Hidden Pennies, Deflated Frogs, and Inverted Magicians

Jennifer Hahn, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

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In Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard juxtaposes images of beauty and magic with images of the grotesque. She presents a nature that is sublime in its display of both the beautiful and the horrifying. In the following passage, Dillard describes the more beautiful elements of nature:

It is the first week in January, and I've got great plans. I've been thinking about seeing. There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.

This image of hidden pennies lying about in the world to be discovered by inquisitive minds, rewarded for their searching, seems to counter Dillard's continued use of the symbolic grotesque. Note the contrast between the previous passage and the following:

He was a very small frog with wide, dull eyes. 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 deflating football. I watched the taut, glistening skin of 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. I gaped bewildered, appalled. An oval shadow hung in the water behind the drained frog; then the shadow glided away. The frog skin bag started to sink.

It seems as if, for Dillard, the symbolic grotesque is a kind of hidden penny. In what way do her symbolic grotesques represent unwrapped gifts and free surprises in her narrative? What effect do they have on the reader? Might we find both the hidden penny and the deflated frog is Dillard's following discussion of the inverted magician?

Some sort of carnival magician has been here, some fast-talking worker of wonders who has the act backwards. "Something in this hand," he says, "something in this hand, something up my sleeve, something behind my back" and abracadabra, he snaps his fingers, and it's all gone.

There are many moments of inversion in Dillard's narrative, along with moments of the grotesque and the beautiful. How do these moments work together to form an overall picture of life and experience?

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Last modified 3 December 2006