Rhetorical Question in 'The Cleaving' by Li-Young Lee: Analytical Essay

This essay sample was donated by a student to help the academic community. Papers provided by EduBirdie writers usually outdo students' samples.

Cite this essay cite-image

In “The Cleaving,” Li-Young Lee presents two contrasting perspectives on eating. The first perspective shows how eating leads to death and separation. The second perspective signals eating’s transformative growth and blending of opposites. Rather than introducing these two ideas in static opposition to each other, the poem explores a progression from the first idea to the second. By employing repetition and Socratic-rhetorical questions throughout the poem, Lee introduces a possible resolution to this binary opposition, where purposeful growth leads to a meaningful death.

The fourth stanza of the poem presents how eating coexists with death, in the form of the narrator eating a piece of duck brain that the butcher cleaved. “I take it gingerly between my fingers and suck it down. I eat my man.” By “eating” his man, the narrator realizes that the food he consumes is a direct result of another creature’s death. The first rhetorical question the author poses, “Did this animal, after all, at the moment its neck broke, image the way his executioner shrinks from his own death?” brings into light that the butcher, narrator, and the duck are connected by death. Through the action of eating, the narrator starts fearing his own death. “Is this how I, too, recoil from my day?” The author continues to use the “Is this how” question structure throughout this stanza. By asking those rhetorical questions, the author strikes the point that eating is the ultimate image of death.

Save your time!
We can take care of your essay
  • Proper editing and formatting
  • Free revision, title page, and bibliography
  • Flexible prices and money-back guarantee
Place an order

In the seventh stanza, the narrator begins to confront the Chinese stereotypes, exploring possible resolutions to his internal anguishment along the way. The narrator mulls over a fish that he’s holding at the butcher shop. “I hold up an old head from the sea and admire the haughty down-curved mouth that seems to disdain all the eyes are blind to, including me, the eater. Its shape complements the shape of my mind.” The word “shape” is repeated in this context to connect the disdain that the fish has for the narrator to the disdain that the narrator has for the world. The narrator’s disdain for the world can be attributed to the anti-Chinese sentiments in the United States, as well as Lee’s history of living in alienation. However, the sentence immediately after, “I take it as text and evidence of the world’s love for me, and I feel urged to utterance, urged to read the body of the world, urged to say it in human terms,” juxtaposes his disdain with a sarcastic acceptance of anti-Chinese attitudes. The narrator’s repetition of “urged” emphasizes his desire to show society that the stereotypes about him are not true. Up to this point in the poem, the idea of eating leading to death has gradually transitioned into the suggestion that eating leads to a hunger for change.

In the same stanza, the first three repetitions of the phrase “I would eat” follows the narrator as he shifts from eating food items to eating non-food items, such as people and their actions. The following repetition of the phrase is placed in the middle of the sentence, rather than at the beginning. The intentional interruption of the sentence flow lends credence to the significance of the words before and after the “I would eat.” The phrase before the repetition, “The deaths at the sinks, those bodies prepared for eating,” presents a more literal definition and imagery of eating, versus the rest of the sentence where the narrator directly confronts anti-Chinese violence in America. The narrator’s emotions reach a climax in the next line, “I would devour this race to sing it, this race that according to Emerson managed to preserve to a hair for three or four thousand years the ugliest features in the world.” Rather than using the word “eat” in this repetition, Lee replaces “eat” with “devour,” which connotes more of an aggressive and animalistic style of eating. The employment of diction along with repetition clues the reader into the sentence’s importance. By directly quoting Emerson’s published works, he begins a conversation with American culture. Instead of adapting to the white American’s interests, he accepts and takes pride in his own culture’s customs. Eating becomes a metaphor for opening and accepting oneself to whatever is painful and transformative. By eating Emerson, the narrator is triumphing over Emerson and his racist criticisms of the Chinese, not in the form of violence, but in the form of disassociating himself from Emerson’s ideas. With each repetition of “I would eat” throughout the stanza, the narrator is suggesting that positive change requires an embrace between the racialized self and the racist other.

The narrator explores a possible resolution between the two viewpoints of eating at the end of the eighth stanza with the rhetorical question, “What is my eating, rapt as it is, but another shape of going, my immaculate expiration?” The narrator knows that eating prolongs life, but it doesn’t stop death; eating only postpones death. “Shape” is mentioned once again, but this time the narrator wants his body to be transcendent when he dies. In Chinese culture, it is important that the person’s entire body is in whole when dying. In the next stanza, the narrator says, “All of the body’s revisions end in death.” The narrator brings up one last Socratic rhetorical question, “Else what is this violence, this salt, this passion, this heaven?” By now, the narrator realized that the ultimate goal of life is to transform, grow, and change for the better before death. The reality is that all the growth eventually leads to death, but that death can be meaningful for others and society. Although it initially seemed counterintuitive at first, the narrator now sees that the violence against Chinese Americans has some purpose. Without it, there would have been no chance for him to transform as a person and transcend racial barriers. Likewise, without death being the contrast, life is essentially pointless, as well as the concept of heaven.

Make sure you submit a unique essay

Our writers will provide you with an essay sample written from scratch: any topic, any deadline, any instructions.

Cite this paper

Rhetorical Question in ‘The Cleaving’ by Li-Young Lee: Analytical Essay. (2023, April 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/rhetorical-question-in-the-cleaving-by-li-young-lee-analytical-essay/
“Rhetorical Question in ‘The Cleaving’ by Li-Young Lee: Analytical Essay.” Edubirdie, 21 Apr. 2023, edubirdie.com/examples/rhetorical-question-in-the-cleaving-by-li-young-lee-analytical-essay/
Rhetorical Question in ‘The Cleaving’ by Li-Young Lee: Analytical Essay. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/rhetorical-question-in-the-cleaving-by-li-young-lee-analytical-essay/> [Accessed 23 Jun. 2024].
Rhetorical Question in ‘The Cleaving’ by Li-Young Lee: Analytical Essay [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Apr 21 [cited 2024 Jun 23]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/rhetorical-question-in-the-cleaving-by-li-young-lee-analytical-essay/

Join our 150k of happy users

  • Get original paper written according to your instructions
  • Save time for what matters most
Place an order

Fair Use Policy

EduBirdie considers academic integrity to be the essential part of the learning process and does not support any violation of the academic standards. Should you have any questions regarding our Fair Use Policy or become aware of any violations, please do not hesitate to contact us via support@edubirdie.com.

Check it out!
search Stuck on your essay?

We are here 24/7 to write your paper in as fast as 3 hours.