Study Guide

Famous Quotes

  • Man and the Natural World

    The river is famous to the fish. (1)

    Why aren't the fish famous to the river? Can this fame go both ways? Can the river be famous to the fish at the same time they take it for granted?

    The loud voice is famous to silence,
    which knew it would inherit the earth
    before anybody said so. (2-4)

    The loud voice must belong to people, right? No one else speaks with a loud voice except us. Really, when's last time you had to ask the squirrel in the seat behind you to pipe down? Yep. Never. See what we mean? This line seems to say that silence has a deeper (maybe even better?) sense of time and fate than people do. So maybe Nature—and here we're talking about that image of nature as being peaceful and without humans in it—is described as knowing more than humanity.

    The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
    watching him from the birdhouse. (5-6)

    Cats sleep. That is just what they do. If you've ever had a cat for a pet, you know this. They also eat birds; it's just the circle of life, folks. In this case, maybe fame does go both ways—up and down the food chain. The cat is famous to the birds, because it's a threat. But the birds just might be famous to the cat because they're tasty.

    The boot is famous to the earth,
    more famous than the dress shoe,
    which is famous only to floors. (10-12)

    When humans really interact, in a significant way, with nature, we often are wearing boots: digging in the dirt, cutting down trees, fishing in the rivers, and so forth. Dress shoes are a particularly non-earthy thing to wear since they are impractical for most anything but showing off for other humans—on the dance floor, of course.

  • Morality and Ethics

    I want to be famous to shuffling men
    who smile while crossing streets,
    sticky children in grocery lines,
    famous as the one who smiled back. (15-18)

    Nye chooses very specific groups of people to smile at. This isn't her boss or her mother-in-law or that hall monitor that will never tell on you as long as you keep the smiles coming. In fact, these people are not known to her and can do very little in return for her kindness. Is that what fame is: being kind to those who can do virtually nothing in return for you?

    I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
    or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
    but because it never forgot what it could do. (19-21)

    Nye highlights the traditional definition of famous here at the end—the doing of something spectacular—and she contrasts that with her own definition, which is never forgetting what she can do. Is it hard to do what we can? Is this, in itself, a virtue? Is doing what we can do a bit spectacular all on its own? Go ahead, fellow Shmoopers, admit it: we are pretty spectacular, aren't we?

  • Community

    The river is famous to the fish. (1)

    Why is the river famous to the fish? Why isn't the river famous for all the wonderful things it does and is? Celebrities are famous for their work on a particular film or for the complete disaster that is their personal life. Why does Nye emphasize whom people and objects are famous to?

    The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
    watching him from the birdhouse. (5-6)

    The birds only care about this particular cat because he is too close for comfort. Sometimes in community, the 'other' or 'the outsider' is only viewed as a danger because of how close he is. You'd think a whole lot differently about that odd fellow on the other side of town if he suddenly lived in the apartment above you.

    The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek. (7)

    Why isn't the tear famous to the eyes? Is the tear famous to the cheek only because it is imposing itself on the cheek? This tear, though, leaves no lasting impression. As quickly as it's made famous, it's forgotten. Perhaps Nye is telling us that momentarily blipping on the screen of someone's life (or even starring in a multi-Oscar-winning film) isn't enough to make you famous in the long run. You have to make a lasting impression. (Maybe a couple of multi-Oscar-winning films would do it.)

    The idea you carry close to your bosom
    is famous to your bosom. (8-9)

    Things are famous to what they are near; at least, that's what Nye's telling us. What matters to us is what has an impact on us. To have an impact, it must be close enough to reach us. Right? So, this idea is important to the bosom because it is so close to the bosom. Does it matter what the idea is, though? Would any idea have been famous to this bosom, if they were so close together?

  • Society and Class

    The boot is famous to the earth,
    more famous than the dress shoe,
    which is famous only to floors. (10-12)

    This line could certainly be simply making reference to the different footwear in your closet. On the other hand, we can read this as a social commentary with words like "more" and "only" implying economic inequality and social divisions. Could the dude wearing the boots be the same gentleman wearing wingtips?

    I want to be famous to shuffling men
    who smile while crossing streets,
    sticky children in grocery lines,
    famous as the one who smiled back. (15-18)

    Does society push the elderly and children into the same class? After all, they're often overlooked. Nye chooses these two groups specifically to smile to. Is she trying to encourage us to do what we can do by seeking out the "forgotten" classes first?