The Pilgrim and Her Progress

Alicia Young '06, English 171, Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, 2005

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Annie Dillard brings new meaning to the phrase "pilgrim's progress." John Bunyan (1628-1688) was an English preacher and writer who, while imprisoned for preaching without permission from the Established Church, wrote The Pilgrim's Progress. Bunyan's work follows a man's allegorical journey to the Celestial City. In Dillard's A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard illustrates various experiences on Tinker Creek that have helped to shape her theological views. From seeing a frog dissolve from the inside out to stalking muskrats, every episode that Dillard relates has played somehow into her outlook on life. Though her outlook changes as the chapters trace Dillard's religious development, her experiences come full circle when she discusses her old tom cat and correlates its bloody paw prints with religiosity.

Dillard introduces readers to her cat in the first paragraph of the first chapter, saying that the cat's antics caused a great deal of doubt and confusion to Dillard, who was only half-awake at the beginning of the book:

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. I'd half-awaken. He'd stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood. Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. 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.

It was hot, so hot the mirror felt warm. I washed before the mirror in a daze, my twisted summer sleep still hung about me like sea kelp. What blood was this, and what roses? It could have been the rose of union, the blood of murder, or the rose of beauty bare and the blood of some unspeakable sacrifice or birth. The sign on my body could have been an emblem or a stain, the keys to the kingdom or the mark of Cain. 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. We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence . . . "Seem like we're just set down here," a woman said to me recently, "and don't nobody know why." [pp. 1-2]

Dillard begins the second-to-last paragraph in A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek with the same statement — "I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom"—but the following description depicts active imagery in a sentient, jubilant tone:

I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who sprang through my open window 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.

Emerson saw it. "I dreamed that I floated at will in the great Ether, and I saw this world floating also not far off, but diminished to the size of an apple. Then an angel took it in his hand and brought it to me and said, 'This must thou eat.' And I are the world." All of it. All of it intricate, speckled, gnawed, fringed, and free. Israel's priests offered the wave breast and the heave shouldered together, freely, in full knowledge, for thanksgiving. They waved, they heaved, and neither gesture was whole without the other, and both meant a wide-eyed and keen-eyed thanks. Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, said the bell. A sixteenth-century alchemist wrote of the philosopher's stone, "One finds it in the open country, in the village and in the town. It is everything which God created. Maids throw it on the street. Children play with it." The giant water bug ate the world. And like Billy Bray I go my way, and my left foot says "Glory," and my right foot says "Amen": in and out of Shadow Creek, upstream and down, exultant, in a daze, dancing, to the twin silver trumpets of praise. [pp. 270-71]


1. How does Dillard's rhetoric change in the final section of the book? How does the tone on the final page compare to her tone throughout the rest of the text?

2. Do you think that this tone is an appropriate one on which for Dillard to end?

3. Dillard's invitation for her reader to see the world as she does has caused a good deal of discussion; people tended to think that she invited the reader into her experiences. How does this final passage measure up for you as a reader? Do you feel that she ends on an open, provocative note, or is the passage too personal for you to relate to it?

4. The Pilgrim's Progress concludes with a short poem that invites people to interpret Bunyan's work as they will, but also provides a warning not to take the dream to extremes:

Now, reader, I have told my dream to thee;
See if thou canst interpret it to me,
Or to thyself, or neighbour; but take heed
Of misinterpreting; for that, instead
Of doing good, will but thyself abuse:
By misinterpreting, evil ensues.
Take heed, also, that thou be not extreme,
In playing with the outside of my dream:
Nor let my figure or similitude
Put thee into a laughter or a feud.
Leave this for boys and fools; but as for thee,
Do thou the substance of my matter see.
Put by the curtains, look within my veil,
Turn up my metaphors, and do not fail,
There, if thou seekest them, such things to find,
As will be helpful to an honest mind.
What of my dross thou findest there, be bold
To throw away, but yet preserve the gold;
What if my gold be wrapped up in ore? --
None throws away the apple for the core.
But if thou shalt cast all away as vain,
I know not but ‘twill make me dream again.

Would such a cautionary warning be effective at the conclusion of A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek?


Dillard, Annie. A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper's Magazine Press, 1974.

Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim's Progress. From the Christian Classics Electronic Library server at Wheaton College.

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Last modified 3 December 2006