David Sedaris Me Talk Pretty One Day Essay Analysis Example
In Me Talk Pretty One Day (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 166-173), David Sedaris tells the story of his time in Paris while taking a French class taught by an abrasive teacher. He describes his struggles learning the language and the acquaintances he makes along the way, effectively engaging the reader’s sense of humor. In the essay, Sedaris uses the English language in a very calculated manner and he uses the words themselves, both real words and gibberish, not simply to tell the story but also as structural and stylistic tools, too, and devices of theme, conflict, tension, detail, description and characterization, as well as to show us his own character arc.
In this essay, Sedaris exhibits varied levels of vocabulary, sentence structure, diction and grammar to show us his struggle to learn French. By comparison, in the essay, Sedaris speaks eloquently in English. When speaking English, he speaks naturally and in complete sentences but when he attempts French he speaks in simple sentences and often with broken structure and with obvious grammar mistakes. Not only is this quite comical to picture him trying to wrap his mind and mouth around the words but it also makes it easy for us to see his struggle and make sense of his classroom experience. He doesn’t make the essay all about French words and phrases either as that might exclude us if we’re unfamiliar with the language. Instead, he makes it about the feeling of confusion itself and that relatable feeling of exile that comes with it.
Sedaris’s style of writing is more inclined towards humorous, witty, self-deprecating, silly, sarcastic and concise language and that translates (no pun intended) nicely into this piece. Having had struggled myself through six years of Spanish (from which I am now able to freely toss around questions like “Donde esta el bano?” and, of course, such suitable answers as: “El bano esta en el pescaderia!”), I could totally relate to Sedaris’s struggles to learn a second language and his inclination to poke fun of himself and the process.
When Sedaris describes his attempts to speak to his fellow classmates he uses only basic vocabulary words and he uses them in a disorganized structure like they do. I loved when he and his classmates were bonding over their language difficulties and similar negative classroom experiences. He says “it was a conversation commonly overheard at a refugee camp” and that detail was both awful and awesome as it fit the moment perfectly. I couldn’t help but picture Sedaris and his classmates huddled in a corner struggling along in their broken French trying to communicate with each other about this shared experience. There are so many awesome moments in this piece when Sedaris’s unique eye for detail and description allowed me to visualize his story, feel his struggle and picture his experience in my head.
Perhaps the best part of this essay is how Sedaris presents his French teacher to us. Although it’s unclear if she’s really as awful as he makes her out to be or if he’s exaggerating since the majority of his issues with her are due to a language barrier combined with his own frustration, but either way he makes her out to be a rude and cruel monster—albeit a monster who is highly intelligent and fluent in multiple languages. The teacher plays the role of the antagonist and heightens the conflict and tension throughout the story. His interaction with her becomes a lesson on tone, too. Sedaris does an excellent job of capturing the teacher’s snarky sadistic tone and relaying it to us so that, even though we really don’t always know what she said or her intentions, we believe she’s purposely being mean to him and his classmates.
I loved the way Sedaris used gibberish to replace words. All of the parts when he missed something in French altogether and chose to translate it to us as an obviously inaudible or incoherent “meinslsxp” or “lgpdmurct” instead of simply saying he didn’t catch the word or phrase was genius! It put me in the moment and I felt like I also didn’t catch the word or phrase.
When the teacher speaks, we don’t even need to know the word she really said because what we don’t know is made up for through context and tone. For example, when she says “’Were you always this palicmkrexis? Even a fiuscrzsa ticiwelmun knows that a typewriter is feminine.’” In this line, like Sedaris, we are forced to fill in the blanks of what we think she was saying. Because of her tone, it’s clear that she’s insulting him. We do not need an actual English translation to see this, and neither does Sedaris. Additionally, the teacher speaks eloquently with a very high vocabulary and strong diction which shows the reader her high level of understanding of French. This technique is also used when the teacher insults Sedaris directly in flawless English and, in doing so, she adds insult to injury. This increases her power over the classroom, too, since she is the only one who can communicate there completely.
