Dillard's Cat

Xiyun Yang, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

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While writers like Lawrence and Chatwin blur the demarcation between fiction and nonfiction, Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek playfully glides between prose and verse. Dillard resigns herself to literary flights of rapture: she is enamored with the intensity of nature's beauty and cruelty. Although the book can be read as a work of emotional and spiritual autobiography, Dillard uses her own experiences as a vessel to extract novel emotions from her readers. Similar to Lawrence, Dillard writes a prose of discovery, attempting to duplicate the progress of emotions and understanding experienced during her observations of the world around her. Dillard presents the natural world as she sees it, reorganizing the senselessness of nature in terms of rationality: cause and effect. "Nature is, above all, profligate. Don't believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is . . . This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once." Dillard's collection of images tapers to an acknowledgement of a higher spiritual power at the end of the book; she accepts a world created in earnest, if not by grand design.

Dillard frames the book with the image of an old tom cat.

I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. . . . And some mornings I'd wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I'd been painted with roses . . . .I never knew. I never knew as I washed, and the blood streaked, faded, and finally disappeared, whether I'd purified myself or ruined the blood sign of the Passover.

I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who sprang through the open window by my bed and pummeled my chest, barely sheathing his claws. I've been bloodied and mauled, wrung, dazzled, drawn. I taste salt on my lips in the early morning; I surprise my eyes in the mirror and they are ashes, or fiery sprouts, and I gape appalled, or full of breath. The planet whirls alone and dreaming. Power broods, spins, and lurches down. The planet and the power meet with a shock. They fuse and tumble, lightning, ground fire; they part, mute, submitting, and touch again with hiss and cry. The tree with the lights in it buzzes into flame and the cast-rock mountains ring.

The opening section introduces the reader to the mystery and ambiguity of nature, and it is written in a lulling, colloquial tone. The concluding passage draws the image of the cat to a grander purpose, reflecting upon Dillard's spiritual battle worn wariness. The passage is composed with fierceness and intensity, full of short, staccato verbs, "bloodied and mauled, wrung, dazzled, drawn . . . broods, spins and lurches down." The rhythm of the sentences is syncopated and asymmetrical, the consonants recurring in groups of twos and threes. How are these two different narrations of the same subject appropriate to their relative function (the opening and closing of this book)? Why has Dillard chosen to end her book this way?

Dillard draws together the most important images of the book (the tree with the lights in it, the water bug and frog) to conclude the book. Does this conclusion seem forced or do the images naturally flow together?

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Last modified 3 December 2006