More than Just a Shrine – Ellis Island by Mary Gordon

Intention: To inform the reader of what it was like for American immigrants who came through Ellis Island. Throughout the essay she describes some of the hardships and prejudices that these people had to face in order to reinforce her point.

Tone: Throughout the essay she keeps a level and somewhat formal tone; at times her descriptions almost remind one of a history textbook. However, the reader can tell that she is upset by what her ancestors went through at Ellis Island and her sympathy for the immigrants shows through.

Pathos: “Mothers feared that if their children cried too much, their red eyes would be mistaken for a symptom of the disease and the whole family would be sent home.” By including information such as this, Gordon successfully causes the reader to feel pity for the immigrants of Ellis Island.

–Sierra Houser

“It was in the Great Hall that everyone had waited—waiting, always, the great vocation of the dispossessed. … I felt myself grow insignificant in that room, with its huge semicircular windows, its air, even in dereliction, of solid and official probity.” This is a very significant quote in the piece because it shows that, for people with close ties to immigration, the visit to Ellis Island isn’t a mere tourist spot: it’s a solemn commemoration to those that entered it and endured its toils.

Ethos: This is written by someone who comes from an immigrant family and has seen the difficulties that are included. She even refers to those who went through Ellis Island as “my people” which shows her connection and the weight she holds in this subject.

Tone: Gordon’s tone is not only factual and serious, but it also holds a certain reverence and respect for the Island and the people who experienced it in its heyday. This can be seen in the following: “I came to the island, too, so I could tell the ghosts that I  was one of them, and that I honored them—their stoicism, and their innocence, the fear that turned them inward, and their pride.”

–Skyler Houser

Gordon uses several appeals to logos within this piece to express the hardships that many immigrants faced at Ellis Island—intelligence tests, medical examinations with unhygienic tools, etc. Gordon uses specific historical facts to support this claim. For example, Gordon states, “Immigration acts were passed; newcomers had to prove, besides moral correctness and financial solvency, their ability to read. Quota laws came into effect, limiting the number of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe to less than 14% of the total quota. Intelligence tests were biased against all non-English-speaking persons and medical examinations became increasingly strict.” These facts not only emphasize the brutality of the conditions at Ellis Island, but also demonstrate the extent of the role that  xenophobia played within the U.S.

A memorable quote from this piece is, “I don’t know what they thought, my grandparents, for they were not expansive people, nor romantic; they didn’t like to think of what they called ‘the hard times,’ and their trip across the ocean was the single adventurous act of lives devotes after landing to security, respectability and fitting in.” This quote is significant because it shows the disconnect  several immigrants felt after experiencing the grueling processing implementations at Ellis Island. Gordon makes an appeal to ethos  by acknowledging that even though her grandparents were immigrants, she will never know the extent of the “hard times” any immigrant faced at Ellis Island and as a result, she doesn’t try to sentimentalize their experience. 

Gordon’s awareness of her audience is shown through the arrangement of this  piece. Her focus on specific historical facts, as well as including her own personal connection to Ellis Island—the story about her grandparents—is effective, because it creates a balance within the piece that allows it to emphasize the hardships that immigrants faced, while also acting as reverent memoir of those who experienced this short, yet crucial aspect of American history.

–Hannah Wagner


One interesting aspect of “More than Just a Shrine-Ellis Island” was Mary Gordon’s choice of a wavering tone throughout the piece. While this can sometimes be seen as inconsistent, Gordon’s does a great job of it. Her transition from serious to personal allows audiences to understand the importance of the issue. The serious tone helps readers understand the tragedies that occurred. By providing a personal connection readers connect with the piece, creating a deeper meaning between the reader and Gordon.

Another bonus of the personal tone in this piece was the connection to pathos that accompanied it. As Gordon takes readers through the process of immigration she depicts the struggle people went through. These raw details evoke empathy from the audience. Her personal tone and honesty of her current feelings towards America also creates pathos in her piece. She is 100% honest with how feeling like an immigrant in your own “home” is hard. By using honest examples and personal stories Gordon creates pathos in her piece.

Gordon’s unmasking of America is what makes this piece most memorable. She reveals the beginnings of Ellis island, exposing America for its greed. Historically the country let the most immigrants in when cheap labor was needed, making it tougher when it was not. Gordon also reveals how rigged the immigration system could be, allowing the rich to come in faster than the poor. These examples provide logos for her argument and help persuade readers that Ellis Island is truly more than just a shrine. 

–Caroline Steinmetz

  1. Arrangement: Gordon begins with a anecdote to preface what the piece will be about. There is a man who tries to have a conversation with her. “He explained to me that he was a linguist, and that he always liked to talk to Americans to see if he could make any connection between their speech and their ethnic background.”  She responds by getting up and leaving the conversation which seems rude at first. Originally, people think of Ellis Island as a promising thing. Just like how a conversation seems promising. But her ethnicity is not something she wants people to be able to study. It is a very personal and important topic. Just like how Ellis Island is “more than just a shrine.”
  2. Pathos: “For some, there was nothing to go back to, or there was certain death; for others, who left as adventurers, to return would be to adopt in local memory the fool’s role, and the failure’s. No wonder that the island’s history includes reports of 3,000 suicides.”  This quote makes the reader sick to their stomach with pity. Gordon appeals to emotion by writing explicit and grotesque facts such as this to help the reader understand how serious of a topic it was. People committed suicide, but with a number it gives  families, stories, and names.
  3. Favorite quote: “The minute I set foot upon the island I could feel all that it stood for: insecurity, obedience, anxiety, dehumanization, the terrified and careful deference of the displaced.” With this quote, she makes herself apart of the immigrants. Even though her ancestors are immigrants, she is one of them and can finally fit in America’s history.

—-Mackenzie Coon

The opening anecdote about being questioned eagerly by the man who wanted to talk simply because Gordon was only  a second-generation American was powerful; it opened up to the audience that she didn’t want to speak to the man, yet she still tells us why she doesn’t want to speak to the man. This explanation of inner conflict makes it feel like Gordon is telling the audience a secret, making the audience trust her more.


On first describing the history of the island, Gordon says “no one wanted the island for anything. It was the perfect place to build an immigration  center”. Saying this hints at the fact that no one wanted the immigrants that came to the island either. This very sly remark exposes a lot of her emotions towards the island and the people who worked there. A sentence and a half reveals how she feels, and therefore sets up how the audience feels about the island and their mood going into the rest of the piece.

Ending the essay, Gordon reveals her final thoughts about the immigration process in one elegant clause: “… American history was a very classy party that was not much fun until they arrived, brought the good food, turned up the music, and taught everyone to dance”. This is a very backhanded compliment towards the United States. When Gordon says “they”, she is implying the immigrants throughout the years, ever since the colonies became a country. She recognizes that yes, it was very formal and a nice place to be, but immigration is what gave the black-and-white formal splashes of color. By introducing new cultures, including food and music, it made a beautifully diverse country– one that unfortunately treated the immigrants that made it that way in a disgusting manner.


— Mary Beiter





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