Startled, the Armchair

Personification in John Banville’s “Mefisto”, and other examples.

Is the candy angry about being eaten, or is it calling out to be eaten?

We, humans, see human-like activity everywhere and it makes life all the more agreeable.

Be it the solution that jumped out at you, the chocolate ice-cream that calls your name every time you pass the fridge, or the red spots that dance on your eyelids if you close your eyes after staring at the sun. And those are just the terms that have crept into everyday language. Of course, there are also the poetic varieties, like:

Here’s John Banville, in Mefisto, giving a living room description. The shutters are down; outside is a sunlit afternoon.

Quote: Sophie opened the shutters. The room greeted the sudden glare with a soundless exclamation of surprise. An armchair leaned back, its armrests braced, in an attitude of startlement and awe.

What makes the Quote quiver?

The room, the armchair as living beings.

The frowning armchair is coming

Say you haven’t ever—when the light is right, and the mood just so—thought that an armchair looks startled at seeing you entering the room of its dominion?

The one back home, that often made me think of it as living, had felt skin, golden and chaffed, two buttons for eyes, two buttons for a mouth, and a button for its nose that would come right out to hang on a long pale loop of thread if you weren’t careful. The front-facing surface of its armrests, swirled in a brown snail spiral like winding fingers, braced indeed, for the impending impact of a human body.

What is at the core of the Quote?


Personification is a figure by which an animal or inanimate object or idea is given human characteristics. Or, in an extended sense, it imbues inanimate objects with animal-like behaviour. Originally, when I wrote the definitions page, I made up an example:

The night galloped in through the windows.

The gallop of the night

Recently, I came across a line which started similarly, but was far more imaginative. In Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse, Anne Carston has night arriving as a gust into a roomful of people:

A gust of night / pushed its way in the door / and everyone inside wavered once like stalks in a field then resumed their talk.

Of course, our Quote is also helped along by the sentence rhythm, the alliteration of g’s and s’s, and the context which I withheld till now. Here it is, for the curious reader and the word connoisseur, a Banville description, vivid and shining.

Extended Quote:

We came to the house, and climbed the steps to the front door. Sophie produced a huge iron key from a pocket of her skirt. In the hall a rhomb of sunlight basked on the floor, like a reclining acrobat. The wallpaper hung down in strips, stirring now in the draught from the doorway like bleached palm-fronds. There was a dry, brownish smell, as if something had finished rotting and turned to dust. On the threshold a barrier seems to part before me, an invisible membrane. The air was cool and dry. There was no sign of life. Dust lay everywhere, a mouse-grey flocculent stuff, like a layer of felt, cushioning our footfalls. We went into a large, darkened room. The shutters were drawn, bristling with slanted blades of sunlight. There was a skitter of tiny claws in a corner, then silence. Sophie opened the shutters. The room greeted the sudden glare with a soundless exclamation of surprise. An armchair leaned back, its armrests braced, in an attitude of startlement and awe.

In startlement and awe of such writing, I remain.

P.S. Challenge for readers: did you spot the synesthesia in the Extended Quote?

Reading Recommendations

  1. Mefisto, John Banville.
  2. John Banville, The Art of Fiction No. 200, Paris Review Interview from Issue 188, Spring 2009. An insight into the life of the author and how he hammers out his prose.
  3. Collected Poems, Roger McGough. Because the other poems are just as great as There was Knock on the Door. It Was the Meat.
  4. Other QQ posts featuring Banville’s quotes.

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

11 thoughts on “Startled, the Armchair”

    1. Not many people relate smells with colours (hello synesthesia!), so it’s interesting to hear you say that. If you don’t mind me asking: what smells have the most vivid colour associations for you?


      1. That is a good question because it’s not an aspect of my synesthesia that is terribly strong so that I think about it enough. Trash (the trash truck) is see-through blue mint green, sweat is dark yellow, pre-rain is taupe, some strong soaps are silver, gasoline is burnt sienna, those are the only ones that spring to mind. And you?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh wow, that’s interesting. I interpret my senses based more on “creative associations” than any innate, hardwired links, but I’m curious how it works for others. Thanks for sharing!


  1. I never thought personification could be this fun, thank you for that. And as for the synesthesia, on the risk of sounding dumb, I think is this, “There was a dry, brownish smell, as of something that had finished rotting and turned to dust.”, like how smell is used to describe the physical phenomenon of rotting to dust. But it’s more of a elimination than discovering, I couldn’t find a perfect synesthesia in there. So I’m excited to know the answer. Thanks for the challenge.


    1. Very close! You nailed the sentence, but it’s not quite how smell is used to describe but how smell is described.

      (Forgive me if I’m being picky and reading too much into the phrasing of your answer.)

      In particular, smells don’t usually take a colour as an adjective. A dry smell is neither here nor there because touch lends words to both taste and smell, whereas brownish smell adds new meaning and would qualify as a form of synaesthesia. (Not sure what “perfect” synaesthesia would be … it’s a stretchy concept, especially, I suspect, for people who experience the neurological phenomenon. Also, we all experience the world differently so …)

      Thanks for answering 🙂 Glad you found it interesting!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Okay I’m embrassed now, it was right in front of me, the BROWNISH smell. Thank you for your clarification. (you can be pricky all you want, I don’t mind)
        But the smell being used to describe the phenomenon of rotting and turned to dust, can be called as a separate synasthesia, or is it all one part of the deal.
        Oh, by ‘perfect’, I meant something simple and clear, ‘easy to spot’, like the ones in your examples provided on the link, but this one is more deeper and the harder to find made it tastier to read.
        If it’s not too much to ask, I would request that small challenges like this to be included in your posts whenever possible!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You did well!

        (As if something had finished rotting and turned to dust is not a synaesthesia because it doesn’t involve a direct comparison of smell to another sense, it merely expresses a hypothetical about what may have caused the smell.)

        I’m glad you liked the challenge. Where appropriate, I’ll try to insert others 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Our eyes are often numbed by what we know is around us… when something knocks us into seeing something like it was for the first time it’s very refreshing!
    Long live those moments and a nice banville quote… Ta!

    Liked by 1 person

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