17 The Burkean Parlor Metaphor

Kenneth Burke; Liz Delf; Rob Drummond; and Kristy Kelly

Kenneth Burke

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

The Burkean Parlor metaphor is from The Philosophy of Literary Form

Discussion Questions

  1. This metaphor imagines writing as a social act—a conversation rather than a monologue. How does this align with or differ from how you have thought about writing in the past?
  2. Why does the social nature of writing matter?
  3. How can you catch “the tenor of the argument”? In other words, how do you come to understand a cultural conversation?
  4. The parlor metaphor asks you to “put in your oar,” but this can feel difficult when you are joining a conversation that has gone on long before you. How can writers build confidence in this regard?

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Louisiana State UP, 1941.


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The Burkean Parlor Metaphor Copyright © 2022 by Kenneth Burke; Liz Delf; Rob Drummond; and Kristy Kelly is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.