I’ve already posted this poem, but it’s a wonderful poem and it wonderfully illustrates my next point. Today, I’m talking about building character. It can be a tough thing to do. A character must be believable, but because art is not life, the character must also serve the purpose of the story.
An example, you can’t have a character who isn’t ambitious be the lead character in Great Expectations. Pip has to be the type of person who wants to improve his lot in life, or the story doesn’t work – he never seeks out his “great expectation” and we’re stuck in swamp with Joe making horse shoes. The audience might wonder, so where are these great expectations? Pip got this wonderful offer to be a gentleman in London, but he turned them down as he was happy where he was. Not much story there.
But sometimes the character is not even a person. In the poem “Second Hand Coat” our character is a coat. The person trying on the coat is the character interacting with the coat. When an object or an animal is used as a character, it’s called anthropomorphism: the humanizing, or giving of human characteristics to non-human objects or creatures. Authors use this method for various reasons.
In Gabriel Marquez stories, objects take on human characteristics, because this is a method used traditionally by his people, so he celebrates this method by doing so as well. He also wants to show a world where people see things just as animate as people, that there are people who believe animals have as emotions as complex as people.
Sometimes, something is anthropomorphized to illustrate a point. In Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” the lead character wakes up as a cockroach. He has been transformed. This is Kafka’s way of showing how modern life is diminishing human life, making people into insects. So he’s using anthropomorphism to illustrate the opposite of it.
In “Second Hand Coat”, the coat is given human characteristics to illustrate how the poet sees herself turning into whoever once owned the coat. She slips it on like a skin. She imagines that her skin will soon transform into this other woman’s skin as the contents in the coat’s pocket are the same things that she is starting to hide away in her pocket. This type of anthropomorphism illustrates a sort of sympathy with who owned it. The coat stands in for the woman who owned it; the coat becomes the future owner. It becomes her companion into old age, her compatriot and her partner in crime so to speak (they’ll both attend, and like to attend, bridge club together).
Anthropomorphism is a way of picking characters that strongly embody the author or poet’s theme. It’s no coincidence that the animals in Animal Farm who take over the leadership of the farm and become as oppressive as the farmer are pigs. But it can make the theme feel more superficial that when a human character is used. It’s usually more of a character of bold outlines rather than subtle nuances. But the second hand coat is more nuanced than most non-human creatures, I suppose because of the many specific details and the fact that it so perfectly fits the theme (used coat, older used person). Just an illustration of how sometimes the rules don’t always apply.
Second Hand Coat
by Ruth Stone
in her pockets; she wore nice cotton gloves,
kept a handkerchief box, washed her undies,
ate at the Holiday Inn, had a basement freezer,
belonged to a bridge club.
I think when I wake in the morning
That I have turned into her.
She hangs in the hall downstairs,
a shadow with pulled threads.
I slip her over my arms, skin of a matron.
Where are you? I say to myself, to the orphaned body,
and her coat says,
Get your purse, have you got your keys?