Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America

by Barbara Ehrenreich

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In "Serving in Florida" from Nickel and Dimed, how does Barbara Ehrenreich establish her ethos with George?

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In the chapter on serving, Ehrenreich discusses her experiences as a waitress at two Key West restaurants, the Hearthside and Jerry’s, and as a housekeeper at the motel attached to Jerry’s. During this first step in her experiment doing working-class jobs, Ehrenreich confronts the changes that occur internally, including her sense of identity, attitude toward work , and physical ability to perform work, and externally, especially in her relationships with her fellow employees. The author establishes ethos through her use of first-person narration, her apparently frank discussion of her personal involvement in the actions she narrates. She establishes and supports ethos by discussing her relationships with numerous individual co-workers and supervisors at both workplaces. At the Hearthside, she learns from Gail about the challenges to finding a viable living space and in this way establishes ethos by honestly presenting the ways she gained knowledge about working-class life. At Jerry’s, ethos is supported by her interactions with Carlie, who trains her to do housekeeping. But with George, while the reader does tend to see the author as credible, her behavior detracts from the reader’s confidence in her character. George is a young Czech man, and initially Barbara helps him with English and thus seems sympathetic. When he is accused of stealing, however, she fails to defend him. This failure challenges both the reader’s opinion and the author’s own opinion of her character. That good opinion is somewhat restored when she faces her shortcomings and quits the job.

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In the “Serving in Florida” chapter of her book Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich uses various methods to establish her rhetorical ethos, or appealing ethical character, particularly in the way she describes her relationship with a young co-worker named George. Ehrenbach establishes her ethos, for instance, in the following ways:

  • She immediately implies that she sympathizes with George when she describes him as a

nineteen-year-old Czech dishwasher who has been in this country exactly one week.

This phrasing implies that Ehrenreich sympathizes with George because of his age, his distance from home and family, his low-level job, and his status as a very recent immigrant. All these traits make George seem especially vulnerable, and the fact that Ehrenreich feels sympathetic toward George implies her admirable moral character.

  • She again shows her basic compassion when she tries to answer a question that George asks in very broken English – another trait of his that makes him a sympathetic figure: he is a stranger in a strange land, and Ehrenreich does her best to try to help him. In fact, she doesn’t merely answer his question about cigarettes but actually tries to offer him a practical solution to a problem he faces (how to afford to buy some expensive smokes).
  • The fact that George is poor is yet another trait that makes him sympathetic, and Ehrenrich’s efforts to help him achieve his goals despite his poverty make her seem a moral person; she actually goes out of her way to try to help George.
  • Not only does Ehrenreich try to help George when he requests help; even more significantly, she offers help when he does not even request it, as when she tries to teach him English. Once again, then, Ehrenreich shows that she is morally “proactive”; she takes the initiative in trying to help others and thus wins our respect for her ethical instincts.
  • Ehrenreich takes a real interest in George’s country, thereby showing that she respects his ethnic background.
  • Ehrenreich sticks up for George’s dignity by insisting that another co-worker call him by his correct name, rather than calling him “Joseph.” Ehrenreich thus once more provokes our admiration. She wins our respect by showing her own respect for George.
  • Ehrenreich is actually punished, by her supervisor, for speaking up on George’s behalf. It is one thing to defend another person; it is even more admirable to be willing to risk retaliation for doing so.

In all these ways, then, Ehrenreich’s attitudes toward George enhance our already positive attitudes toward Ehrenreich herself. Her treatment of George goes far toward establishing her admirable rhetorical ethos.

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