earth, who “felt” it, acutely, painfully. She’s also let Nature down, whose crestfallen response is similar to how people in despair would normally react – “sighing”, “[giving] signs of woe”, resorting to extreme thinking and believing “that all was lost”. 

It’s almost as if Nature here is a human stand-in for God’s immediate reaction to what Eve has done. 

Shortly thereafter, Eve tells Adam about her big blunder, and he’s shocked with horror. (“Adam, soon as he heard/The fatal Trespass done by Eve, amazed,/Astonied stood and blank, while horror chill/Ran through his veins… Speechless he stood and pale”)

But we know how the story ends – he also eats the fruit, and he does so despite being fully aware of what such gross disobedience entails. 

Why? 

Out of love for Eve, apparently.

Interestingly (if not also controversially, especially for feminist critics), Adam’s transgression is portrayed as a sacrificial act in Paradise Lost, and the man as a scapegoat for love. While the Bible also has Eve taste the fruit before Adam, the man’s motive isn’t stated as clearly in Scripture. 

Milton’s version of the narrative, however, seems to both shift the larger part of the blame onto Eve, but also highlight the naivete and weakness of Adam. 

Even though Adam tells Eve off for her foolish act: 

“O fairest of Creation, last and best
Of all Gods works, Creature in whom excelled
Whatever can to sight or thought be formed,
Holy, divine, good, amiable, or sweet!
How art thou lost, how on a sudden lost,
Defaced, deflowered, and now to Death devote?”

(Book IX, lines 896-901) 

He then makes a conscious decision to be foolish with her, out of absolute devotion to their union:

“How can I live without thee, how forgo
Thy sweet converse and love so dearly joined,
To live again in these wild woods forlorn?
Should God create another Eve, and I
Another rib afford, yet loss of thee
Would never from my heart; no no, I feel
The link of Nature draw me: Flesh of Flesh,
Bone of my Bone thou art, and from thy State
Mine never shall be parted, bliss or woe.” 

(Book IX, lines 911-916) 

And so he, too, ends up eating the cursed fruit (arrrrgh!). Nature, as you can imagine, isn’t pleased: 

She gave him of that fair enticing fruit
With liberal hand: he scrupled not to eat
Against his better knowledge, not deceived,
But fondly overcome with female charm.
Earth trembled from her entrails, as again
In pangs, and Nature gave a second groan,
Sky lowered, and muttering thunder, some sad drops
Wept at completing of the mortal Sin
Original; while Adam took no thought,
Eating his fill… 

(Book IX, lines 996-1004) 

Not again, you fools!

angry GIF by Selena Gomez

This time, Earth doesn’t just feel the pain of a wound, but also a deep-seated anger that bubbles from within, as she “trembled from her entrails, as again/In pangs”.

Together with Nature’s “second groan”, these verbs come together in a tableau of childbirth, which is apt, albeit in a perverse way, because they are now fertilised by Eve’s sinful seed to spawn forth “the mortal Sin Original” – a possible metonymy for mankind at large. 

With Adam also fallen, the scope of Milton’s pathetic fallacy widens to include not just “Earth” and “Nature”, but also the “Sky”.

The phrase “muttering thunder” is oxymoronic (“muttering” doesn’t quite commensurate with the loudness of thunder), and perhaps explained by the “sad drops [that] wept at the completing of the mortal Sin/Original”. 

This is a moment when even the fiercest, most aggressive phenomenon in nature is reduced to sorrow, as it laments over an irremediable misstep that will set the course of humanity on a path of Sisyphean suffering. 

 


As intimidating as this epic poem may seem (it consists of 12 ‘books’ / chapters with over ten thousand lines of verse), it’s a great literary work to read snippets of, reflect on, and return to over an extended period of time.

There’s no need to read the entirety of Paradise Lost in one single sitting (please don’t); even sections here and there should suffice for a spot of intellectual challenge and poetic enjoyment. 

Otherwise, I hope this post helps you distinguish between personification, anthropomorphism and pathetic fallacy. There are sundry other examples, of course, so let me know if you’ve come across any other good ones, and comment below with ideas / topics you want me to write about in the future! 

Oh, and isn’t the Keats epigraph to this post just so, so beautiful? 

 

Check out my posts on other important literary devices! 

Simile, metaphor, analogy, conceit – what’s the difference?

Paradox, oxymoron, antithesis, contrast – what’s the difference? 

Alliteration, assonance, consonance – what’s the difference?

How to understand and analyse allusion in literature 

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