Dillard and the Symbolical Grotesque

Caroline Ang '04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

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In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard comments on anything and everything under the sun. The entire book seems like a series of prose poems, lyrical and philosophic. Within her work lie some beautifully descriptive passages of nature and wildlife and ruminations on time, sight and the transience of life. However, her work also contains a fair number of symbolical grotesques.

Compare the following passages:

"And just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed. His skin emptied and drooped; his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent. He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflated football. I watched the taut, glistening skin on his shoulders ruck, and rumple, and fall. Soon, part of his skin, formless as a pricked balloon, lay in floating folds like bright scum on top of the water: it was a monstrous and terrifying thing." [6]


"It calls to mind the spare, cruel story Thomas McGonigle told me about herring gull frozen on ice off Long Island. When his father was young, he used to walk out on Great South Bay, which had frozen over, and frozen the gulls to it. Some of the gulls were already dead. He would take a hunk of driftwood and brain the living gulls; then, with a steel knife he hacked them free below the body and rammed them into a burlap sack. The family ate herring gull all winter, close around a lighted table in a steamy room. And out on the Bay, the ice was studded with paired, red stumps." [42]

Reading questions

1. Why does Dillard spend so much time on these downright unpleasant, if not nauseating images? What purpose does a longer description serve that a sparser one does not?

2. In the first passage, Dillard goes on to describe the giant water bug and the gruesome manner in which it kills and eats the frog. Both passages deal with the violent killing of one species to feed another. What exactly is Dillard commenting on? Does she treat this behavior as a survival technique, a cyclical habit or an act of cruelty?

3. Why does Dillard place the first grotesque so early on in the book? Is it more jarring than the second? More unexpected? How do these passages affect the tone of Dillard's writing?

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Last modified 3 December 2006