Rhetorical Analysis Samples
Mad Men - Swift on Guns - Moulin Rouge! - "Canadians"
The Falling Cat
Mad Men's opening credits give a preview of what's going to happen to Don in the show. In the first part of the animated sequence Don sets his briefcase down and then everything in the office collapses — suggesting that his actions make everything fall down or fall apart. This connects to the second part, where he falls past advertising images containing alcohol and women — suggesting that he falls as a result of the very things he promotes in his office. Instead of crashing onto the pavement, however, Don lands safely — suggesting a cat-like ability to land on his feet no matter how hard he falls. The credits thus prepare us for Don's precipitous life of drinking and womanizing, and for his ability to land on his feet — a cycle which repeats itself throughout the series.
The long second part of the credits visually suggests that Don falls because of a combination of drinking and womanizing. Drinking and womanizing are explicitly linked: across from a fish-net stocking’d leg is a beer being poured; next to the gigantic mascara’d eyes of a brunette model is a giant tumbler with ice. Don also falls between two images of beautiful women straight into a giant tumbler of whiskey. Beneath the tumbler is a diamond ring sparkling on a finger — suggesting the marriage Don betrays by sleeping with other women. Don then falls past a tall man, a blond women, a boy, and a girl — suggesting Don, Betty, and their son and daughter. Opposite this image of the happy nuclear family is the image of the beautiful woman with the tumbler and the thick mascara. Juxtaposing this woman with large, bedroom eyes with the happy family suggests that Don will lose his happy family because he keeps falling for other women.
Don's fall in the credits is seen again and again in seasons one and two (where we see his marriage with Betty fall apart), and it recurs later in the series. In "The Phantom" (S5 E13), Don literally walks away from his second wife Megan (who is ecstatic and tells him she loves him) and into an dark ornate bar, during which the James Bond song, "You Only Live Twice" starts to play. Don orders an Old Fashioned, which usually contains whiskey and other ingredients served in a tumbler — thus echoing the tumbler Don falls into during the credits. A beautiful young woman comes up to him, asking if he wants to join her and her friend. Don looks at the woman with bedroom eyes, which indicates to the viewer that he’s about to repeat the second part of the credits by falling for yet another woman who isn’t his wife.
In the third part of the credits, Don's sitting comfortably on a couch, which suggests that he’ll land on his feet — as he does after his break-up with Megan, and as he does after he loses his job in season six. In the credits, Don's office collapses and he falls to the temptations of the commercial and sensual world he manipulates in his office, yet just as he doesn’t drown in the tumbler of whiskey, so he doesn’t fall onto the pavement and die. While we don’t see him land, we do find him sitting elegantly on a couch, the white cigarette in his hand offset by the white collar of his black suit (the clothing he’s worn throughout the credits and throughout the seven seasons of the series). Don’s cat-like ability to land safely can be seen in the last episode of season six: after losing both Megan and his job (his office collapsing metaphorically), he takes his children to look at the brothel where he grew up. As they stand looking at the decrepit house, we see that his daughter Sally still loves him, and that he has every chance of making her a part of his life.
The Falling Cat
The credits prepare us for Don's precipitous life of drinking and womanizing, and for his ability to land on his feet — a cycle which repeats itself throughout the series.
The long second part of the credits visually suggests that Don falls because of a combination of drinking and womanizing.
Don's fall in the credits is seen again and again in seasons one and two (where we see his marriage with Betty fall apart), and it recurs later in the series.
In the third part of the credits, Don's sitting comfortably on a couch, which suggests that he’ll land on his feet — as he does after his break-up with Megan, and as he does after he loses his job in season six.
Swift on Guns
The following excerpt is from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver Travels (1726), a fictional work in which the character Gulliver travels all over the world and discovers fabulous lands where people are gigantic, horses talk, etc. Behind the make-believe, however, are satiric depictions of European life. Gulliver often acts as an unwitting representative of everything Swift sees wrong with 18th Century English society.
In the following excerpt Gulliver is in a land where the people are gigantic (which partly explains why the king likens humans to insects at the end of the passage). Gulliver is trying to impress the king with European technology and ingenuity. He assumes that the king will be as excited as he is by the application of science to warfare. Even at the end of the passage he assumes that the king’s objections to guns and canons come from “a certain narrowness of thinking” and from an “unnecessary scruple.” While the narrator (Gulliver) is telling us one thing, what is the author (Swift) telling us? What does this difference between narrator and author suggest about the rhetorical strategy? Please note that I’ve simplified and modernized the original text.
