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Anthropomorphism

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Anthropomorphism

When you think of anthropomorphism, you probably think of animated characters and mascots. This is fine! Anthropomorphism is alive and well in the world, and it’s been that way for a long time. From ancient times to modern literature, anthropomorphism has been a way for writers to characterize their ideas.

Anthropomorphism Definition

Anthropomorphism occurs in fiction and mythology.

Anthropomorphism is when non-human things behave like humans.

This could be a talking frog in a storybook. This could be an ancient poem where “music” appears as a woman carrying a lute. This could be a candelabra coming to life and putting on show tunes up and down the dining table.

Anthropomorphic characters have a long history in human storytelling. There is no clear reason why this is the case, although it seems easy enough to guess. People make things human because they themselves are human. "Being a person" is every person's point of reference!

Anthropomorphic Characters

You can divide anthropomorphic characters into several categories of anthropomorphism.

Anthropomorphizing Animals and Objects

Writers commonly anthropomorphize animals and objects in literature.

This happens in children’s literature, of course. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), everything from rabbits to playing cards walks and talks. In A. A. Miline’s Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), stuffed animals are anthropomorphic and go on great adventures.

Winnie-the-Pooh made his first appearance as Edward in 1924 in a poem entitled "Teddy Bear." Even in this original poem, the character is anthropomorphic!

However, the anthropomorphism of animals and objects is not limited to children’s stories. George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) is not a children’s story. Although it is filled with anthropomorphized farm animals, the novel is a critique of Stalinism. It is a clever, contemporary satire.

Anthropomorphizing Concepts and Real Phenomena

Well over 2000 years ago, Aesop told many fables that live on to this day. In "The North Wind and the Sun," Aesop anthropomorphizes the sun and the north wind, which are space and weather phenomena. In the fable, the sun and the wind bicker about who is stronger and hold a contest to figure it out.

The fable is as follows.

The North Wind and the Sun disputed as to which was the most powerful, and agreed that he should be declared the victor who could first strip a wayfaring man of his clothes. The North Wind first tried his power and blew with all his might, but the keener his blasts, the closer the Traveler wrapped his cloak around him, until at last, resigning all hope of victory, the Wind called upon the Sun to see what he could do. The Sun suddenly shone out with all his warmth. The Traveler no sooner felt his genial rays than he took off one garment after another, and at last, fairly overcome with heat, undressed and bathed in a stream that lay in his path.

Persuasion is better than Force.

Remarkably human! Even in this short fable, you can see anthropomorphism at work, as two phenomena have a humanoid dispute. The Sun ultimately wins out, using "persuasion" rather than "force."

Anthropomorphizing the Supernatural

Norse, Greek, Egyptian, and other gods are anthropomorphic representations of things ancient people saw around them. For instance, Ra (the Egyptian god of the sun) could be considered an anthropomorphic representation of the sun.

Anthropomorphism, A sun god stands with a lyre, StudySmarterGods often are often anthropomorphic representations of natural phenomena. Flaticon.

Supernatural characters such as mythological gods are also anthropomorphic in that they assume human form. Anthropomorphism thus occurs in two main ways.

  1. Anthropomorphism occurs when real things and concepts (such as a frog or "music") appear human-like in fiction.

  2. Anthropomorphism also occurs when a non-human of a mythological world takes on a human form.

The difference is subtle but important because you don't want to conflate the two definitions. You don't want to find yourself thinking that the aliens in Star Wars are anthropomorphic because "they are aliens with a humanlike form." Human-like aliens in Star Wars are not anthropomorphic because they do not fit either of the above definitions. "Aliens" in this sense are people, at least in terms of anthropomorphism. They are not concepts, phenomena, animals, or objects. As presented in these stories, they are sentient beings in their own right, just like any person.

Difference Between Anthropomorphism and Personification

There is often confusion surrounding the terms “anthropomorphism” and “personification.”

Some people do use the terms interchangeably. However, you can make a helpful distinction.

