Rhetorical Analysis of E B. White's 'The Ring of Time'

A Lemon Squeezer

E.B. White (1899-1985). (New York Times Co./Getty Images)

One way to develop our own essay-writing skills is to examine how professional writers achieve a range of different effects in their essays. Such a study is called a rhetorical analysis--or, to use Richard Lanham's more fanciful term, a lemon squeezer.

The sample rhetorical analysis that follows takes a look at an essay by E. B. White titled "The Ring of Time"--found in our Essay Sampler: Models of Good Writing (Part 4) and accompanied by a reading quiz.

But first a word of caution. Don't be put off by the numerous grammatical and rhetorical terms in this analysis: some (such as adjective clause and appositive, metaphor and simile) may already be familiar to you; others can be deduced from the context; all are defined in our Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms.

That said, if you have already read "The Ring of Time," you should be able to skip over the stranger looking terms and still follow the key points raised in this rhetorical analysis.

After reading this sample analysis, try applying some of the strategies in a study of your own. See our Tool Kit for Rhetorical Analysis and Discussion Questions for Rhetorical Analysis: Ten Topics for Review.

The Rider and the Writer in "The Ring of Time": A Rhetorical Analysis 

In "The Ring of Time," an essay set in the gloomy winter quarters of a circus, E. B. White appears not yet to have learned the "first piece of advice" he was to impart a few years later in The Elements of Style:

Write in a way that draws the reader's attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author. . . .[T]o achieve style, begin by affecting none--that is, place yourself in the background. (70)

Far from keeping to the background in his essay, White steps into the ring to signal his intentions, reveal his emotions, and confess his artistic failure. Indeed, the "sense and substance" of "The Ring of Time" are inextricable from the author's "mood and temper" (or ethos). Thus, the essay may be read as a study of the styles of two performers: a young circus rider and her self-conscious "recording secretary."

In White's opening paragraph, a mood-setting prelude, the two main characters stay hidden in the wings: the practice ring is occupied by the young rider's foil, a middle-aged woman in "a conical straw hat"; the narrator (submerged in the plural pronoun "we") assumes the languorous attitude of the crowd. The attentive stylist, however, is already performing, evoking "a hypnotic charm that invite[s] boredom." In the abrupt opening sentence, active verbs and verbals carry an evenly measured report:

After the lions had returned to their cages, creeping angrily through the chutes, a little bunch of us drifted away and into an open doorway nearby, where we stood for awhile in semidarkness, watching a big brown circus horse go harumphing around the practice ring.

The metonymic "harumphing" is delightfully onomatopoetic, suggesting not only the sound of the horse but also the vague dissatisfaction felt by the onlookers. Indeed, the "charm" of this sentence resides primarily in its subtle sound effects: the alliterative "cages, creeping" and "big brown"; the assonant "through the chutes"; and the homoioteleuton of "away . . . doorway." In White's prose, such sound patterns appear frequently but unobtrusively, muted as they are by a diction that is commonly informal, at times colloquial ("a little bunch of us" and, later, "we kibitzers").

Informal diction also serves to disguise the formality of the syntactic patterns favored by White, represented in this opening sentence by the balanced arrangement of the subordinate clause and present participial phrase on either side of the main clause. The use of informal (though precise and melodious) diction embraced by an evenly measured syntax gives White's prose both the conversational ease of the running style and the controlled emphasis of the periodic. It is no accident, therefore, that his first sentence begins with a time marker ("after") and ends with the central metaphor of the essay--"ring." In between, we learn that the spectators are standing in "semidarkness," thus anticipating the "bedazzlement of a circus rider" to follow and the illuminating metaphor in the essay's final line.

White adopts a more paratactic style in the remainder of the opening paragraph, thus both reflecting and blending the dullness of the repetitious routine and the languor felt by the onlookers. The quasi-technical description in the fourth sentence, with its pair of prepositionally embedded adjective clauses ("by which . . ."; "of which . . .") and its Latinate diction (career, radius, circumference, accommodate, maximum), is notable for its efficiency rather than its spirit. Three sentences later, in a yawning tricolon, the speaker draws together his unfelt observations, maintaining his role as spokesman for a dollar-conscious crowd of thrill-seekers. But at this point, the reader may begin to suspect the irony underlying the narrator's identification with the crowd. Lurking behind the mask of "we" is an "I": one who has elected not to describe those entertaining lions in any detail, one who, in fact, does want "more . . . for a dollar."

