An Illuminated Pilgrim?

Caroline Young '05.5, English 171, Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, 2005

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Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek explores nature and science while simultaneously exploring the speaker and her place in the world. Throughout her descriptions Dillard uses light as a lens for seeing nature. In the following quotations, Dillard describes light and illumination in two different contexts to make two different statements.

The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price. If I thought he could teach me to find it and keep it forever I would stagger barefoot across a hundred deserts after any lunatic at all. But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise...I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam. [35]

The light is diffuse and hueless, like the light on paper inside a pewter bowl. The snow looks light and the sky dark, but in fact the sky is lighter than the snow. Obviously the thing illuminated cannot be lighter than its illuminator. [45]

While the first passage makes a definitive statement about the speaker's role as a sage writer and illuminator — that she gains wisdom by chance — the second passage questions this first statement by calling the illuminator brighter than the subject of illumination.


Dillard speaks of illumination as philosophical and as physical. How does Dillard use light as an extended metaphor throughout her work?

What does Dillard mean by calling herself a Pilgrim in her title? What are the implications of the word, and how do they relate to these two seemingly contradictory passages?

After the second quotation Dillard goes on to show a scientific way of testing that ̉the thing illuminated cannot be lighter than its illuminator." Are there other places or ways she uses science to make philosophical arguments?

How do other sages we've read this semester relate to these statements? Did they have to wait for illumination or do they claim to have sought it?

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Last modified 3 December 2006