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Linda Pastan: Ethics

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Linda Pastan: Ethics
In ethics class so many years ago our teacher asked this question every fall:
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? Restless on hard chairs caring little for pictures or old age we’d opt one year for life, the next for art and always half-heartedly. Sometimes the woman borrowed my grandmother’s face leaving her usual kitchen to wander some drafty, half-imagined museum.
One year, feeling clever, I replied why not let the woman decide herself?
Linda, the teacher would report, eschews the burdens of responsibility.
This fall in a real museum I stand before a real Rembrandt, old woman, or nearly so, myself. 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. I know now that woman and painting and season are almost one and all beyond the saving of children.

Title – The word “ethics” is usually used in context with society and how the youth has close to none. I believe this poem might be a self-realization journey where either the author, or the protagonist find the meaning of the word through a physical experience or a journey into their own soul
Paraphrase – The author is thinking of a memory many years ago when she was still in school. She was in ethics class, and every year, around fall, her teacher would ask all the students the same question, “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?” All the students would be restless because they would want to answer the question but none knew the right answer. On one hand, they could save the old woman for maybe another year, but on another hand, they could save the art work but they would make this choice, always, half-heartedly. Now the author makes a personal relation to the question posed to her. Her own grandmother takes the form of the old woman wandering the museums. Finally, one year, the author was feeling clever so she decided to reply to the teacher’s question with one of her own. She asks the teacher, “why not let the woman decided herself?” The teacher told the class that Linda deliberately avoids the burden of responsibility. Now the author stands in a real museum before a Rembrandt painting. The painting is of an old woman and the author is an old woman. The colors come as dark elements from mother earth toward her as the knowledge of words spoken so many years ago comes at her. She understands that the season, the old woman, and the painting are one and live in the same meaning of life. Children cannot save this phenomenon because they know not ethics nor responsibility.
Connotation – the teacher is a wise one. She wanted to teach her students a lesson that would stay with them until the day they understood the meaning of the question. Because without understanding the meaning of the question, they would not be able to understand that the question has no answer. Children would not be able to make the choice because ethics does not exist in their childish minds. But once you’ve grown and seen the world and learned life lessons and most importantly, ethics, you will be able to understand that everything is one but yet children would be able to save none because they truly do not understand what they are saving. Question – asking questions in the poem is like asking us the same questions. We think how we might answer the same question. The use of the word real – when the question is hypothetically placed, she answers half-heartedly. But then she claims to be in a “real” situation. Makes us question the importance of the word Fire – the hypothetical fire, then the burning from the canvas. Fire has a deeper meaning
Attitude – from the beginning of the poem until the question is placed, the author is monotone. But once the question is asked, she seemed to get restless. We can see this because she claims that the whole classroom is feeling the way she does. She feels very strongly about this question and has a desire to answer it. That uneasiness heightens when she says that her grandmother takes the place of the old woman. She says this after she chooses the painting. She is uncomfortable with her choice and doesn’t understand the purpose of the question. Then suddenly, we feel a sense of excitement and pride from the author when she says that she decides to be clever one day. Her response makes progress in the teacher’s mind. That was the end of her younger days’ memories. We see the mood shift when she talks about her current state. She sounds wise and she seems to understand the meaning and she understands the purpose of the question asked all those years ago. Once that understanding hits, she seems free. She’s had her eyes opened.
Shifts – there are no recognizable shifts in this poem. No stanza divisions, or key words or punctuation. The attitude change has been discussed in the above paragraph
Title – Ethics be, arguably, the central theme of the poem. Although, responsibility seems a much more sensible title as her actions has much more to with that idea than ethics
Theme – ethics cannot be gained by children. Ethics is needed for human life to understand the world around you but it is not a concept that can be grasped by childish minds. It is something that has to be learned, not taught.…...

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