Immediately, then, in the opening sentence of the second paragraph, the narrator forsakes the role of group spokesman ("Behind me I heard someone say . . . ") as "a low voice" responds to the rhetorical question at the end of the first paragraph. Thus, the two main characters of the essay appear simultaneously: the independent voice of the narrator emerging from the crowd; the girl emerging from the darkness (in a dramatic appositive in the next sentence) and--with "quick distinction"--emerging likewise from the company of her peers ("any of two or three dozen showgirls"). Vigorous verbs dramatize the girl's arrival: she "squeezed," "spoke," "stepped," "gave," and "swung." Replacing the dry and efficient adjective clauses of the first paragraph are far more active adverb clausesabsolutes, and participial phrases. The girl is adorned with sensuous epithets ("cleverly proportioned, deeply browned by the sun, dusty, eager, and almost naked") and greeted with the music of alliteration and assonance ("her dirty little feet fighting," "new note," "quick distinction"). The paragraph concludes, once again, with the image of the circling horse; now, however, the young girl has taken the place of her mother, and the independent narrator has replaced the voice of the crowd. Finally, the "chanting" that ends the paragraph prepares us for the "enchantment" soon to follow.

But in the next paragraph, the girl's ride is momentarily interrupted as the writer steps forward to introduce his own performance--to serve as his own ringmaster. He begins by defining his role as a mere "recording secretary," but soon, through the antanaclasis of " . . . a circus rider. As a writing man ... .," he parallels his task with that of the circus performer. Like her, he belongs to a select society; but, again like her, this particular performance is distinctive ("it is not easy to communicate anything of this nature"). In a paradoxical tetracolon climax midway through the paragraph, the writer describes both his own world and that of the circus performer:

Out of its wild disorder comes order; from its rank smell rises the good aroma of courage and daring; out of its preliminary shabbiness comes the final splendor. And buried in the familiar boasts of its advance agents lies the modesty of most of its people.

Such observations echo White's remarks in the preface to A Subtreasury of American Humor: "Here, then, is the very nub of the conflict: the careful form of art, and the careless shape of life itself" (Essays 245).

Continuing in the third paragraph, by way of earnestly repeated phrases ("at its best . . . at its best") and structures ("always bigger . . . always greater"), the narrator arrives at his charge: "to catch the circus unawares to experience its full impact and share its gaudy dream." And yet, the "magic" and "enchantment" of the rider's actions cannot be captured by the writer; instead, they must be created through the medium of language. Thus, having called attention to his responsibilities as an essayist, White invites the reader to observe and judge his own performance as well as that of the circus girl he has set out to describe. Style--of the rider, of the writer--has become the subject of the essay.

The bond between the two performers is reinforced by the parallel structures in the opening sentence of the fourth paragraph:

The ten-minute ride the girl took achieved--as far as I was concerned, who wasn't looking for it, and quite unbeknownst to her, who wasn't even striving for it--the thing that is sought by performers everywhere.

Then, relying heavily on participial phrases and absolutes to convey the action, White proceeds in the rest of the paragraph to describe the girl's performance. With an amateur's eye ("a few knee-stands--or whatever they are called"), he focuses more on the girl's quickness and confidence and grace than on her athletic prowess. After all, "[h]er brief tour," like an essayist's, perhaps, "included only elementary postures and tricks." What White appears to admire most, in fact, is the efficient way she repairs her broken strap while continuing on course. Such delight in the eloquent response to a mishap is a familiar note in White's work, as in the young boy's cheerful report of the train's "great--big--BUMP!" in "The World of Tomorrow" (One Man's Meat 63). The "clownish significance" of the girl's mid-routine repair appears to correspond to White's view of the essayist, whose "escape from discipline is only a partial escape: the essay, although a relaxed form, imposes its own disciplines, raises its own problems" (Essays viii). And the spirit of the paragraph itself, like that of the circus, is "jocund, yet charming," with its balanced phrases and clauses, its now-familiar sound effects, and its casual extension of the light metaphor--"improving a shining ten minutes."

The fifth paragraph is marked by a shift in tone--more serious now--and a corresponding elevation of style. It opens with epexegesis: "The richness of the scene was in its plainness, its natural condition . . .." (Such a paradoxical observation is reminiscent of White's comment in The Elements: "to achieve style, begin by affecting none" [70]. And the sentence continues with a euphonious itemization: "of horse, of ring, of girl, even to the girl's bare feet that gripped the bare back of her proud and ridiculous mount." Then, with growing intensity, correlative clauses are augmented with diacope and tricolon:

The enchantment grew not out of anything that happened or was performed but out of something that seemed to go round and around and around with the girl, attending her, a steady gleam in the shape of a circle--a ring of ambition, of happiness, of youth.