As you know, anthropomorphism is when non-human things behave like humans. Here is how you might define personification.

Personification is a literary device wherein a writer describes something non-human in human terms.

Take this short example.

The grandfather clock was haggard and heavy, an old man who rhythmically rang the chime.

In this example, the grandfather clock is not a real elderly man. The writer has simply described the grandfather clock in this fashion. Here’s how that might look if the clock were anthropomorphized.

The children squealed as the clock lurched forward. Its face opens up to reveal hypnotic gears. It rasped in a hollow voice, “Go away!”

Personification is a descriptive literary device, while anthropomorphism is a method of characterization. Personification is metaphorical while anthropomorphism is literal. In the above examples, the anthropomorphized clock thinks and acts like a person, whereas the personified clock is a normal clock being described with poetic language.

Anthropomorphism, A grandfather clock with human features smiles benignly, StudySmarterGive something a human face and you anthropomorphize it. Flaticon.

Function of Anthropomorphism

Anthropomorphism is not one of those rhetorical skills you apply at the right place or time. A writer will use anthropomorphism if they feel like it, not because they need it. Still, people have used anthropomorphism throughout time for various reasons.

Anthropomorphism for Characters

As already explored to some extent, writers use anthropomorphism to create characters. This is particularly common for creating animal characters. Take another children’s book, The Wind in the Willows (1908), which follows a host of animal characters, including a timid mole, an eccentric toad, and a grave badger.

The Wind in the Willows was the first novel to solely use anthropomorphized characters!

Here's a passage from the story (Chapter 2).

The Rat was sitting on the river bank, singing a little song. He had just composed it himself, so he was very taken up with it, and would not pay proper attention to Mole or anything else. Since early morning he had been swimming in the river, in company with his friends, the ducks. And when the ducks stood on their heads suddenly, as ducks will, he would dive down and tickle their necks, just under where their chins would be if ducks had chins, till they were forced to come to the surface again in a hurry, spluttering and angry and shaking their feathers at him, for it is impossible to say quite all you feel when your head is under water. At last they implored him to go away and attend to his own affairs and leave them to mind theirs.

In this passage, Rat, Mole and even the ducks are anthropomorphic. Although the ducks behave similarly to normal ducks, they also possess the ability to "implore" Rat to go away. In stories such as Wind in the Willows, the animals are more or less humans in animal form!

Anthropomorphism for Allegory

Anthropomorphism often helps an allegory in two ways.

One, anthropomorphism can soften the allegory, making it less blunt. Take Animal Farm, a blunt satirical allegory for the rise of Stalinism. The fact it occurs on a farm makes that less on-the-nose.

Second, anthropomorphism can help explain the allegory. By setting Animal Farm on a farm with barnyard animals, Orwell gives himself a host of relatable characters. Readers understand how a barn functions, so they can use this background knowledge to help them interpret Stalinism in those basic terms.

Anthropomorphism, A common barn, StudySmarterIn a world of anthropomorphic animals, a simple barn can be the site for a rebellion. Flaticon.

Anthropomorphism for Interpreting the Unknown

Particularly ancient people used anthropomorphism to interpret the world around them. An ancient farmer who didn’t understand the rain might try to understand its nature by applying human fickleness to it, for example.

Many ancient stories, poems, and epics anthropomorphized space and weather phenomena. This has resulted in many fantastic mythological stories worldwide, from Japan to the Americas.

In Japanese folklore, tsukumogami are household items that possess human qualities.

Anthropomorphism Example

The following is an example of anthropomorphism and a short analysis of its usage.

This passage is from Animal Farm. It is part of the opening speech that Major, a boar, gives to the farm's other animals. He is inciting a rebellion against their owner.

Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, he gives back to them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself. Our labour tills the soil, our dung fertilises it, and yet there is not one of us that owns more than his bare skin. You cows that I see before me, how many thousands of gallons of milk have you given during this last year? And what has happened to that milk which should have been breeding up sturdy calves? Every drop of it has gone down the throats of our enemies.

