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Anthropomorphism is ‘the attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to a god, animal or object’. Mickey Mouse is a very anthropomorphic mouse, but, strangely, his dog Pluto is not in the least bit anthropomorphic. Most descriptions of pets are to some degree anthropomorphic, like this from ‘Travels with Charley’:

…when Charley is groomed and clipped and washed he is as pleased with himself as is a man with a good tailor or a woman newly patinaed by a beauty parlor, all of whom believe they are like that clear through.

P111, John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley, Mandarin, London, 1991

I’m not really sure whether dogs can really be pleased with themselves, but you can’t argue with people about their pets. Besides, Steinbeck wrote this at an age where he had earned the right to his idiosyncrasies. Such anthropomorphism adds character to Charley, and probably captures something of his true nature – Steinbeck, and the reader, would be lonely journeying through America if the dog was just a stinking old dog (as Carlson in Of Mice and Men might have had it). He uses a great deal more anthropomorphism in his description of turkeys:

To mill so close together is in the nature of turkeys in the evening. I remembered how in the ranch in my youth the turkeys gathered and roosted in clots in the cypress trees, out of reach of wildcats and coyotes, the only indication I know of that turkeys have any intelligence at all. To know them is not to admire them, for they are vain and hysterical. They gather in vulnerable groups and then panic at rumors. They are subject to all the sicknesses of other fowl, together with some they have invented. Turkeys seem to be manic-depressive types, gobbling with blushing wattles, spread tails and scraping wings in amorous bravado at one moment and huddled in craven cowardice the next. It is hard to see how they can be related to their wild, suspicious cousins. But here in their thousands they carpeted the earth waiting to lie on their backs on the platters of America.

P115, John Steinbeck,  Travels with Charley, Mandarin, London, 1991

Sometimes the anthropomorphism is in something as simple as a verb. ‘Mill’ in the first sentence brings to mind shoppers in a market, or well-dressed people milling around the party. The technique becomes more exaggerated through the paragraph as such things as hypochondria, manic-depression and ‘amorous bravado’ are attributed to the birds. Now, I might, at a push, agree with you that dogs really do feel such a thing as loyalty, but there is no way you could get me to believe that a turkey could be a manic-depressive. Nevertheless, the description does capture something of the nature of the bird – it’s funny, and it’s an effective description. It would be difficult to capture the ridiculousness of the bird without using anthropomorphism, and Steinbeck does it with gusto.

I really hate turkeys though. ‘Vain and hysterical’ sounds about right to me. I’ve been writing about them the last four days and it’s starting to make me feel nauseous. Maybe you too – if so, here’s a post I enjoyed about some other kinds of birds that will get those horrible gobblers out of your head.

Challenge

Describe an animal or group of animals. Use anthropomorphism to try and capture their nature.

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2 thoughts on “Anthropomorphism

  1. Some sources have them as synonyms, but I think there are subtle differences in the way we use these terms. I checked the OED to try and back up this hunch. Anthropomorphism: ‘the attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to a god, animal, or object.’ I think the word ‘behaviour’ is important here – its what we’re talking about above, describing animal behaviour in human terms. The term personification has more uses, but one reads very similar to that for anthropomorhism: ‘the attribution of a personal nature or human characteristics to something non-human.’ Very similar – but notice there’s no mention of behaviour here. Notice also that ‘a personal nature’ isn’t necessarily a human nature; a sentence like ‘ the wind howls through the woods’ gives the sentence a character, but not that of a human.
    I hope this was helpful and not too rambling!

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