In her essay "I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read," what is Francine Prose's purpose in piling one rhetorical question on top of the other? Toward the end of the essay (paragraphs 35, 39 and 43) Prose uses a series of rhetorical questions.

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As she moves toward the end of her essay “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read,” Francine Prose asks a number of rhetorical questions.  Here are several examples of such questions:

Why not introduce our kids to the clarity and power of James Baldwin’s great story “Sonny’s Blues”?


Why not celebrate the accuracy and vigor with which he [that is, Mark Twain] translated the rhythms of American speech into written language?


Doesn’t our epidemic dumbing-down have undeniable advantages for those institutions (the media, the advertising industry, the government) whose interests are better served by a population not trained to read too closely or ask too many questions?

Prose’s own questions serve a number of rhetorical functions, including the following:

  • they engage the reader’s own mind
  • they encourage the reader to think
  • they imply that Prose values the reader’s opinions
  • they show that despite her earlier criticism of Maya Angelou, Prose admires the works of “better” African-American writers such as James Baldwin.
  • they show that Prose, for all her harsh criticism of various trends, is capable of celebrating fine writing and fine writers
  • they therefore show that Prose has a positive agenda, not merely a negative one, and that she is not a uniformly acerbic critic
  • the final question, in particular, is likely to appeal both to political conservatives (distrustful of big government and the media) and political liberals (distrustful of the advertising industry and also of aspects of government and media)
  • the final question, in particular, implies that Prose is simply a person who wants other persons to have opportunities to think for themselves and thus have better control over their own lives (two noble goals).
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