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‘‘Ethics’’ by Linda Pastan concerns the internal change which every person experiences while growing up. While young, it is hard to understand the underlying meaning of various issues, but when children grow up, they are able to gain wisdom that enables them to look at life from a different perspective. To illustrate this point, the speaker presents the students with a moral dilemma regarding which they would choose between saving a painting or elderly people in case a museum caught fire. It is illustrated in the author’s statement, ‘‘If there was a fire in a museum, which would you save, a Rembrandt painting or an old woman who hadn’t many years left anyhow?’’ (Pastan lines 3-6).
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According to eNotes (1), the poem initially develops in a recollection from school days, after which it is bridged via images of fire and frames, to an understanding the poet acquires in her older years. The students were unable to fully answer the question posed to them by the ethics teacher several years ago, and that is why they respond to it halfheartedly. By posing the above question in lines 3-6, the teacher expects the students to make a vivid choice between the two options given. The answer to this question comes several years later when the poet is presented as standing in front of a real Rembrandt, in a real museum. This paper presents a discussion of the literary devices used in the poem.
Literary devices help to bring out the theme of a story more clearly (Jaureguy 15). The author employs several literary devices to develop the theme of the poem such as imagery, symbolism, repetition, figure of speech and metaphor among others. The author uses various images to support his theme, for instance, when she says in the statement, ‘‘Sometimes the woman borrowed my grandmother’s face…’’ (Pastan lines 9-10) This statement refers to the incapacity of students to relate the moral dilemma asked by their teacher to themselves; something that the poet learns later on through experience and time. It is important to mention that the speaker in this poem is an old woman who highly emphasizes the burden of years which she talks about. This is evident in the statement, ‘‘old woman, or nearly so, myself’’ (Pastan lines 18-19).
The author’s description of the students in the classroom as, ‘‘Restless on hard chairs caring little for pictures or old age’’ (Pastan lines 6-7), paints a picture in the reader’s mind of the kids seated in the classroom, probably waiting for the bell to ring so that they can leave for home or break as soon as possible. It points out to the children’s unwillingness and inability to comprehend the ethical dilemma their teacher is talking about. However, when they grow up, they gain a deeper understanding of various issues just like the narrator of the poem did.
The narrator also uses metaphors in the poem when she says, ‘‘the colors within this frame are darker than autumn, darker even than winter — the browns of earth, though earth’s most radiant elements burn through the canvas’’ (Pastan lines 19-23). Here, she points out to the fact that the painting is more than just a mere drawing; it is something that is alive and has a connection with the earth, and that is why it is worth saving. She places the drawing on a similar level as the old woman, hence balancing the dilemma. The description of the poet regarding the colors of the painting as burning through the canvas emphasizes on the painting’s super nature, thus, enhancing its status in the poem to that of the old woman.
The way the author chooses his words to contribute to the development of the poem’s theme is also worth noting. For instance, she uses words like, ‘‘half-heartedly’’, ‘‘drafty’’, ‘‘half-imagined’’, to point out to the reader how faintly the moral dilemma is perceived and comprehended by the students. This consequently adds to the notion of the children’s inability to comprehend the speaker’s burden. Besides, the author uses symbols like Rembrandt to mean a picture, and the old woman to refer to old age. As evident in the poem, these symbols are vital to the speaker, the children and the general development of the poem. They add weight to the children’s incapacity to feel or understand their teacher or her words. The author uses repetition to emphasize on this point. This is evidenced by her repeated use of the phrase ‘‘old woman’’ as seen in line 5 and 18 of the poem.
In the concluding part of the poem which states, ‘‘I know now that woman and painting and season are almost one and all beyond the saving of children’’ (Pastan lines 23-25), it is evident that this poem is not meant for the amusement of the children, but rather for people who have attained the age of the speaker. In these lines, the author finally realizes the real meaning of the question posed to them by their teacher several years ago because of numerous years of experience she has gained. The narrator implies that the woman and the painting both represent old age and wisdom; things that the children are unable to comprehend and that is why they cannot assist or save them.
The poem ‘‘Ethics’’ is more than just an ethical lesson learned by students in school. It is about the changes that everybody goes through in the course of life while growing up. Children find it hard to understand the underlying meaning of various issues, but when children grow up, they gain understanding and wisdom that enables them to look at various things in life differently. Among the literary devices discussed are repetition, symbolism, and metaphor among others. One moral lesson I have learnt from this poem is to always take time to understand the deeper meaning of people’s words and actions.
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