The teacher and her insults play an important role in Sedaris’s character development throughout the story and throughout his learning experience because as the gibberish ends, coinciding with the story’s conclusion, Sedaris realizes he can actually understand what is being said. Even though what he’s hearing is insulting, he’s happy because he finally understands it. This moment is both satisfying and somewhat psychologically dysfunctional he’s still being insulted and, yet, he’s happy that we also feel happy for him
While I absolutely loved this essay, I didn’t like the way Sedaris constantly shifted back and forth between tenses. On one hand, this added to the conversational, informal feel of the story itself and it also sort of played nicely into the whole language lesson themes and conflicts as this was one of the lessons Sedaris struggled to learn. That thought made me wonder if this was a conscious decision and if Sedaris was in fact shifting tenses on purpose to make some sort of point or to carry though the language lesson themes but still, at times, I found it distracting.
The overall point of this essay was to amuse and entertain while showcasing his own experiences and I think he did a fantastic job. Even though I struggled at times with his tense shifts, I truly loved this essay. Not only was it, quite frankly, one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever read but, in terms of language, it opened up a whole new world for me as a writer.
There have been plenty of times, in my own experience as a writer, when I’ve felt bogged down by structural or stylistic rules and other times when I’ve given in and changed something I loved to please someone else. But Sedaris doesn’t seem fazed by what others might think and he doesn’t seem to be playing by any particular rules. There is a sense of freedom to his writing that I really like. For example, I love the way he just threw in a bunch of gibberish nonsense and actually made it work! There have been plenty of times when I’ve second guessed myself as a writer or when I wanted to break a rule or even make up a new word, for example, but didn’t.
Maybe next time I will.
This essay has broadened my thoughts on what can be done. Sedaris has made me realize that there is no limit to my writing. The possibilities are infinite. I feel empowered.
Sedaris, David. Me Talk Pretty One Day. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001.
Categories: Creative Nonfiction, MFA in Creative Writing, Reading, WritingTags: david sedaris, me talk pretty one day, Valerie Zane, valeriezane.com
Ethos, logos, and pathos are the three pillars or legs of argument that come down to us from Greek rhetoric. Like a table or a stool missing a leg, if your argument lacks one of these elements, it is likely to collapse and convince nobody.
Ethos is the character you project. One can have a good ethos or a poor ethos. Figures such as Benjamin Franklin and George Washington have a positive ethos because they represent virtues we admire, such as frugality and honesty. Consequently, they are often used in advertising. People like Hitler and Stalin have a terrible ethos, one we associate with tyranny and genocide.
Pathos is emotional appeal. Almost no argument can be effective without touching our emotions in some way.
Logos is the appeal to logic. We appeal to logic by providing facts and statistics.
Sedaris is writing a comic essay about learning French, so he goes out of his way to create the comic character of a forty-one-year-old American struggling to learn a new language. He also creates a hard-working ethos so that we have sympathy for him. His humor works, making the reader laugh and creating a positive ethos.
Sedakis uses logos to ground us by providing us with facts: for example, he sets the scene by telling us he is in Paris and mentions some of the nationalities of his fellow students.
The essay, being comic, leans most heavily on pathos. Sedaris wants us to laugh, and he also wants us to sympathize with the students. To achieve both goals, he makes the French teacher an over-the-top sadistic monster that the reader learns to hate. Some examples of how he characterizes her are as follows:
We didn’t know it then, but the coming months would teach us what it was like to spend time in the presence of a wild animal, something completely unpredictable. Her temperament was not based on a series of good and bad days but, rather, good and bad moments.
We soon learned to dodge chalk and protect our heads and stomachs whenever she approached us with a question.
Because of the teacher, we as an audience begin to laugh and cry with Sedaris. An example of this is when the teacher says to him:
I really, really hate you.
Sedaris tells us: "Call me sensitive, but I couldn’t help but take it personally."
By using pathos, Sedarkis dramatizes a logical point: learning a language is very difficult. However, he makes his point in a humorous way that enhances his ethos and keeps us emotionally engaged.