Vocabulary and Tone in Pathedy of Manners Essay

Vocabulary and Tone in Pathedy of Manners Essay

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Ellen Kay’s “Pathedy of Manners” is a poem in which an anonymous narrator tells of a
woman who goes from being young and single, to married with children, to widowed and alone.
According to the title, her life is a “pathedy,” a pathetic tragedy. One way that Kay indicates the
tragic pathos of the woman’s situation is through the vocabulary and the tone, which changes
over the course of the poem. Analyzing these two elements helps to reveal Kay’s theme; valuing
material objects and meaningless social contact can lead to loneliness and empty relationships.
In stanzas one through three, the narrator describes a brilliant and privileged young
woman of twenty. The tone is cheerful and bright, and the vocabulary very specifically describes
a rarefied world of wealth, taste, and class: the popular young woman is in Phi Beta Kappa, an
academic honor society. She remains chaste although men seek her out. She learns to
appreciate things like “antique crystal and authentic pearls” (Kay 700). However, “when she
might have thought,” she instead chooses to “converse” (Kay 701), chatting rather than
considering. When the young woman graduates, she continues her “education,” learning to
distinguish real china from fake and turning down marriage proposals from minor royalty. The
young woman is clearly appealing, smart, and interested in the world, and the tone in these
stanzas is bright and optimistic. Indeed, according to Ellen Weiss, in her article “The Tragedy in
‘Pathedy of Manners,’” the young woman’s “ability to recognize quality and to make intellectual
decisions based on her judgment is laudable. The emptiness of such an existence—the seeming
lack of friends, the jargon, the chatting rather than thinkin...

... middle of paper ...

... surrounded by a “hundred people”; however, rather than communicate, they speak with
“meanings lost in manners” (Kay 701). In other words, the polite way in which they communicate
is more important to them than what they say. Indeed, the one person who seems to know the
woman very well—the narrator—talks about her but not to her. With her own choices, then, the
woman has limited her brilliance and potential to a single repetitive and shiny circle of nothing.
Kay makes this clear in a number of different ways, but most particularly with her vocabulary and

Works Cited

Kay, Ellen. “Pathedy of Manners.” Rpt. in Thomas R. Arp and Greg Johnson. Perrine’s
Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense. 11th
ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2012. 700-701.
Weiss, Ellen. “The Tragedy in ‘Pathedy of Manners.’” Poetry in June 121.8 (2009): 66-69. Print.

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