The speaker in Linda Pastan’s poem “Ethics” addresses and investigates the moral dilemma that the teacher would present to the students every fall, focusing on the inability of the young to make well-informed decisions. The speaker remembers the question that has been bothering her for years: “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?" (4-6) She recalls the “restless” youth “half-heartedly” trying to answer the question; she notes that they changed their answer from year to year and they never fully understood the question or how to formulate an answer (6, 9). The students could not understand the dilemma they faced because they were too young. They lacked the wisdom and experience that the speaker obtains through old age. Sometimes the speaker tried to identify with the conflict by placing her grandmother into the position of the old woman in the dilemma; this approach did not bring the speaker closer to understanding the question. The speaker tries to get around answering the question and says that we should let the old woman decide her own fate. After the speaker has aged considerably, she visits a museum and stands before an actual Rembrandt painting, remembering and finally understanding the dilemma; this moment is the motivation for her to speak. Finally, the speaker describes the extreme beauty of the painting and reveals her elevated understanding that age has granter her with the lines “I know now that woman and painting and season are almost one and all beyond saving by children” (23-25). The speaker tells us that ethics can only be learned from experience and reflections, not from a class full of young, inexperienced students.
“Ethics” is written in free verse and uses iambic pentameter, only deviating from iambic pentameter on important lines that contribute a major idea. For example, the lines containing the moral dilemma that was prevalent throughout the...
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