Since ancient time ethos, pathos, and logos have been primary rhetorical categories. Aristotle defined them as basic modes of persuasion adding argumentative force to a speech. Nowadays these devices remain an integral part of any persuasive text. This paper is aimed at the analysis of persuasive techniques implementation in the article I Will Never Know Why by Susan Klebold.
The article touches upon teenage violence, one of the most painful problems of contemporary American society. Susan Klebold, whose son Dylan committed a massacre at his school, recalls the events of that tragic day and tries to reflect upon the reasons that could have made a seemingly inoffensive boy become a ruthless killer.
The article is organized according to the traditional logical scheme. It starts with an introduction and then develops into the main body and finishes with a conclusion. It is in the main body that ethical, pathetic, and logical appeals are especially apparent.
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A short opening paragraph establishes a strong extrinsic ethos of the author. Susan Klebold is introduced as a credible witness, whose words are the best testimony the reader needs. The ethical appeal is intensified by emphasizing the fact that everything written beneath is an objective, though perhaps a somewhat emotional description of facts, and that it is a look from within that can be provided only by a participant of events. Moreover, the author’s view is defined as a ‘chilling new perspective’ implying that some details of the story have been concealed from the public for a long time, and this article is the only source revealing the truth in all its unsightliness. A long period separating the tragedy and the writing of the article adds credibility to the author since the reader can suppose that she has already overcome the shock and can give an unprejudiced assessment of the events.
The author’s intrinsic ethos is also strong enough. Susan Klebold writes that during the years following the tragedy she has been conducting profound research on suicide. She provides statistics, examples from authoritative sources, and combines them with her personal observations. In some cases, the narrative style becomes close to scientific, which largely contributes to the author’s credibility. The author also exercises her authority as a researcher by giving the reader advice about dealing with suicidal states.
The author skillfully uses a pathetic appeal. The title establishes the atmosphere of the article. Judging by it, the reader is likely to form an idea about the general mood of the story. The phrase ‘I will never know why’ invokes an association with something tragic, and from the very beginning, the reader can assume that the author will try to share an exceedingly unpleasant experience.
Susan Klebold addresses the readers’ emotions by relating those details of her personal life that she has been reluctant to recall for years. The confidential tone creates a sense of the author’s identity with the audience. The pathetic is to a great extent achieved due to the usage of direct speech and drawing a parallel between the life before and after the tragedy, thus appealing to the reader’s sense of pity and parental affection. For instance, at the beginning of the article, the description of the author’s usual working day is suddenly replaced by disastrous news. Casual tone, in which the author explains peculiarities of her job, abruptly becomes highly emotional, sometimes almost hysterical. This effect is chiefly achieved by using various stylistic devices, including similes (“it felt as though millions of tiny needles were pricking at my skin”), hyperboles (“he has torn the house apart”), and rhetorical questions (“Were we at war?”). Syntactical parallelism also contributes to the growing tension and increases emotional impact (“My heart pounded in my ears. My hands began shaking”). Diction in these cases is informal and emotionally colored expressions are widely used. Describing her psychological state, the author appeals to the reader’s empathy. The strong antithesis between the description of Dylan as a child and that of his crime appeals wakes the reader’s sympathy. The initial image of an ordinary teenager reinforced by relating typical occupations (playing games, sleeping late) is abruptly ruined by a stunning revelation of Dylan’s arrest that is a precursor of the future tragedy. A non-linear narration (the usage of a flashback) enables the reader to trace Dylan’s gradual evolution from a peaceful boy into a ‘monster’ and makes him compassionate not only to the mother but to the criminal himself. Pathetic appeal to the reader’s sense of fear is also widely used in the article. The author creates an atmosphere of uncertainty by enumerating all the misfortunes that could have happened (a car crash, a war). Although the reader already knows the topic of the article, he/she is still feeling suspense and shares in the author’s apprehensions.
The author tries to use logos in order to persuade the audience. She strives to find a sufficient reason for Dylan’s crime. She tries to suppress her motherly feelings and analyze the teenager’s behavior in order to find signs of the imminent misfortunes. The study of Dylan’s writings and communication allows the author to assume that inability to admit his problems and ask for qualified help pushed him to the commitment of a crime. She uses a cause or consequence strategy stating that her son was driven to crime because of the inherent inclination to suicide that was not dealt with properly. She also refers to the testimonies of authoritative people (Dylan’s teacher who was alarmed by his paper). The author also uses scientific methods of describing the problem, such as giving a definition of the main concept and supporting her claims with concrete examples and statistics. Paragraphs, where the logos mode predominates, are distinguished by a dry, impartial tone and formal diction. The author sometimes uses terms, such as ‘perpetrator’, and ‘pathology’. Structural peculiarities are also characteristic of logos paragraphs. For instance, Susan Klebold emphasizes on the necessity of dealing with suicidal tendencies by the usage of parallel syntactical constructions and anaphoric beginning of sentences (“I hope... everyone will recognize the warning signs of suicide”; “I hope we will get over our fear”).
However, the impartial reasoning based on facts is often interrupted by emotional upsurges. The author repeatedly blames herself for her son’s actions and at the same time tries to excuse herself by stating that lack of public awareness of suicidal behavior was the principal reason why she took no preventive measures (“most of us do not see suicidal thinking as a threat”). Thus, Susan Klebold raises her personal tragedy to the level of a paramount social issue. Diction is informal in these cases. Emotionally colored words are widely used (“gawk”). The author also employs stylistic devices, such as hyperboles and metaphors (“they broke my heart”).
Susan Klebold’s article is not only a reminder of the past tragedy. It is also a possible means to prevent similar situations in the future. Powerful rhetoric techniques make the reader consider the described events not as personal trouble of a stranger, but as an issue that can concern everyone. Although the persuasive force of the article is chiefly provided by the pathos of the mother’s grief, the author also resorts to the logos appeal that increases the influence on the reader. The author does not simply share her sorrow with the reader but also expresses the hope that her experience will be useful for others. She also gives some practical advice concerning the possible ways to avoid the repetition of her tragedy.