Thinking About Anthropomorphism in The Ghost Map

Last class, we discussed various topics relating to The Ghost Map, one of which was the anthropomorphizing — or what we called personification in class — of the bacterium in the book. Indeed, the book’s preface states the following: “This is a story with four protagonists: a deadly bacterium, a vast city, and two gifted but very different men. …” (emphasis mine). This demonstrates Steven Johnson’s conscious decision in giving the bacterium Vibrio cholerae agency in the narrative. And while we debated about the reason that it is personified and whether it is personification to begin with, the fact that it is explicitly categorized as a protagonist by the author himself is significant. This statement is indeed validated throughout the book, in which the bacteria are described to have strategies and desires.

What is more interesting to me, however, is Johnson’s decision to make the bacterium a protagonist; in other words, what does he achieve from a narrative point of view through the anthropomorphizing of the bacterium?

In an article entitled “Using Anthropomorphism and Fictional Story Development to Enhance Student Learning”, Kari A. Brossard Stoos and Madeline Haftel describe an experiment in which they have control and experimental groups; the former group are taught a science lesson without anthropomorphizing “agents of disease”, while the latter group are taught the same lesson with anthropomorphizing said agents. The results are described as such:

Students within the experimental section demonstrated increased competence in mapping and explaining pathological pathways on exam questions following lessons delivered using fictional characters, compared with students who had lessons delivered via traditional lecture alone. Additionally, student feedback on this approach was very positive. Students reported feeling more alert, attentive, and engaged, and they experienced increased enjoyment in the learning process.

Linking this back to The Ghost Map, one can consider the bacterium’s anthropomorphizing as a narrative tool to keep the readers engaged, as well as to enhance their understanding of the disease’s spread.

Another article that goes into the cognitive aspect of anthropomorphism in children could help us explain why anthropomorphizing non-human objects helps us make sense of the world:

An analysis of animism in children was extensively performed by Piaget (1926/1929). He maintained that children have a spontaneous animist attitude that develops through different stages until around the age of 12. Piaget distinguishes two periods in children’s animism. The first, lasting until the ages of 4 and 5, is characterized by what he calls an integral and implicit animism. When a child adopts this attitude, “anything may be endowed with both purpose [intention in the original] and conscious activity according to the occasional effects on the child’s mind of such occurrences as a stone which refuses to be thrown on to a bank, a wall which can hurt the hand, etc.” (p. 213). In the successive period, implicit animism progressively disappears, and the process of systematization begins to follow discernable stages.

All of this is to say that we have an almost instinctual urge and affinity to anthropomorphizing interactions with non-human subjects, which helps us understand the world better; and Johnson makes use of that in his narrative technique.

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  1. Tom — thanks for directing us to this. It opens up a lot of questions on the topics of empathy and sympathy as well: do we feel compassion more readily for things we perceive to be like us? But what happens when Johnson points out ways in which *we’re* like the bacteria?

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