Great allowances should be given to a king, who lives wholly secluded from the rest of the world, and must therefore be unacquainted with the manners and customs that most prevail in other nations. The want of which knowledge will ever produce many prejudices, and a certain narrowness of thinking, from which England and the politer countries of Europe are wholly exempted. It would be hard, indeed, if so remote a prince's notions of virtue and vice were to be offered as a standard for all mankind.
To confirm what I have now said, and further to show the miserable effects of a confined education, I shall here insert a passage which will be hard to believe. In hopes to gain his majesty's favour, I told him of an invention, discovered between three and four hundred years ago, to make a certain powder, into a heap of which, the smallest spark of fire falling, would kindle the whole in a moment, although it were as big as a mountain, and make it all fly up in the air together, with a noise and agitation greater than thunder. I told him that a proper quantity of this powder rammed into a hollow tube of brass or iron, according to its bigness, would drive a ball of iron or lead, with such violence and speed, as nothing was able to sustain its force. And that the largest balls thus discharged, would not only destroy whole ranks of an army at once, but batter the strongest walls to the ground, sink down ships, with a thousand men in each, to the bottom of the sea. When linked together by a chain, these cannonballs would cut through masts and rigging, divide hundreds of bodies in the middle, and lay all waste before them. We often put this powder into large hollow balls of iron, and discharged them by an engine into some city we were besieging, which would rip up the pavements, tear the houses to pieces, burst and throw splinters on every side, dashing out the brains of all who came near. I told him that I knew the ingredients very well, that they were cheap and common, and that I understood the manner of compounding them. I could direct his workmen how to make those tubes, of a size proportional to all other things in his majesty's kingdom, and the largest need not be above a hundred feet long. Twenty or thirty of these tubes, charged with the proper quantity of powder and balls, would batter down the walls of the strongest town in his dominions in a few hours, or destroy the whole metropolis, if ever it should pretend to dispute his absolute commands. [...]
The king was struck with horror at the description I had given of those terrible engines, and the proposal I had made. He was amazed that I could entertain such inhuman ideas, and in so familiar a manner, as to appear wholly unmoved at all by the scenes of blood and desolation which I had painted as the common effects of those destructive machines. He said, “some evil genius, enemy to mankind, must have been the first contriver.” As for himself, he protested, that although few things delighted him so much as new discoveries in art or in nature, yet he would rather lose half his kingdom, than be privy to such a secret, which he commanded me, as I valued any life, never to mention any more.
A strange effect of narrow principles and views! that a prince— possessed of every quality which procures veneration, love, and esteem, of strong parts, great wisdom, and profound learning, endowed with admirable talents, and almost adored by his subjects—should, from a nice, unnecessary scruple, whereof in Europe we can have no conception, let slip an opportunity put into his hands that would have made him absolute master of the lives, the liberties, and the fortunes of his people!
While there are many ways to write a rhetorical analysis, I suggest two basic approaches (in addition to the block and splice approaches already outlined in Essay Structure). I’ll push the analysis in certain directions, and then you can practice by completing the analysis.
Practice # 1
One way to start a rhetorical analysis is to locate separate rhetorical strategies and then figure out how they come together to make a point. Using a colour-code system, highlight the following strategies — in the uncoloured text above.
Satire (or attack) directed against England and Europe
Logos, Process analysis: the making of explosives
Description: violence of explosives; violence (and evil?) of human nature
Construct an outline of an argument about Swift’s rhetoric, and then use your outline to write an essay.
I suggest doing this exercize first — with the uncoloured text above — and then looking at the colour-coded text below.
Practice # 2
Another way to do a rhetorical analysis is to focus on one strategy and then show how it works in several stages or in its different aspects. This way is often preferable, since you’ll have a unified essay from the start, and you won’t have to struggle so hard to combine the different aspects.
For instance, in the colour-coded text above, you may have noticed that the excerpt starts and finishes with the colour blue, the one that highlights Swift’s satire, his attack on European feelings of superiority. You may also have noticed that this sense of superiority was contradicted in many ways by the violent use to which Europeans put their technology, and by the glee Gulliver displays in describing death and destruction. You could write an essay that focuses on the way Gulliver’s view of things is attacked by Swift. You could focus on the fundamental irony in the text: on the surface, the words of Gulliver say one thing, yet underneath his words Swift is saying something completely different.
Try to analyze the text in terms of irony, that is, in terms of the difference between what Gulliver is saying and what Swift is saying.
Below are the beginnings of a sample outline and a sample essay on Swift’s irony. How could you finish this essay? How could you return to the opening scenario in your conclusion? Try to write your own essay before looking at the samples below.
Aren’t Guns Wonderful?
