#26 “Ethics” (Linda Pastan)

Linda Pastan’s “Ethics” is so widely-used as required reading that Googling for a good text leads to page after page of results like “Buy Term Papers about Linda Pastan’s Ethics.” Which is ironic on a couple of levels. First, the poem is about a tired old schoolroom assignment that creaks pretty badly after a few years once everyone says all the obvious things about it. Second, buying a term paper about a poem called “Ethics” takes some chutzpah, to say the least.

But even famous poems can be great ones, and things don’t get to be ubiquitous as required reading unless they speak to something that a lot of people can relate to. Like a few other poems in our Countdown, “Ethics” speaks to art. The question whether to opt for art or for life may seem facile, as it does to the children in “Linda”‘s classroom. But the question of why art attracts us at all, of why one would even think twice between the Rembrandt and the woman, remains a puzzling one long after the poem closes. There are people who will go far out of their way to collect beautiful things. And we place even more value on beautiful artificial things than we do on nature. We love art because it connects us to other people. It’s a basic form of communication.

On a personal note which may serve as an example: on September 11th, 2001, my thoughts were with the people suffering in the World Trade Center. But once the flames had died down and the living and dead were safe in their separate worlds, I worried about the buildings of downtown Manhattan, which I love. I wondered if St. Paul’s Chapel, the oldest surviving church in the city, was still standing. Come to find that it was, and that it had served as an aid station during the rescue efforts.

Why would I worry about a church when thousands of people had died? I wasn’t worried about stones and glass. I was concerned that the efforts of the builders of the church, back in the 18th century, might have vanished in a moment of 21st-century madness. And though St. Paul’s survived (with redoubled preciousness, because of its part in the history of 9/11), I learned later that thousands of artifacts associated with the African-American Burial Ground had been destroyed. When stuff is lost, people’s ideas and dreams are lost with it. And the people who built that church, who buried those dead, are no less valuable than the people who live and die today, and who hope that our accomplishments will endure.

We love both art and life, of course, because both are fragile. “Woman and painting and season are almost one”: on their way to the oblivion that will overtake us all. Perhaps the “ethics” question is beside the point, because art and life are the same thing after all.


18 responses to “#26 “Ethics” (Linda Pastan)

  1. This poem brings to my mind the libary of Alexandria. I have often wonder what precious information was lost to the fire that destroyed it. I sat in class and thought about which I would save and I kept changing my mind over and over. Of course, the odds of having to make that kind of choice are improbable. I kept thinking of ways of how to save them both. Truly if there ever was a choice I would save the old woman, because while she may not have many years left those remaining years with her family would be more precious to her family than a Rembrandt. I for one would trade any and all of my material objects for just an hour with my maternal grandmother. I does make me sad and a little bit angry that some people don’t have any regard for art. I have spoken with people about art and sometimes they look at me as though I’m some kind of snobby elitest. I’m not, but art is life and all life is precious.

  2. For me, this poem represents not only the tough decision mentioned in the poem, but all the tough decisions we face in our lives. When presented with an issue that requires our decision, we will always face consequences (good and/or bad) and reactions from others over the choice that we make. In the poem, the teacher’s students all have their own reasons for saving the Rembrandt instead of the old woman, or saving the old woman instead of the Rembrandt…just like we all have our own reasons for making the decisions that we make.

  3. I think the interpretation of the lines “woman and painting and season are almost one,” meaning that maybe life is art after all was not where I first went with this, but it seems plausible when you think about it. Maybe she is saying that she couldn’t save either one because to her they were equally important; they were a part of one another. I personally think that if I had spent my entire life, or many years of it constructing something or had something very important to me, and I had to choose between saving it or someone else I didn’t even know, I would have a hard time letting it go. I believe I would ultimately save the old woman, but I wouldn’t let the other thing go without a fight. Maybe I would even try to save both; hey, it could happen right?
    I think it is very interesting that she doesn’t care at a young age, and then she still doesn’t care at an older age; perhaps this is because at those times, the situation wasn’t real to life for her. Maybe she would change her whole thought process if the old woman that the person was making the choice for was her.

