In her commencement speech at Mount Holyoke College, Anna Quindlen quotes Lily Tomlin, Catherine Drinker Bowen, Carl Jung, and George Eliot. What is the effect of these quotations?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In her commencement speech at Mount Holyoke College, Anna Quindlen quotes from a number of different sources. These quotations add to the variety and authority of her speech in various ways, including the following:

  • At one point Quindlen quotes the comedienne Lily Tomlin:

Remember the words of Lily Tomlin: If you win the rat race, you're still a rat.

The quotation from Tomlin is short and pithy and adds humor to the speech. It is significant that this quotation comes so early in the speech, since it helps establish the relaxed, colloquial tone Quindlen tries to convey from the beginning.  By setting a relaxed, humorous tone from the start of the speech, Quindlen makes it more likely that we will pay closer attention to the more serious, more searching things she has to say later.  If she had begun with serious quotations and then switched to “comic” ones, the effect might have been to trivialize her earlier, serious points.

  • Later, Quindlen quotes from

the writer Catherine Drinker Bowen [who] once wrote, more than half a century ago: "Many a man who has known himself at ten forgets himself utterly between ten and thirty." Many a woman, too.

This quotation – the second from a female – seems especially appropriate in a speech delivered at a college for women. Bowen is an accomplished woman and is thus worth citing as an example of feminine accomplishment in such a speech. Quindlen’s witty addition to the quotation – “Many a woman, too” – tailors Bowen’s thought for the particular audience at Mount Holyoke.

  • Later still, Quindlen quotes from a highly accomplished male: the great Swiss psychologist and philosopher Carl Jung. Of all the people Quindlen quotes, Jung is perhaps the most weighty “intellectual,” and so it is appropriate that his words appear when the speech is at its most serious. Moreover, the words by Jung that Quindlen does quote are especially profound, particularly in their ethical implications. Jung, after all, is discussing how to do justice to oneself and others while still showing mercy in both cases. We are far removed here from the joke by Lily Tomlin.
  • Finally, the last paragraph of Quindlen’s speech includes a quotation from yet another woman writer, George Eliot (pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans):

George Eliot wrote, "It is never too late to be what you might have been."

Eliot’s words, like those of Tomlin, are short and highly memorable, but they are obviously also more serious and profound. Quindlen ends with words that might strike almost anyone as highly significant and meaningful. The quotation from Jung was profound and thoughtful, but few people would be able to remember it all, at least not exactly as it was originally phrased by Jung. In the quotation from Jung, the idea mattered more than the actual phrasing. In the quotation from Eliot, both the idea and the phrasing are highly memorable and indeed difficult to forget.

In short, Quindlen chooses her quotations carefully. There are not too many quotations, nor are there too few. The quotations are different in their tones (from the flippancy of Tomlin to the profundity of Jung). Three of the four quotations are from women writers – highly appropriate in a speech delivered at a women’s college. Finally, the last quotation is short, serious, and memorably phrased – the kind of quotation an audience is likely to reflect upon long after the speech has ended.