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Genre/Literary History – Question 2

Personification is the act of giving animals, objects, or even ideas, “human” qualities. This notion is closely related to the pathetic fallacy where the natural phenomena has been denoted the attributes of human feelings. For example, “The sea is a cruel mistress” can represent personification as well as pathetic fallacy. There is a broad attribution of emotions and humanistic capabilities given to any inanimate object. More specifically, it is assumed that personification solely exists in poetry. While this may be true to an extent, writing in prose, such as novels or even plays, can use personification to help draw out the intention of the author’s plot. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” by Edward Albee and “The Flea” by John Donne are perfect representatives of the inanimate object being given humanistic attributes.


The physical encasement of these stories is the not inanimate object that observes personification, instead, the plot uses this literary device to strengthen the storyline. In this sense, personification becomes apparent as an idea rather than an inanimate object taking on humanistic characteristics. Edward Albee’s play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” tells the story of a couple, Martha and George, who host an evening party in their home after returning from another party at the university where George works. Inviting a couple who were guests at the university party, the couple welcome Nick and Honey, who immediately feel a sense of discomfort based on the way Martha and George speak to one another. There is degradation and disgust, as well as mockery, where the two are unable to spout words of kindness to one another.

However, there is a son that they mention throughout the play, but never really speak about. He is almost a figment of their imagination. The way the couple regard this child, we see the instability of the house unfolding in this play. In the 60s—when this play was written—the concept of family stability is highly treasured, but through the use of personification, Albee toys with this idea, almost mocking its hold on society. This perception of what the typical American family should look like is further dismantled when we are told of the couple’s imaginary son. Martha and George personified their son by making him an actual human being even though he never existed. This furthers twists the plot of the story as we see how dysfunctional the couple really is, further steering away from the ordinary American family through personification and the notion of imagination.

Contritely, “The Flea” by John Donne does not demonstrate personification through ideas, instead, it is giving animal humanistic capabilities. The title suggests that this poem will be about the flea is some way. Already, the flea is being given power. The poem is about a man using a flea to coax a woman into being with him sexually because they are connected through this insect. The first stanza demonstrates this power as the flea sucking blood allows lovers to be connected, for their blood has become one inside the flea. The narrator even suggest that the flea is the lover and the beloved. He suggests that the flea is what has married them, and they are destined to be with one another. However, in many ways, the flea does represent an idea. It is representative of love, which is an idea being personified in this poem.

The form of these two works suggests that personification is still possible and evident in literature regardless of how the work is portrayed. Various means of personification, whether it be the act of giving animals, objects, or ideas human qualities, it can be achieved despite genre as the play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” by Edward Albee and the poem, “The Flea” by John Donne explicitly shows. Nonetheless, it is easier to show personification in a poem as opposed to the play because poems are usually shorter and more visually explicit when detecting personification. Even the language clearly shows the resurrection of the animal taking on human abilities. Moreover, prose can show personification in its language as well, but sometimes it is not always clear, more often reveal itself as an idea being personified. Therefore, personification can be evident and used in various genres as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “The Flea” demonstrated in their texts.

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~ by Ravenn Haynes on March 26, 2018.

One Response to “Genre/Literary History – Question 2”

  1. This starts off strong with a clear definition and application to Albee. The Donne example doesn’t seem quite like it is personification: his seduction depends on the flea remaining a lowly flea. It’s not as though the flea is given human attributes or seen to have feelings. The flea’s creatureliness is what the metaphor counts on. But, because you provided a clear definition in the beginning, this would still hold for a honor’s exam response.

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