One way to develop our own essay-writing skills is to examine how professional writers achieve a range of different effects in their essays. Such a study is called a rhetorical analysis--or, to use Richard Lanham's more fanciful term, a lemon squeezer.
The sample rhetorical analysis that follows takes a look at an essay by E. B. White titled "The Ring of Time"--found in our Essay Sampler: Models of Good Writing (Part 4) and accompanied by a reading quiz.
But first a word of caution. Don't be put off by the numerous grammatical and rhetorical terms in this analysis: some (such as adjective clause and appositive, metaphor and simile) may already be familiar to you; others can be deduced from the context; all are defined in our Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms.
That said, if you have already read "The Ring of Time," you should be able to skip over the stranger looking terms and still follow the key points raised in this rhetorical analysis.
After reading this sample analysis, try applying some of the strategies in a study of your own. See our Tool Kit for Rhetorical Analysis and Discussion Questions for Rhetorical Analysis: Ten Topics for Review.
The Rider and the Writer in "The Ring of Time": A Rhetorical Analysis
In "The Ring of Time," an essay set in the gloomy winter quarters of a circus, E. B. White appears not yet to have learned the "first piece of advice" he was to impart a few years later in The Elements of Style:
Write in a way that draws the reader's attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author. . . .[T]o achieve style, begin by affecting none--that is, place yourself in the background. (70)Far from keeping to the background in his essay, White steps into the ring to signal his intentions, reveal his emotions, and confess his artistic failure. Indeed, the "sense and substance" of "The Ring of Time" are inextricable from the author's "mood and temper" (or ethos). Thus, the essay may be read as a study of the styles of two performers: a young circus rider and her self-conscious "recording secretary."
In White's opening paragraph, a mood-setting prelude, the two main characters stay hidden in the wings: the practice ring is occupied by the young rider's foil, a middle-aged woman in "a conical straw hat"; the narrator (submerged in the plural pronoun "we") assumes the languorous attitude of the crowd. The attentive stylist, however, is already performing, evoking "a hypnotic charm that invite[s] boredom." In the abrupt opening sentence, active verbs and verbals carry an evenly measured report:
After the lions had returned to their cages, creeping angrily through the chutes, a little bunch of us drifted away and into an open doorway nearby, where we stood for awhile in semidarkness, watching a big brown circus horse go harumphing around the practice ring.The metonymic "harumphing" is delightfully onomatopoetic, suggesting not only the sound of the horse but also the vague dissatisfaction felt by the onlookers. Indeed, the "charm" of this sentence resides primarily in its subtle sound effects: the alliterative "cages, creeping" and "big brown"; the assonant "through the chutes"; and the homoioteleuton of "away . . . doorway." In White's prose, such sound patterns appear frequently but unobtrusively, muted as they are by diction that is commonly informal, at times colloquial ("a little bunch of us" and, later, "we kibitzers").
Informal diction also serves to disguise the formality of the syntactic patterns favored by White, represented in this opening sentence by the balanced arrangement of subordinate clause and present-participial phrase on either side of the main clause. The use of informal (though precise and melodious) diction embraced by an evenly measured syntax gives White's prose both the conversational ease of the running style and the controlled emphasis of the periodic. It is no accident, therefore, that his first sentence begins with a time marker ("after") and ends with the central metaphor of the essay--"ring." In between, we learn that the spectators are standing in "semidarkness," thus anticipating the "bedazzlement of a circus rider" to follow and the illuminating metaphor in the essay's final line.
White adopts a more paratactic style in the remainder of the opening paragraph, thus both reflecting and blending the dullness of the repetitious routine and the languor felt by the onlookers. The quasi-technical description in the fourth sentence, with its pair of prepositionally embedded adjective clauses ("by which . . ."; "of which . . .") and its Latinate diction (career, radius, circumference, accommodate, maximum), is notable for its efficiency rather than its spirit. Three sentences later, in a yawning tricolon, the speaker draws together his unfelt observations, maintaining his role as spokesman for a dollar-conscious crowd of thrill-seekers. But at this point the reader may begin to suspect the irony underlying the narrator's identification with the crowd. Lurking behind the mask of "we" is an "I": one who has elected not to describe those entertaining lions in any detail, one who, in fact, does want "more . . . for a dollar."
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