  4. decarlocoleman

    In this poem the speaker refers to the choice of saving an old lady versus a Rembrandt painting in a fire. It is a choice of what an individual values. How important life is when there is a timer on it? To me knowing that time is limited doesn’t effect the value I have on human life. To me things can be replaced, people can’t. If a piece of art is destroyed there will be someone who is able to recreate the artwork to look identicle to the original. I don’t believe that a child would be able to understand the difference in meaning and value of a persons life against value of artwork. I would definately go for the old lady in this poem because my beliefs and values in life and happiness out weigh material possessions which consume society today.

  5. “Ethics” is very simple and understandable. The author is telling us (the audience) her story on ethics. Her teacher was giving them a lesson on ethics however she learned it later down the road through her own experience. The teacher I feel was trying to get them to make a decision and deal with the burden of the outcome of that decision. It also seems that this question the teacher ask the author cannot make at a young age. At that young age someone would probably choose one or the other not thinking of the outcome or reasoning behind it. This poems makes you analyze your own morals and reasoning for certain decisions. And ask are you ready for the outcome of the decision can you make responsible choices. Although I’m a lover of art I can’t see myself standing before HIM on judgment day and he ask why I choose Rembrandt over a human being lol. I couldn’t do it I would choose the lady with no hesitation. I don’t think she couldn’t choose because she felt they were both important I think she didn’t want the responsibility of choosing and being left with the thought that she may have made the wrong decision.

  6. I thought this was a good poem. It expresses our life decisions that we make everyday, whether they are big or small. This poem is like asking would we rather save the old womans life who doesnt have that many years left or save our family photo albums. They both would mean a lot to us to save. If you save the old woman’s life she may not live that much longer but our family photo album will be in our family forever. Then again we do not know how much longer the woman has to live, so we cannot just base it off the fact that she is old. We go through life everyday making decisions and trying new things, not knowing the outcome. I think this is just what this poem is expressing.

  7. I loved both poems that we covered because they were interesting and they made sense. In this poem, the speaker is remembering a question that was asked in her class when she was young; which later res-surfaced in her life at an older age. The question that was being asked by her teacher was basically to choose between saving a life or a painting. At first one will automatically choose to save life than a painting; which was the case for the speaker when she was young. But then when she was older, she went to a museum and looked at a real Rembrandt painting and then realized that the decision was tough because the painting looked so expensive and has been kept through the years and the thought of loosing it to a fire would be devastating; but then again she also would love to be saved too. I can see why this decision would be hard because if I had a treasured possession that meant so much to me, I would want to save it too. That’s why in movies you see people risk their lives to go save something like a book or a pen, and you think to yourself “what are they doing?”; but then when you think about why they did what they did, you kind of understand. I guess the poem is trying to let us know that almost everything is the same because they’re all valuable–a person’s life, a painting, a dog, a house, and so on.

  8. This poem raises an important issue about choice. In this poem the choice is between saving an old lady’s life and Rembrandt painting. It’s interesting how she remembers those questions when she comes across a true Rembrandt painting and questions if she would save this piece of art or the old lady, until she pictures her grandmother. I found this concept quite interesting because we come across big or even small decisions everyday. Although I do feel like I’m a different, I would pick the old lady and I do know and appreciate art, I would pick her whether she was my grandmother or not as I believe the value of live is priceless, I would however try and save both if I could.

