The cynical indifference of the sea to the merits of human suffering and courage revolted me.

An English professor insisted that the above statement is a metaphor. To me though, it looks like personification since the sea is described as showing indifference towards something. It is clearly being personified.

I would like to know if my view is correct.

  • 1
    Personification is a type of metaphor.
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 22, 2018 at 14:06

3 Answers 3


The statement you have provided is best said to employ personification or anthropomorphism. These two very closely related devices attribute human qualities to non-human entities. In your example, we are attributing the human characteristic of cynicism to the sea.

A metaphor is a device to compare or equate two things. It is often described as a simile without like or as.

  1. He is the black sheep in the family. (metaphor)
  2. Her eyes sparkle like the stars. (simile)

In '15, Pope Francis (using a proverb - no man is an island) said: “Dear brothers and sisters, how greatly I desire that all those places where the Church is present, especially our parishes and our communities, may become islands of mercy in the midst of the sea of indifference!” article


In your citation

The cynical indifference of the sea to the merits of human suffering and courage revolted me.

is an attempt to use the proverb and put it into a metaphor. It works ... only if in context the discussion implied that sea = 'the masses of' or 'humanity'.



The literary term is:
pathetic fallacy

The phrase pathetic fallacy is a literary term for the attributing of human emotion and conduct to all aspects within nature. It is a kind of personification that is found in poetic writing when, for example, clouds seem sullen, when leaves dance, or when rocks seem indifferent. The British cultural critic John Ruskin coined the term in his book, Modern Painters (1843–60).
Pathetic fallacy (Wikipedia)

Pathetic fallacy, poetic practice of attributing human emotion or responses to nature, inanimate objects, or animals. The practice is a form of personification that is as old as poetry, in which it has always been common to find smiling or dancing flowers, angry or cruel winds, brooding mountains, moping owls, or happy larks.
Encyclopaedia Britannica

n. The attribution of human emotions or characteristics to inanimate objects or to nature; for example, angry clouds; a cruel wind.
American Heritage Dictionary

It's also metaphor and personification, as have been mentioned already.

  • To be accurate, a pathetic fallacy refers to attribution of only feelings or emotions to a natural, inanimate, object - hence the 'pathos'. As described by Ruskin, it also labels an excessive use of this - hence the 'fallacy'. In these ways, it differs from personification which can attribute any human action to any object. Complaining that your phone has walked away is personification, but not a pathetic fallacy. Whether an indifferent sea is displaying emotion is questionable. Aug 21, 2018 at 1:01

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