Study Guide

Famous Themes

  • Man and the Natural World

    "Famous" wants us to look—long and hard—at what we often overlook. In contrast to the ways that modern society is often obsessed with superficial and unimportant elements of celebrity and the things we usually think of as being famous, Nye puts the focus on the natural world and the simple, everyday elements of life: cats and boots and buttonholes. A big part of the everyday, of course, is the natural world around us, and Nye devotes quite a bit of her poem to the earth and all its everyday-ness.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. According to Nye's definition of famous (which means something along the lines of important), is humanity famous to the earth?
    2. Does the fact that we so often take nature for granted jive with the idea of "the river [being] famous to the fish"?
    3. Is man one with nature in this poem, or opposed to nature? Is nature famous to man? Is man famous to nature?
    4. What elements of the natural world are the most famous to you? Why? 

    Chew on This

    Man-made things like pulleys and buttonholes are more 'famous' than rivers and cats because they are tools developed for specific purposes, and we use them all the time.

    Nature is more famous than man because nature can undo whatever man does.

  • Morality and Ethics

    We can't read Nye's "Famous" without feeling like she is reminding us that we should care less about the most recent celebrity divorce and more about how we could be helping the elderly widow across the street. On the other hand, it isn't as though Nye is scolding us. She's just gently reminding us that we can do a lot by doing just a little. Gee, maybe we should finally do that volunteer work for Habitat for Humanity we've been promising to do.

    Questions About Morality and Ethics

    1. What's the moral lesson here? What do you think Nye is telling us about how to treat strangers? Do you agree? Do we have a moral duty to do whatever we can for other people? Do we have a moral duty to do whatever we can for nature? Are those two ideas separate or connected?
    2. Does Nye wait until the end of the poem to introduce an ethical theme, or are there subtle hints at ethics in the first seven lines?
    3. Do people usually win more fame being moral or immoral? Should we get the same amount of fame for both?
    4. Can nature act in an immoral or unethical way? Remember that cat lounging on the fence—the one who is worrying those poor birds to death? Well, what if he wakes up from that nap and decides he needs a little chase-the-birds exercise? And what if that leads to a game of catch-(and maybe eat)-the birds? Is that unjust? 

    Chew on This

    Humans are made famous by doing what they can, which primarily means being kind and good to one another.

    Being ethical means fulfilling your function—the way that a pulley or a buttonhole does.

  • Community

    What is community? Perhaps it is just the place you live: as in "the community pool." But, community should be more than that, right? It is the intentional joining together of people (and objects) because they share something; and, hopefully, what they share is more than a zip code. Community is about belonging, interconnectivity, closeness, at least according to Nye in "Famous."

    Questions About Community

    1. Why is the tear famous to the cheek only briefly? Is the tear only important to the cheek because of how close they are? Once the tear drops to the floor, does it stop being important? 
    2. Are the ideas you carry close to your bosom important because you carry them close to your bosom? Or do you carry them close to your bosom because they are important? In other words, can you make something important by drawing it closer to you? Or do you only bring things close to you that are already important to you?
    3. Is it better to be very famous to those in your immediate area or to be a bit famous to a larger group of people?

    Chew on This

    The speaker, who is clearly an adult, demonstrates the interconnectedness of the circle of life by talking about being kind to old men and children.

    Nye is pointing out how corrupt our idea of fame is. The people we think of as famous couldn't be farther away from us, and what should really be famous is right close to home.

  • Society and Class

    You can figure out a lot about a society if you know what its members deem to be famous. Do they focus on spectacular athletic feats? Are they obsessed with the courage demonstrated in a battle? Do they sing praises to the wise elders of the community? Do their monuments point to a fascination with nature, or their own accomplishments? "Famous" touches on both human societies and the 'society' of nature.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Can fame (both celebrity fame and the fame Nye speaks of) be isolating? Or does it give you a closer connection to society?
    2. Can the line about boots and shoes be read as a reference to the inequality of human societies—as in blue collar vs. white-collar jobs? 
    3. Is there a power hierarchy in this poem? Are rivers more important than fish? Are cats more powerful than birds? Are cheeks more significant than tears? 
    4. The first three lines of the poem deal with some degree of tension within nature. Do these predatory relationships reflect the sometimes-vicious forces that exist within human society? Are famous people the prey of society? Or is society the prey of the famous? 

    Chew on This

    Nye is telling us all about the downsides of fame in this poem. It's predatory, as with the cat and the birds, and creates divisions (like those between the boots and the dress shoes).

    The seventh stanza refers to society's obsession with celebrity, wherein people "love" certain celebrities, hang posters of them on their walls, obsessively research their lives, and generally feel as though they "know" the celebrity.