  9. kursteilnehmur

    Can one really measure the worth of another human being? Regardless of any ailment or disease that will be sure to steal away what life they have left, I believe life is precious in every aspect and therefore not measurable in price. We all turn to dust and are forgotten when we die. The clothes we wore as a child rot as time passes. We consume new things as life goes on, and in the turmoil of life we sometimes forget what it really means to live. The fact that we breathe the free air every minute of our existence enthralls me in a constant state of wonder. The Rembrandt painting is beautiful, and some would be willing to die for the painting. I can only wonder. What if the woman had something else left to do in her life? What if by saving the painting you prevent her from saving someone else in some way? A painting will rot and deteriorate just as your body is doing this very instant, saving one will only prolong its existence. It is easy to say “I would save the woman” or “the painting.” Can you really put a price on life though? There is also the question of free will involved in the equation too. What if the woman wanted to be left behind and just didn’t show it for insurance purposes? In this day and age people do all kinds of crazy things to make sure their posterity is taken care of. People cling to art and works of man because of the human need to feel accomplished and successful in what they create, or even advocate. Throughout life you will meet all kind of people that have many different perspectives on life. Some say life is precious and would rather wreak their Ferrari than run over a dog. Others won’t care one bit if the dog is injured. In the end art is temporary, just as life is somewhat temporary as well. We can cling to what is beautiful, but when you die in your own fire will you die still holding your Mona Lisa or other form of art? Or would you rather die holding the hands of your family? Your choice depends on a multitude of factors, and can have many consequences, so choose wisely.

  10. “Ethics” by Linda Pastan, is a great poem that I really enjoyed reading. The question it brings to the table is very remarkable, and thoughtful. The line that was the most moving to me was “I know now that woman and painting and season are almost one and all beyond saving by children.” It almost captures the whole poem into one sentence. Not only does it explain how powerful art is, but it also shows its timelessness. It reminds me of the many great things on earth that have been wiped out due to war or natural disaster. Even though there are many great material objects, I truly believe that the message the items are trying to convey are much more important that the objects themselves! After things are gone, it is our duty to pass on the message that’s presented. And if we don’t, then the whole point of art, poetry, music, etc. is meaningless.

  11. Ethics really does get you to thinking about the value of life and art. I could understand anybody asking how someone could value a piece of art over a human life, and for many there isn’t even a choice there, a human life is always valuable. It is important to think about the importance of something you create. Spending so much time and energy on something, and then people heralding that creation as a masterpiece, things like that take on a life of their own. When you think of the painting in the museum, many people see just as it is, not the life it’s taken on, from its creation to the journey it’s been through just to be in that museum. That painting obviously had importance to many people and had probably touched many lives. But the same can be said for the old woman too. You think about how many people she could have affected in her live time, and then her family and so on, and the ripples are nearly infinite. Both the woman and the painting have touched so many lives, it’s really hard to fathom. The end of the poem though really puts everything into perspective though. That no matter how much we try to preserve these things, even if we choose between the two, like everything else in this world they are both finite.

  12. andreamcginley

    I kind of like this poem. It reminds me of some of the ambiguousness of life and how sometimes there are questions that just do not have a clear answer or one that matters. Such as the young children in the ethics class they are too young to care about old things, whether they are a priceless painting or a person. Children are more concerned about which game to play at recess. As the poem follows the young turn to old, yet they still do not care about which is more priceless. Which MasterCard commericial is better than another. Though our ethics decide on what type of person we are, it does not say ill of us if there are just no appealing answers to us. An interesting point we talked about in class is that painters want to be remembered and appriciated for centuries to come. To me this sounded selfish, and in any ethics class it would probably talk against selfish behavior and to help others. However I would like to believe that many artists do their work for others inpiration and enjoyment. This poem not only offers and ethical delima about life versus art, but it can be used as a question in every day life. There are times when there are two answers to a problem, but neither are favorable. It all depends on our preferences.Again, I like that this poem is on the countdown. I think poetry should apply to everyday life, no matter how long ago it was written.

  13. I have yet to take a real ethics class but I don’t think that this poem is really about ethics class. I see it more being about the way that Linda feels as an adult looking at the Rembrandt. I have the suspicious thought that really as an old lady she suddenly remembers that point in her life where she was faced with the question. Now all those years later she feels old and looks into the old that has been saved and thinks why? The question of which to save the old lady on her last leg or the painting that has been restored for others to see. I wonder myself what I would prefer. No one is going to restore me and save me for future generations. So should I take away what has already been saved for the few years of my life that are left on this planet? I think not, I think that saving something that will explain tomorrow what happened long ago and maybe appreciate that extraordinary things were done long before we were around is more important then what I have to give in those few years left. Do I want to be chosen over no but I would want something that I did for future generations to enjoy to be chosen. So like Linda has to say really we are all beyond saving by children.