Extending this asyndetic pattern, White builds the paragraph to a climax through isocolon and chiasmus as he looks to the future:

In a week or two, all would be changed, all (or almost all) lost: the girl would wear makeup, the horse would wear gold, the ring would be painted, the bark would be clean for the feet of the horse, the girl's feet would be clean for the slippers that she'd wear.

And finally, perhaps recalling his responsibility to preserve "unexpected items of . . . enchantment," he cries out (ecphonesis and epizeuxis): "All, all would be lost."

In admiring the balance achieved by the rider ("the positive pleasures of equilibrium under difficulties"), the narrator is himself unbalanced by a painful vision of mutability. Briefly, at the opening of the sixth paragraph, he attempts a reunion with the crowd ("As I watched with the others . . . "), but finds there neither comfort nor escape. He then makes an effort to redirect his vision, adopting the perspective of the young rider: "Everything in the hideous old building seemed to take the shape of a circle, conforming to the course of the horse." The parechesis here is not just musical ornamentation (as he observes in The Elements, "Style has no such separate entity") but a sort of aural metaphor--the conforming sounds articulating his vision. Likewise, the polysyndeton of the next sentence creates the circle he describes:

[Tlhen time itself began running in circles, and so the beginning was where the end was, and the two were the same, and one thing ran into the next and time went round and around and got nowhere.

White's sense of time's circularity and his illusory identification with the girl are as intense and complete as the sensation of timelessness and the imagined transposition of father and son that he dramatizes in "Once More to the Lake." Here, however, the experience is momentary, less whimsical, more fearful from the start.

Though he has shared the girl's perspective, in a dizzying instant almost become her, he still maintains a sharp image of her aging and changing. In particular, he imagines her "in the center of the ring, on foot, wearing a conical hat"--thus echoing his descriptions in the first paragraph of the middle-aged woman (whom he presumes is the girl's mother), "caught in the treadmill of an afternoon." In this fashion, therefore, the essay itself becomes circular, with images recalled and moods recreated. With mixed tenderness and envy, White defines the girl's illusion: "[S]he believes she can go once round the ring, make one complete circuit, and at the end be exactly the same age as at the start." The commoratio in this sentence and the asyndeton in the next contribute to the gentle, almost reverential tone as the writer passes from protest to acceptance. Emotionally and rhetorically, he has mended a broken strap in mid-performance. The paragraph concludes on a whimsical note, as time is personified and the writer rejoins the crowd: "And then I slipped back into my trance, and time was circular again--time, pausing quietly with the rest of us, so as not to disturb the balance of a performer"--of a rider, of a writer. Softly the essay seems to be gliding to a close. Short, simple sentences mark the girl's departure: her "disappearance through the door" apparently signaling the end of this enchantment.

In the final paragraph, the writer--admitting that he has failed in his effort "to describe what is indescribable"--concludes his own performance. He apologizes, adopts a mock-heroic stance, and compares himself to an acrobat, who also "must occasionally try a stunt that is too much for him." But he is not quite finished. In the long penultimate sentence, heightened by anaphora and tricolon and pairings, echoing with circus images and alight with metaphors, he makes a last gallant effort to describe the indescribable:

Under the bright lights of the finished show, a performer need only reflect the electric candle power that is directed upon him; but in the dark and dirty old training rings and in the makeshift cages, whatever light is generated, whatever excitement, whatever beauty, must come from original sources--from internal fires of professional hunger and delight, from the exuberance and gravity of youth.

Likewise, as White has demonstrated throughout his essay, it is the romantic duty of the writer to find inspiration within so that he may create and not just copy. And what he creates must exist in the style of his performance as well as in the materials of his act. "Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life," White once observed in an interview; "they inform and shape life" (Plimpton and Crowther 79). In other words (those of the final line of "The Ring of Time"), "It is the difference between planetary light and the combustion of stars."

(R. F. Nordquist, 1999)


  • Plimpton, George A., and Frank H. Crowther. "The Art of the Essay: "E. B. White." The Paris Review. 48 (Fall 1969): 65-88.
  • Strunk, William, and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. 3rd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1979.
  • White, E[lwyn] B[rooks]. "The Ring of Time." 1956. Rpt. The Essays of E. B. White. New York: Harper, 1979.
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Nordquist, Richard. "Rhetorical Analysis of E B. White's 'The Ring of Time'." ThoughtCo, Oct. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/rhetorical-analysis-ring-of-time-1690509. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, October 29). Rhetorical Analysis of E B. White's 'The Ring of Time'. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/rhetorical-analysis-ring-of-time-1690509 Nordquist, Richard. "Rhetorical Analysis of E B. White's 'The Ring of Time'." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/rhetorical-analysis-ring-of-time-1690509 (accessed March 30, 2023).