(Chapter 1)

In this passage, Major echoes the sentiments of Soviet revolutionaries in Russia when they rebelled against the monarchy in 1917. The way that Russian Soviets critiqued the ruling class’s lack of production, Major critiques his owner’s lack of production. This use of anthropomorphism helps the reader sympathize with Major and by extension the people who suffered under the Russian monarchy.

Regarding the “bigger picture,” Orwell, a critic of Stalinism but not democratic socialism, uses anthropomorphism to tell the story of Stalinism with a fresh slate. Indeed, if Orwell had told the story of Animal Farm using people instead of animals, readers would have read it with more biased eyes.

Anthropomorphism - Key takeaways

  • Anthropomorphism is when non-human things behave like literal humans.
  • Anthropomorphism has a long history in storytelling.
  • Writers commonly anthropomorphize animals and objects in literature. However, writers may also anthropomorphize concepts and phenomena.
  • Personification is a descriptive literary device, while anthropomorphism is a method of characterization.
  • Writers can create characters and allegories, plus interpret the unknown, using anthropomorphism.

Frequently Asked Questions about Anthropomorphism

Anthropomorphism is when non-human things behave like humans.

Examples might include a talking frog in a storybook, or an ancient poem where “music” appears as a woman carrying a lute. 

There is no clear reason why this is the case, although it seems easy enough to guess at. People make things human because they themselves are human. "Being a person" is every person's point of reference!

Writers can use anthropomorphism to create create characters as well as allegories.

Anthropomorphism can be used to make animals, objects, concepts, and other phenomena human-like and real to audience. 

Final Anthropomorphism Quiz

Question

Anthropomorphism occurs in _____.

Show answer

Answer

Fiction and mythology

Show question

Question

What is anthropomorphism?

Show answer

Answer

Anthropomorphism is when non-human things behave like humans.

Show question

Question

"Anthropomorphism occurs when real things and concepts (such as a frog or "music") appear human-like in fiction."

True or false?

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

"Anthropomorphism does not occur when a non-human of a mythological world takes on a human form."


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False. It does occur when a non-human of a mythological world takes on a human form.

Show question

Question

How is personification different from anthropomorphism?

Show answer

Answer

Personification is a descriptive literary device, while anthropomorphism is a method of characterization.

Show question

Question

"The grandfather clock was haggard and heavy, an old man who rhythmically rang the chime."

Which is this a better example of?

Show answer

Answer

Personification

Show question

Question

The children squealed as the clock lurched forward. Its face opening up to reveal hypnotic gears, it rasped in a hollow voice, “Go away!”

Which is this a better example of?

Show answer

Answer

Anthropomorphism

Show question

Question

Glowing in the sun, the tree was a small child with fistfuls of berries.

Which is this a better example of?

Show answer

Answer

Personification

Show question

Question

The iguana, who wore a top hat, scolded the curious intruder who disturbed his luncheon.

Which is this a better example of?

Show answer

Answer

Anthropomorphism

Show question

Question

The wind, forming into a tornadic face, shook its blustery head at the traveler and shouted that he go away.

Which is this a better example of?

Show answer

Answer

Anthropomorphism

Show question

Question

Anthropomorphism can _____ an allegory.


Show answer

Answer

Soften

Show question

Question

How can anthropomorphism help explain an allegory?

Show answer

Answer

Think of Animal Farm. By setting Animal Farm on a farm with barnyard animals, Orwell gives himself a host of relatable characters. Readers understand how a barn functions, so they can use this background knowledge to help them interpret the allegorical rise of Stalinism in those basic terms.

Show question

Question

"Anthropomorphism is a modern technique."

True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False. It has a long history dating back to ancient times.

Show question

Question

The log lay as if reposed, its leaves shaking in a light snore.

Which is this a better example of?

Show answer

Answer

Personification

Show question

Question

Calling himself "Beauty," the being reached out and touched my hand.

Which is this a better example of?

Show answer

Answer

Anthropomorphism

Show question

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