Not for the Faint of Heart: The Horrors of Nature in Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Katharine Gorman '07, English 171, Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, 2005

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Unexpected sights materialize before our eyes on the pages of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Through prolific, vivid literary images, Dillard accounts her outdoor surroundings and often touches on the grotesque. While meticulously observing Tinker Creek, Dillard, the wide-eyed pilgrim, shows the reader how destructive creatures of the natural world can be. When Dillard is not illustrating the happenings by the creek with graphic, precise detail, she recounts scientific works she has read and presents the reader with relevant, bizarre, and at times gruesome scientific facts. The passage below includes both practices.

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 him as if snuffed. His skin emptied and dropped; 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 taunt, glistening skin of his shoulders ruck, and rumple, and fall. Soon, part to 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 and appalled....I had read about the giant water bug, but never seen one....It eats insects, tadpoles, fish, and frogs....It seizes its victims with these legs, hugs it tight, and paralyzes it with enzymes injected during a vicious bite. That one bite is the only bite it ever takes. Through the puncture shoot the poisons that dissolve the victim's muscles and bones and organs-all but the skin-and through it the giant water bug sucks out the victim's body, reduced to a juice. [pp. 7-8]


Similes abound in the above passage from "his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent" to "He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football" to "part to his skin, formless as a pricked balloon." What is the effect of this stream of similes?

Dillard presents the reader with a description of a frog whose life has been sucked out by a giant water bug. To this, Dillard herself admits to being disgusted, she says, "it was a monstrous and terrifying thing. I gaped bewildered and appalled." And later on adds, "I couldn't catch my breath." Disturbing, often violent images are frequently presented to the reader in this book. For example, she describes the mating ritual of preying mantises wherein the female bites the head off the male and later eats him entirely (p 59). Why does she present the reader with these shocking images when they clearly distress her? What effect do they have on our reading?

In this passage Dillard uses both a colon and dashes. What is their function here?

Dillard often takes quotations from or paraphrases things she has read about nature. What does this technique do for her prose? Is it effective to constantly reference other writers?

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Last modified 3 December 2006