The Courage of Turtles by Edward Hoagland

The intention of this piece is to demonstrate Hoagland’s fascination with the unique interactions that occur in nature. He uses his love of turtles to emphasize the interesting relationship between animals and humans, for example the reason people keep animals as pets. Hoagland’s care for creation and the world around him is demonstrated through several short narratives about several of his pet turtles and how each of their characteristics made an impact on his life.

Hoagland’s variety of diction is effective, because he is able to create a tone that is easily understood by all audiences. His diction ranges from short, childish words like, “pee”, “burp”, and “grunt”, to more complex phraseology, such as “elliptical”, “priapic”, “perambulate”, and “metaphysical”. This variety allows Hoagland’s tone to remain casual throughout the piece, yet still command respect for the genuine purpose of the essay.

Hoagland makes numerous appeals to pathos while telling short narratives about his pets and his love for them. This evokes a sense of sympathy and compassion from the audience that makes turtles seem more agreeable in the audience’s eyes since most people share a similar love for their own pets. He also focuses on emphasizing the characteristics that humans and turtles share, such as “they see the same colors we do, and they seem to see just as well,” “they unravel the twists of a maze with the hot-blooded rapidity of a mammal,” and “they rock rhythmically in place, as we often do.” By putting an emphasis on these similarities, Hoagland is able to create a strong connection between the audience and his favorite animal, thus strengthening his appeal to pathos.

One memorable quote from this piece is, “For me, anyway, they manage to contain the rest of the animal world. They can stretch their necks likes a giraffe, or loom underwater like an apocryphal hippo. They browse on lettuce thrown on the water like a cow moose which is partly submerged. They have a penguin’s alertness, combined with a build like a brontosaurus when they rise up on tiptoe. Then they hunch and ponderously lunge like a grizzly going forward.” This quote is memorable, because Hoagland compares the slow and unskillful turtle to several different animals and their unique behavioral patterns. This is significant, because the comparison strengthens the idea that turtles have several unique qualities that humans overlook due to their lack of wonder. Another thing to note about this quote is that Hoagland acknowledges that this piece if purely subjective and recognizes that his opinion may not be a popular one, thus making an appeal to ethos. Furthermore, he adds these comparisons to persuade his audience to explore the uniquely significant qualities of a turtle more closely before they make any judgment towards them.

–Hannah Wagner

For the entire piece, Hoagland talks about his love for animals and uses three different scenarios to demonstrate his love for the environment.  However, the ending is the most powerful part of the piece.  Although Hoagland talks about his love for the environment and the special relationship between animals and humans, he does not go in the water to save the turtle at the end.  The ending is so powerful because it is such a stark contrast to the rest of the piece.  This contrast is what really emphasizes Hoagland’s intention that animals  are important and we as humans need to preserve the environment.

Hoagland uses his three anecdotes to connect with the reader and appeal to pathos.  By being very descriptive and saying things like, “While they live they’re like puppies,” Hoagland is able to bring out a feeling of empathy in his readers.  During the second anecdote Hoagland talks about the death of a baby turtle.  In order to paint a picture of what the death is really like he says, “their mouths fill up with white fungus and their lungs with pneumonia.  Their organs clog up from the rust in the water, or diet troubles, and, like a dying man’s, their eyes and heads become too prominent.  Toward the end, the edge of the shell becomes flabby as felt and folds around them like a shroud.”  The intense description evokes a feeling of sadness and care for the turtles.  These feelings that Hoagland invokes in his readers is what helps make this piece very meaningful.  By connecting with him and feeling a sense of care for the turtles a reader is more likely to understand the message that animals are a close companion to humans.

The tone of this piece is very philosophical.  After telling each anecdote there is no summary on why each story was told.  However, the reader is left to guess why the story was there.  Hoagland leaves it to his readers to infer the message of his piece, although most believe it is about the importance of animals and their relationship with humans.  The end is the most philosophical part of the piece.  When reading the final sentence, readers are often left outraged and upset.  This is because there is nothing after the final words of, “I walked away.”  The entire piece invokes a sense of love for animals and the ending completely interrupts this feeling.