  14. In this poem it made me think don’t we all make tough dessions in life, don’t we know that something so vaulable may not be the way we should choose. We all look at different dessions in many ways that we want to to vaule something more then what it really is worth. To one a painting may be worth more then a life, to others the opposite. What you really ask is what do you think what is it worth to you.

  15. Although I was not in class to hear the reading of this poem, I was able to find it on the internet and read it. I found this poem to be a little disturbing because of the “ethical” question that was asked. To me, this question is a no brainer and really doesn’t reflect ethics, but common sense. A human life is always worth more than a painting or any other material item, regardless of how much time the person has left to live. Ethically, I could not live with myself if I were to remove a painting before helping someone from a burning building.
    I really enjoyed the blog entry and how you informed us that this is one of the most popular poems written and also one that is most sold as a Term paper. It is funny how a poem entitled Ethics involves so much immorality.
    After reading your blog entry and how the actions on September 11th made you think of St. Pauls Chapel, I tried to think of a similar situation that would cause me to wonder about in the midst of life loss. I thought about many of the items that I have in my house that I consider important. My high school letterman jacket, the many pictures of my deceased grandparents and the bronze star medal that I earned in combat, all of which are extremely important to me but not so much that I would want anyone to lose a life over. I guess it’s hard for me to grasp the example of ethics that are portrayed in the poem because I just don’t value anything as much as I value a life. I have not looked up the definition of ethics, but when I hear the word, the first thing that comes to mind is morality. Morality, regardless of age would entail doing the right thing at all times and to me, whether I am a child in a classroom or an older person in the museum.

  16. I think this poem is about how your ethical development is just that a development and as children many are unaware of the fact that one must have codes by which to live by, a moral code. Through years of experiences the speaker realizes that indeed there is not much of a difference between ones world famouse art and ones life. But why, is it the fact that she believe all we leave behind is a legacy. Had the speaker never admired art as she had that day she noticed the vibrancy and beauty within the paintings in that particular museum? Personally I don’t believe that the life of a piece of art should supersede the value of any human life. Which moral code or world view would one attest to?

  17. In the poem “Ethics,” I feel the question of choosing life or art is a tricky one. Like Morris said they are the same after all, so there would be no way to choose. I suppose if I were in that situation I would save a life over the painting, but discussing the question hypothetically and analyzing it, it is not as easy as that. The statement when art is lost the people’s dreams and ideas are lost with it makes the appreciation for art much greater. And that would be the same if a human’s life were lost, the ideas and dreams of that person are also gone forever. I guess that is one point that proves art and life can be one in the same. I don’t know if this applies, but some people hold on to items because of the memories, the item might not necessarily be art, but it still contains something worth hanging onto. When I keep things I feel like if I lose that item I might forget the memory that went a long with it. I would feel the same if I were to lose someone close to me, I might forget the memories we once shared because that person is no longer there to discuss them with me. I don’t think there is an unethical answer to this question, if there is an answer at all.

  18. In her poem “Ethics,” Linda Pastan describes a question her teacher would ask students from her ethics class every fall, “If there were a fire in a museum/ which would you save, a Rembrandt painting or an old woman?” This was obviously meant to be a hard choice. However, for the students, such a hypothetical question only brought forth half-hearted answers. To choose between life and a work of art, one would assume it would be easy to pick life but it’s a tough decision because a Rembrandt painting is equally valuable as life. Pastan clearly is in a dilemma, however, not about the answer to the teacher’s question rather about the strength of such a question. Her dislike for the hypothetical situation is apparent in the last line of the poem where she says that an old woman or a painting cannot be saved by young students anyway. Thus, hypothetical ethical quandaries are almost not worthy of speculation, according to Pastan.

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