While Gulliver’s uses graphic descriptions and displays great pride in European ingenuity, Swift uses satire to attack everything Gulliver says.
Gulliver’s description of the history of gunpowder is so violent and enthusiastic that the reader cannot help but question Gulliver’s point of view.
— discovery of gun powder
— immediate application of discovery to violent ends: blowing things up, killing people; horrific wide-scale applications: ranks, ships, towns, “dashing out brains”
— narrator’s excitement is so at odds with the horror he is describing that the reader concludes Swift is using irony
— leads to questions about what Swift is really saying
The narrator’s excited generalizations about the narrow perspective of the king become the author’s criticism of a narrow, brutal mode of thinking.
— in first paragraph we imagine narrator could be right about king, but by last paragraphs — i.e. after the history of guns paragraph (above)—we invert what narrator says — narrator’s condescension turns on narrator
— we start to see him as evil?
— narrator’s excitement and his model of civilization turns into a dire warning - about civilization and - about liking violence
Aren’t Guns Wonderful?
Imagine you are a ninety years old: you’ve lived through World War II and The Cold War, only to reach “The War on Terror.” You ask yourself: are humans destined to keep on killing each other? Where did we get this idea of using technology to put each other in the grave? The Eighteenth Century writer Jonathan Swift asked these same questions, long before fighter planes and laser-guided weapons. Looking back at his writing now, it seems he grasped a basic point about human nature: as soon as we see a way of using technology to control situations aggressively, we don’t hesitate to use that technology. Swift’s writing is not straightforward, however, in that he delivers his criticism ironically, that is, through the mouth of an overly enthusiastic character, Gulliver, who is also the narrator. While Gulliver’s uses graphic descriptions and displays great pride in European ingenuity, Swift uses satire to attack everything Gulliver says.
Gulliver’s description of the history of gunpowder is so violent and enthusiastic that the reader cannot help but question Gulliver’s point of view. In paragraph two Gulliver gives a brief history of the development and initial use of guns, telling us that “between three and four hundred years ago” explosive powder was discovered, and that immediately it was applied to guns. The description is striking, in that it goes from a very detached, scientific observation on the origins of gunpowder to increasingly violent applications of its use. We go from “a certain powder” and “a proper quantity,” to “powder rammed,” “all fly up together,” “destroy whole ranks” and “divide hundreds of bodies in the middle, and lay all [to] waste.” Gulliver’s excitement is suspect, for who would get excited about such killing and maiming? And why is no one asking basic questions, such as, Why is the discovery so immediately applied to warfare? Swift is saying a great deal by not saying anything at all, that is, by letting Gulliver do all the talking.
Gulliver’s excited generalizations about the narrow perspective of the king become Swift’s criticism of a narrow, brutal mode of thinking.
You could stop your essay here, or you may want to add a paragraph about the irony Swift uses to comment on the difference between good government and tyrannical government. While Gulliver sees himself and Europe as superior, his view of a king’s role is opposed to human rights, decency, and good government.
Moulin Rouge! ('Elephant Love Song Medley')
All You Need is Love
In the “The Elephant Love Song Medley” the poor, idealistic writer Christian and the business-like courtesan Satine are drawn together into an almost magical world. The unity of this romantic world is created by the lyrics, which are increasingly integrated, and by the setting, which suggests intimacy and freedom.
Luhrmann uses increasingly integrated lyrics to unite the pair, who literally and metaphorically start off on different notes yet end up on the same note. Initially, Satine speaks prose words at odds with the poetic words Christian sings: Christian uses a famous line from the Beatles, “All you need is love,” to which Satine responds — without rhyme — “A girl has got to eat.” Satine then drops the prose and starts to sing in poetry, yet she continues to contradict him: Christian sings a line from Kiss, “You were made for loving me,” to which Satine responds, “The only way of loving me, baby, is to pay a lovely fee.” Note that although she contradicts Christian, she's entering into the way he's communicating. We can see that Satine is coming around to Christian's point of view when she contradicts him using lyrics from the same song he sings. Finally, she looks out into the night sky of Paris and initiates a new song: “Some people want to fill the world / With silly love songs.” Christine responds, “Well, what's wrong with that? / I'd like to know.” She thus starts a song which she knows to have an argument which starts off against love songs, yet which ends up in favour of them.
