In the 4th century Aristotle, a Greek philosopher, wrote the book “On Rhetoric”, in which he talks about the art of persuasion. In this book he argues that there are three key elements to persuade someone. One of these elements is ethos, or ethical appeal. Aristotle originally defines ethos as being trustworthy, he states that we are more likely to believe someone who has good character, or someone who is similar to us (Duglan, 2010).
In a way, ethos belongs to the audience; it is they that determine whether a speaker has high or low ethos. English professor George P. Landow says that some writers use ethos to make the reader accept their judgments and these judgments in turn allow the reader to evaluate characters in their stories. Along with ethical appeals, some writers also use characterization to further describe a character in a story. Characterization is a powerful literary device that allows writers to develop characters and create image.
With direct characterization the author tells the readers what a character is like, but with indirect characterization, the reader must infer what a character is like through the character’s thoughts, actions and speech. In “Letter from Greenwich Village”, Vivian Gornick uses both, ethos and characterization, to establish credibility and create image for a character named Leonard. And although we do not really know him, through her use of ethos and various examples of characterization, we get a good idea of what Leonard is like.
One way authors build credibility is by appearing sincere, fair minded and or knowledgeable. Vivian starts off her essay by immediately stating how long she has known Leonard. She says, “For nearly twenty years now Leonard and I have met once a week for a walk, dinner, and a movie, either in his neighborhood or mine”.
For 20 years Vivian and Leonard have spent a few hours together a week, which means that through the years she must have gotten to know him very well. Here, Vivian is using personal experience to build trust with her readers. By sounding sincere about how long she has known him, fair minded and knowledgeable about Leonard, her readers will perceive her as trustworthy and accept what she has to say about him.
Continuing her essay, Gornick moves on to the use of characterization to begin describing her friend. She admits that their conversations are the most satisfying and they could not give it up for something else, like a reading or a play. But she also reveals why they, if they enjoy each other’s company, do not meet more than once a week.
She states that “The problem is, we both have a penchant for the negative”. This is an example of direct characterization; it lets the reader know that although they enjoy talking, they avoid seeing each other more than once a week because they both struggle with pessimism. For both Vivian and Leonard, the glass is always half empty, meaning they share the same perspective and outlook on life; focusing on the bad things in a situation rather than the good ones.
The speaker continues to describe Leonard’s attitude by using an indirect method of characterization, speech. What a character says provides the reader with great insight and reveals things about what they are like. On one occasion, Vivian stands her ground better than her friend, who is famous for his debating skills, people crowd around her and tell her “That was wonderful”, while Leonard on the other hand focuses on the negative and says, “You were nervous”. Other times he tells her things like; “That is sad. That you find it irritating to be so much with your niece”, or “The rain didn’t daunt you”. Leonard’s dialogue shows that he mainly focuses on the worst aspect of things and does not care about the effects this negative judgement will have on his friend Vivian.
Leonard’s negative judgements harm Vivian. She describes it as “Nothing serious, just surface damage”, but it is this pain that stops her from calling Leonard and seeing him again in the week. The surface damage turns to failure of nerve, the failure of nerve into ennui, or boredom with life and then come mixed feelings. It is then that she starts to feel urgency to see Leonard again and she makes the phone call. A one week cycle, for which they consider themselves intimates. Here, Vivian is relying on her sincerity and experience to gain her reader’s trust.
By sharing her experiences with Leonard and her feelings towards him, her audience is able to identify with her sees her as ‘one of them’. This is an example of the similarity Aristotle talked about. He believed that an audience is more likely to be persuaded by someone who is similar to them, someone who they can identify with. Leonard’s actions and Vivian’s reaction are also an example of indirect characterization. It shows us that his attitude and behavior hurt others, but even after the damage, Vivian still wants to see him.
Gornick continues to use direct characterization to further develop Leonard’s image. To do this she first describes her own like for things. She has always been known for her indifference for material objects. She has a disinterest for things and admits that “stuff” makes her desperate and sends her into panic. In contrast, her friend Leonard’s place is like a museum, filled with things like Japanese prints, Indian rugs and furniture upholstered in velvet. She describes his style of living as the “direct obverse” of her own. Kind of like a mirror image is identical in form but with the structure reversed, Leonard is trying to fill his surrounding as desperately as Gornick is not.
One of Vivian’s last examples of direct characterization is when she asks Leonard “What do you want?”. We learn from this that Leonard is unsure of what he wants, instead, he has always focused on what he does not want. His pessimism makes him believe that he has a ‘thorn’ in his side, and this is what keeps him from focusing on what he desires. We also learn that Leonard’s way of being, begins to have an impact on Vivian’s character.
Towards the end of her essay, she almost gets hit by a truck. A middle-aged man saves her and as he is holding her in his arms, she wonders what he is thinking. Once again, Vivian is using indirect characterization by showing us the effect Leonard has on others. He is influencing her. Normally a person would be happy and thankful for being saved. Instead, she says “This is his experience, not mine”, and that it is he who felt the urgency of life.
In conclusion, Vivian begins by establishing ethos in order to gain her readers trust. She builds her ethos by showing experience, sincerity and similarity. Gornick uses characterization to create Leonard’s image. She uses direct characterization to describe Leonard’s pessimism and his like for material objects and indirect characterization, like speech and actions, to allow her readers to learn more about his character and the effect he has on others. In the end, even though we do not know Leonard, we learn a lot about what he is like, his personality and his character.