Literacy Shorts: Rhetorical Questions

Rhetorical questions are asked without the expectation of a direct answer being received.  Here’s a classic example…  Imagine it’s a windy day, very grey, cold, really quite miserable (you know the type, right?), and now imagine it’s period four and the fire alarm has just gone off, prompting two students in your GCSE class to start feigning panicked screeches…  You might turn to address them and reasonably ask:

Do you want to spend the rest of the week in detention?

The question wouldn’t require a verbal response because the answer is (or should be) self-evident: the students clearly won’t want to spend the rest of the week in detention and so, to avoid this unpleasant fate, they should moderate their behaviour accordingly.  Here’s another example from the novel Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley:

My person was hideous and my stature gigantic.  What did this mean?  Who was I?  What was I?  Whence did I come?  What was my destination?  These questions continually recurred, but I was unable to solve them.

Frankenstein Mary ShelleyAt this stage of the novel, Frankenstein’s monster has fled from the city of Ingolstadt and beyond into the surrounding woods, where he has managed to find shelter in a small hovel.  Wretched and alone, he reads The Sorrows of Werter, Paradise Lost and Plutarch’s Lives (he finds the texts discarded on the ground nearby along with, as luck would have it, some clothes).  In particular, The Sorrows of Werter prompts the Monster to grimly reflect on a number of tricky existential questions that, by his own admission, he is unable to solve.  In the quote above, the questions, unforgivingly sequenced as they are, remain answered, and this only serves to amplify the poor Monster’s sense of loneliness and confusion.  Here’s one more example, this time from the poem Mrs Midas, by Carol Ann Duffy: 

                                      Look, we all have wishes; granted.
But who has wishes granted? Him.  Do you know about gold? It feeds no one; aurum, soft, untarnishable; slakes no thirst.

The World's WifeIn the poem, Duffy retells the Midas myth from the perspective of the Phrygian king’s wife.  She is rightly scornful of her husband’s greed and foolishness (Midas was granted a wish by the god Dionysus whereby everything he touched would turn to gold).  In the lines above, Mrs Midas asks two questions.  She doesn’t require answers of any sort because she provides them herself.  This helps to highlight the strength of her feelings: her tone is confident and defiant.  She makes the uncomfortable truth of whole the sorry situation brutally clear: her husband was extraordinarily lucky to have a wish granted in the first place and was extraordinarily stupid to waste it.  Sometimes the best questions are the ones we answer ourselves (don’t tell Ofsted!) because they help us to state the obvious and, in doing so, allow us to emphasise a particular point.

Is that the end of this week’s bulletin?  Sadly, yes it is.  However, to keep you going, why not read the full version of Mrs Midas?  I’ve always thought the end of the poem is particularly sad:

TL;DR: Rhetorical questions are asked without the expectation of a direct answer being received


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