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by Kay Ryan

Turtle Theme of Humility

As the opposite of arrogance, humility is arguably a positive trait (arrogant hare, humble tortoise). Although the word "humility" does not appear in "Turtle," the turtle clearly qualifies as a humble character. Words such as "modest," "patience," and "chastened" are closely related, conceptually, with the meaning of humility. Yet the poem also explores the flip side of this theme, exploring the potential drawbacks of humility. Is it possible for a person to be "too humble"? What traits does a person suppress, what opportunities does he or she sacrifice, in order to maintain a humble mindset?

Questions About Humility

  1. Do you admire the turtle's humility? Why or why not? Do you consider yourself a humble person? Why or why not?
  2. Do you think the turtle's humble attitude has stunted her imagination? Why do you think so?
  3. Do you think the turtle's humility tends to make her humorless? Why or why not? 
  4. If the turtle were a person, do you think she would be able to laugh at herself? Why do you think so?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

It's all about getting by. The turtle's humility is an important survival skill. Realistic about her own limitations, she finds ways to work around her weaknesses and stoically takes setbacks in stride.

"Turtle" suggests that there's a fine line between humility and apathy. Like the turtle in Ryan's poem, some people become so meek and resigned that they lose all aspirations for improving their own lives. Sad.

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