How does Louise Glück in "Study of My Sister" use diction, syntax, and other literary devices to develop her theme and impact the reader?

The main theme of the poem "Study of My Sister" is the meaning of life. Glück develops this theme by using literary devices like similes and rhetorical questions. These literary devices, as well as certain diction and syntax choices, also help to impact the reader on an emotional level.

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In the poem "Study of My Sister," the poet, Louise Glück, reflects upon the life of her sister, who tragically died before the poet was born. Glück has written elsewhere (see the reference link below) that her sister's death "was not my experience, but her absence was." Although this poem is ostensibly about the meaning of the poet's sister's life, it is also about the meaning of the poet's life without her sister.

In the opening lines of the poem, Glück says that in America people respect "what is concrete, visible." The implication here is that Glück feels that her sister's life is perhaps not as respected as it should be, and that's because her sister's life is no longer "concrete" or "visible." Diction like "concrete" and "visible" immediately suggests that people place too much meaning on what is on the surface and not enough on what is beneath the surface. In the rest of the poem, Glück suggests that her sister's life has meaning in terms of the absence that she, Glück, feels inside of her, beneath her surface.

There are three rhetorical questions in the poem. In the first stanza, Glück says that Americans always ask, "What is it for? What does it lead to?" In the final stanza, Glück says that people also ask, "What did you build?" These rhetorical questions convey an inquisitive tone and help Glück to convey that this is a poem about the questions people ask in order to find the meaning of a life.

In the second half of the poem, Glück uses an extended simile to compare her sister's life to a "small child / who spends all day entertaining herself / with the colored blocks." After playing with these blocks, the child looks up at her parents who ask her, "What did you build?" The child seems not to understand the question and looks "blank" and "confused." The idea here is that, to the child, the desire for purpose and meaning is absurd. The child played with the blocks simply to enjoy playing. She did not attribute any meaning or purpose to the play, and when her parents ask her for one, she doesn't understand. Through this simile Glück impacts the reader on an emotional level by evoking sympathy for the child. In turn, Glück perhaps hopes that the reader will sympathize with the child's point of view in regards to the absurdity of trying to attach a meaning to everything.

The sympathy that Glück hopes to evoke for the child is also evoked through the syntax of the line "so blank, so confused." The word "so" in this sentence functions both times as an intensifier to emphasize the proceeding adjective. We thus sympathize with the child because she is especially confused by her parents' question. As noted above, the more we sympathize with the child, the more we sympathize with her feeling that life can and perhaps should, at least sometimes, be allowed to be meaningless.

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