Discuss Three Appeals To Ethos In This Essay

What are some appeals to ethos in Francine Prose's essay "I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read"? What different roles, or personae, does Prose use to establish her ethos?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In her essay “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Sing,” Francine Prose adopts a number of distinct personae in order to make her argument as effective as possible.  These personae include the following:

  • the loving mother, concerned for the welfare of her children.
  • the devoted reader with a passion for good literature.
  • the devoted reader who loves the classics and disdains popular TV shows. All three of these personae appear in the very opening sentences of the essay:

Like most parents who have, against all odds, preserved a lively and still evolving passion for good books, I find myself, each September, increasingly appalled by the dismal lists of texts that my sons are doomed to waste a school year reading. What I get as compensation is a measure of insight into why our society has come to admire Montel Williams and Ricki Lake so much more than Dante and Homer.

  • the experienced cultural observer who is concerned about the shoddy status of American literary culture in general, not just in high schools.
  • the sensitive close reader who knows how to appreciate the skill with which great literature is written.
  • the concerned college professor who worries that high schools are not preparing their students to do the kind of intellectual work they should be able to do in college.
  • the good American who is concerned about the shabby cultural future toward which the U. S. is headed.
  • the widely read critic who knows how to separate literary wheat from sub-literary chaff.
  • the diligent researcher who has done her homework and has sought hard evidence before settling on her final views.
  • the thoughtful, perceptive close reader who knows, in detail, what kind of writing is effective and what kind is embarrassing.
  • the brave critic willing to speak honestly about poorly written books that have somehow come to be widely admired and praised.

Please note that the preceding list applies only to the first half of the essay!  There is much more to come but insufficient space here to describe later personae.

edcon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Writer and critic Francine Prose is eminently qualified to speak on the subject of why students have fallen away from reading quality literature.

First, Prose establishes herself as an academic: a teacher of undergraduate and graduate students.  Her argument states that her students arrive in her classroom with little knowledge of the historical and modern classics, and her students lack the ability to read closely, as their college and university studies demand.

Prose also presents herself as a mother of high school students.  She is appalled at not only the low quality of the literature that comprises her sons' reading lists in their English classes (as in Ordinary People), but also the questionable lesson plans associated with "highbrow" works.  For example, Prose sees no value in an exercise that asks students to think about what they would pack to take with them if they found themselves in a situation akin to the Jews being moved into concentration camps.  She finds this kind of reductionist thinking repugnant.

A third way that Prose presents herself is as an avid reader of literature.  She cites the work of Alice Munro as worthy of the investment from both readers and teachers who would choose her short stories for class work because Munro's characters are multilayered and do not encourage "reductive, wrong-headed readings" in the same way that, for example, To Kill a Mockingbird does. 

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