As they near the end of the medley, their interchange becomes more and more integrated. They sing in increasing unison the lyrics from David Bowie's “Heroes.” The lyrics are about living love “just for one day,” which is appropriate to the story, since Satine has a terminal illness and they won't have long to spend together. At the end of the medley they're singing the same words in harmony, Satine's higher voice floating above Christian's lower voice — highlighting the female-male opposites as well as the attraction of these opposites. They then sing Whitney Houston's line, “I can't help loving you” in three parts: Satine sings “I,” they both sing “can't stop loving,” and Christian sings “you.” The final lyrics they sing are from Elton's John's “Your Song,” which Christian sang earlier in the film to Satine the first time he expressed his love for her. At that time, she was moved, yet she didn't enter into a medley duet — also, she was under the illusion she was conversing with a rich Duke. This time, she knows who Christian is, and she initiates the same Elton John song: she sings “How wonderful life is,” and he then completes the line by singing, “when you're in the world.”
The setting of the scene also unites the pair by creating a romantic atmosphere, which encourages intimacy and freedom. The lights of Paris (often referred to as 'the city of love') sparkle in the distance and the night-time setting suggests the couple’s intimate seclusion — away from society's notions about either high-class prostitutes or bohemian writers. Christian moves freely on top of the elephant that holds Satine’s bedroom, suggesting to Satine that they're free to do what they want. He demonstrates to her that no one can stop them when, after she yells for him to get down, he remains on the dome of the elephant’s head. Her life as a courtesan is beneath them, and for now they're close to the heavens and stars, breathing in the fresh air of the vast Paris sky surrounding them. The words, the music, the romance of Paris at night — combined with other aspects of the setting — such as the heart-shaped doorway that implodes into glittering fragments — all suggest that Christian's romanticism will outweigh Satine's practicality in the end.
All You Need is Love
The unity of this romantic world is created by the lyrics, which are increasingly integrated, and by the setting, which suggests intimacy and freedom.
Luhrmann uses increasingly integrated lyrics to unite the pair, who literally and metaphorically start off on different notes yet end up on the same note.
As they near the end of the medley, their interchange becomes more and more integrated.
The setting of the scene also unites the pair by creating a romantic atmosphere, which encourages intimacy and freedom.
The following rhetorical analysis examines Atwood's “Canadians: What Do They Want?”, which can be found in your course-pack (the one you bought at the bookstore). Look closely at this sample of rhetorical analysis, particularly since later (when we get to the evaluation section of the course) you'll be looking at a sample essay that examines the same Atwood essay from an evaluative angle.
The Bristling North
In her essay “Canadians: What Do They Want?” (1982) Margaret Atwood examines Canadian identity in relation to the United States. Leaving aside questions of Quebec nationalism, aboriginal land claims, and the influence of England, she focuses primarily on today’s over-riding influence on Canada — the United States — and on how Canadians sometimes bristle when Americans assume Canadians ought to be happy about the present position of influence Americans have in the world. Atwood gets her points across by using comparisons that align gender with militarism, that use geography to illustrate a power differential, and that make parallels between the history of Roman imperialism and US foreign policy.
Atwood starts and ends her essay by aligning the male gender with militarism. Taking a feminist and pacifist position, she likens the violence of men to the violence of America. Men’s shoes remind her of jackboots or army boots, and she asserts that women have a difficult time appreciating the entirety of a man because even looking at his shoes reminds them of the violence men commit. Likewise, Canadians have a difficult time appreciating the positive aspects of America because they find it difficult to see past the violence Americans commit. She doesn't examine American violence, yet this is presumably obvious to Canadians who watch U.S. media, or who know about U.S. history.
Atwood’s geographical comparison, between the U.S. and a hypothetically larger Mexico, is used to illustrate to her American audience the sensitivity that comes with a large power differential. She urges her audience to imagine a Mexico that's ten times as large as the US — a hypothetical situation that may well resonate, given the large recent increases in Latino populations in the US, especially in states bordering Mexico. Explaining to Americans how their neighbours to the north feel, she points out that the uncomfortable feeling Canadians have (that they're like a satellite or branch plant) is a function of sheer numbers and economic forces, not of excessive national sensitivity. By giving Americans a comparison that they might appreciate, she aims to help them understand that Canadian resentment is a natural feeling. The resentment may cause Canadians to bristle, but it's understandable on an emotional level.
Her discussion of the power differential leads to her third comparison — between imperial Rome and imperial America. She asserts that just as France during the Roman Empire was a satellite, so Canada during the present American empire is a satellite. The difference, according to Atwood, is that the Romans didn't expect the French to like them, whereas Americans expect Canadians to like them. By giving this historic dimension to her essay, Atwood suggests that Canadian sentiment is a function of time, and is a function of a process that has happened for ages. It's really nothing unique or idiosyncratic. This historical comparison with Rome complements her previous geographical comparison (with Mexico) to give the reader a larger context — in both space and time — which aims to explain the feelings of Canadians.