–Samantha Smith

One of the most prominent rhetorical devices in “The Courage of Turtles” is Edward Hoagland’s use of personification. He, at one point, described a turtle as being a “humble creature”. Turtles cannot be humble; turtles have no grasp at all on the concept of humility. Turtles only concern themselves with food, sun, water, and not being eaten that day. If a turtle can get those things done in a day, it’s a pretty productive day for that turtle. As you may notice, at no point in that list is a turtle ever concerned with being a braggadocio. This is what makes Hoagland’s personification of the turtle so charming. The humor of a turtle being humble appeals to humor and gets the reader more invested in the essay.

Hoagland uses the turtles as a vessel for teaching a lesson on human nature. The turtles are small creatures, powerless against humans and entirely at our mercy as our pets. Throughout the essay, as Hoagland describes how different people’s actions would harm the turtles, we glimpse into the brutal indifference of humans towards those that are powerless. Even Hoagland himself harms a pet turtle in an attempt to save it, yet does not go the extra mile to rescue the turtle he sentenced to death by placing it in a river.

One of my favorite quotes from “The Courage of Turtles” is “He will stare into the face of the sun for hours. What could be more lionlike?” I love the image of a turtle with lionlike qualities. This quote almost sets the turtle as the hero of a non-fiction story; the turtle is the underdog, the knight in shining armor, the one everyone is rooting for. This makes the violations of the turtles’ lives even more horrendous to the reader, like a story without a happy ending. It is true, for many animals, human indifference will rob them of their happy ending.

–Tay Sauer


To appeal to the pathos of his audience, Hoagland compares and contrasts turtles to other animals. Notice that he compares them to animals generally admired or loved by humans – such as puppies and lions – and contrasts them with amphibians and other reptiles, which we are generally indifferent or unfavorably disposed to – such as snakes and frogs. This is purposefully done to force the audience to see turtles in a positive light.

Hoagland spends the essay expressing the individuality and adaptability of turtles. A quote expressing their adaptability, “They don’t feel that the contest is unfair,” describes turtles trying to escape their attackers; this says that turtles will endlessly persist in their survival without worrying about its probability. To describe a turtle’s individuality, Hoagland writes, “…she usually lets her shell knock portentously, like a footstep, so that she resembles some grand, concise, slow-moving id.” This quote provides a clear image from which we can infer the turtle’s personality, and its use of the scientific word “id” emphasizes that image.

In the conclusion, Hoagland shows human error when he depends too much on the adaptability of turtles and mistakenly puts a diamondback terrapin into an environment it will not be able to adapt to, thus ending on a melancholy note.


–Sophie Dahlquist

This speaker has ethos in this piece because he builds himself up to a reader as a turtle expert, explaining in depth the differences between the turtles. His expertise in reptiles, from snakes to alligators to turtles, makes it obvious that he has a deep connection with these animals. By establishing his ethos, his pathos increases as well. This is why there is such a shock factor at the end. By impulsively trying to give the turtle what it needs to be happy, he ends up killing it in the process.


Hoagland sets up his audience very intentionally. He names his essay “The Courage of Turtles” so that a reader is convinced they are reading a piece about how impressive turtles are. By doing this, he tricks a reader into expecting a positive essay. he continues drawing the audience in until the last possibly moment when he throws his turtle in the water, effectively drowning it. What makes this essay so remarkable is his ability to manipulate the audience’s emotions and use it against them.


By describing a turtle as the other animals first, he forces the audience to like the turtles. He compares them to every type of animal from giraffe to lion, giving them the best qualities from both predator and prey. By doing this, he forces pathos into the essay and into the audience’s mindset. This pathos is used against the reader in the end when he uses this to throw heartbreak at the reader at the last moment.


–Mary Beiter


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s