Introduction

A framework of moral or ethical behaviour is crucial to a civilized society, and we pick up many of its moral principles early on through education. However, people encounter circumstances throughout their lives when they must make their own judgments regarding what is the best way to proceed or best decision to make. Making the appropriate decision and accepting responsibility for that decision are both up to the person. The poem ‘Ethics” discusses these aspects in beautiful detail.

About The Poet

American poet Linda Pastan is of Jewish heritage. She served as Maryland’s Poet Laureate from 1991 to 1995. Linda Pastan is an essayist best known for her brief poems on parenting and family life.

Theme Of The Poem

Linda Pastan discusses her idea of the fundamental nature of ethics or principles in the poem “Ethics.” She recounts that every fall, her ethics instructor would pose the same question to her class, about ethics. . She explains how she understood the teacher’s genuine motive for asking the question, was to emphasize that seasons, paintings, and women are all equally significant and cannot be saved by kids.

Pastan demonstrates that young children do not completely comprehend what ethics are, instead they act in accordance with their moral convictions. She was now aware that morality develops as one gains life experience.

Part 1 

In ethics class so many years ago
our teacher asked this question every fall:
if there were a fire in a museum
which would you save, a Rembrandt painting
or an old woman who hadn't many
years left anyhow? Restless on hard chairs
caring little for pictures or old age
we'd opt one year for life, the next for art
and always half-heartedly. 

As Linda Pastan discusses her experiences and ethical development, she remembers the times in her school years when her ethics professor would give the same question to the class each autumn. If there was a fire at the museum, the instructor would have her students choose between saving a Rembrandt painting and a frail elderly woman. On hard seats, the pupils would fidget and make hesitant responses without grasping the purpose of the question. They didn’t give much credence to either life or art, so they alternated between the two each year. 

Part 2

Sometimes
the woman borrowed my grandmother's face
leaving her usual kitchen to wander
some drafty, half imagined museum.
One year, feeling clever, I replied
why not let the woman decide herself?
Linda, the teacher would report, eschews
the burdens of responsibility.
This fall in a real museum I stand
before a real Rembrandt, old woman,
or nearly so, myself. The colors
within this frame are darker than autumn,
darker even than winter — the browns of earth,
though earth's most radiant elements burn
through the canvas. I know now that woman
and painting and season are almost one
and all beyond saving by children.

Another year, Linda suggested letting the lady make her own decisions, but the teacher cautioned her against abandoning her duty to make a decision. Years later, in the fall that year, Linda went to a museum and stood in front of an actual Rembrandt. She saw the painting’s colors to be fascinating when she looked at it. On the canvas, the painter used those rich hues that are typical towards the end of a season. But she could see that even through these gloomy hues, the earth’s most dazzling elements were burning. She conveys what she observed in the Rembrandt that a youngster would not be able to see by using such images.

A magnificent artwork and an elderly woman are both beyond the ability of children to save, Pastan realized. Pastan recognized that a youngster would pick saving an elderly person above saving a painting because they believed it to be the ethically correct thing to do.