On this day in 1984, J. Ruth Gendler published The Book of Qualities. In Gendler’s unique book she writes individual profiles of over 50 human emotions, using personification to bring each to life. In Gendler’s book we’re reintroduced to familiar emotions, like joy, innocence, and discipline — not just as abstract ideas, but as living, breathing individuals.
Each of the profiles is an excellent reminder of the power of personification to enliven writing. In our normal life we don’t have the power to breathe life into inanimate objects. When we write, however, he can wield this rhetorical superpower by employing personification. With personification, it’s as if we’re putting arms and legs on an idea, allowing it to walk around the room. We can even teach it to talk.
In the following examples, Gendler employs personification to introduce us to “Despair,” “Stillness,” and “Confidence.” Notice how she employs specific action verbs and concrete nouns:
Despair papered her bathroom walls with newspaper articles on acid rain.
Stillness will meet you for tea or a walk by the ocean.
Confidence ignores “No Trespassing” signs. It is as if he doesn’t see them. He is an explorer, committed to following his own direction.
Today’s Challenge: Abstractions in the Flesh
How would you bring an abstract human emotion to life using personification? Write a profile of at least 60 words on one specific human emotion. Use your imagination to explore what the emotion would look like, what kinds of things it would be doing, and what it might say if it could talk. Select one of the qualities below from The Book of Qualities, or come up with one of your own.
Anger, Beauty, Certainty, Doubt, Excitement, Fear, Guilt, Honesty, Imagination, Jealousy, Loneliness, Perfection, Suffering, Terror
Before you write your profile, read the following example. It’s on humor; one quality that Gendler doesn’t write about in The Book of Qualities:
Humor is unpredictable. He hides around corners and jumps out when you least expect him. He’s optimistic, healthy, and smart. Never depressing or anxious, he thrives on the unsuspected and spontaneous. He’s a great companion, constantly reminding you to loosen up, look at the bright side, and smile more often. He loves to break up fights — when he’s around no one has the strength to make a fist.
Quotation of the Day: There is no armor against fate; death lays his icy hands on kings. -Jane Shirley
1-Gendler, J. Ruth. The Book of Qualities. New York: HarperPerennial, 1984.