Ethics

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Linda Pastan questions ethics in her poem "Ethics"
Linda Pastan questions ethics in her poem "Ethics"

In Linda Pastan's poem "Ethics," the speaker recounts a moral dilemma that her teacher would ask every fall, which has been haunting her for a long time. The question was "if there were a fire in a museum / which would you save, a Rembrandt painting / or an old woman who hadn't many / years left anyhow?" and the speaker tells us through the theme that ethics and moral values can be only learned from the reflection which comes through experience and maturity. In this poem, imagery, diction, and figures of speech contribute to the development of the theme.

The speaker in the poem uses images to help to support the theme. For example the statement that "sometimes the woman borrowed my grandmother's face" displays the inability of the children to relate the dilemma to themselves, something that the speaker has learned later on with time and experience. In this poem, the speaker is an old woman, and she places a high emphasis on the burden of years from which she speaks by saying "old woman, / or nearly so, myself." "I know now that woman / and painting and season are almost one / and all beyond saving by children." clearly states that the poem is not written for the amusement of children but somebody that has reached the speaker's age, thus supporting the idea of the theme that children cannot help or understand her or anybody of her age. In addition, when the speakers describes the kids in the classroom as "restless on hard chairs" and "caring little for picture or old age" we can picture them in our minds sitting, ready to leave the class as soon as possible, unwilling and unable to understand the ethics dilemma or what the speaker is feeling.
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