Dillard's Fearful Fixed

Charles Vallely '06, English 171, Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, 2005

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In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard stands in awe of nature in both senses of the word: on the one hand, its intricate workings fill her with admiration and wonder; on the other, they inspire an intense fear. One of the principle causes of her fear, as she explains in the following passage, is "the fixed" (p. 69) — whether it be precise and ceaseless repetition, or the stillness of the kayaker sitting in water "when there is not enough wind to blow out a match and the water is like a sheet of glass" (p. 24).

I want out of this still air. What street-corner vendor wound the key on the backs of tin soldiers and abandoned them to the sidewalk, and crashings over the curb? Elijah mocked the prophets of Baal, who lay a bullock on a woodpile and begged Baal to consume it: "Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked." Cry aloud. It is the fixed that horrifies us, the fixed that assails us with the tremendous force of its mindlessness. The fixed is a Mason jar, and we can't beat it open. The prophets of Baal gashed themselves with knives and lancets, and the wood stayed wood. The fixed is the world without fire-dead flint, dead tinder, and nowhere a spark. It is motion without direction, force without power, the aimless procession of caterpillars round the rim of a vase, and I hate it because at any moment I myself might step to that charmed and glistening thread. Last spring in the flood I saw a brown cattail bob in the high muddy water of Carvin's Creek, up and down, side to side, a jerk a second. I went back the next day and nothing had changed; that empty twitching beat on in an endless, sickening tattoo. What geomancy reads what the wind-blown sand writes on the desert rock? I read there that all things live by a generous power and dance to a might tune; or I read there that all things are scattered and hurled, that our every arabesque and grand jeté is a frantic variation on our one free fall. [68-69]

Dillard begins and ends this passage with human or "unnatural" images. The tin-soldier trudges on mechanically and crashes to the curb unknowingly. At the end, she evokes an image of a ballerina whose every thrust — however individual they think it may be — is only a slight deviation on the same movement. Thus, in the fixed quality of nature, Dillard arrives at a disturbing interpretation of man as an automaton marching towards its own demise. Or, one might say, a part and parcel of nature.


1. Dillard has a sort of linguistic tic: she repeats phrases, redefines them, and bunches together multiple verbs and adjectives to describe the same action or entity. What is the effect of Dillard's use of repetition? How does it work rhythmically? How does it work with respect to her ruminations on nature? Have any of the other writers we've read used a similar technique?

2. What is the significance of the first image — "What street-corner vendor wound the key on the backs of tin soldiers and abandoned them to the sidewalk, and crashings over the curb?" (p. 68) How does Dillard use the civilized or "unnatural" world and its machinations to comment on nature? What is the intended effect of depicting nature in these terms?

3. How does the way in which Dillard alludes to other authors and materials differ from other writers that we've read? What is the effect? (It seems to me that she uses other authors in a more academic manner by often prompting their quotations with "according to" or "as X said." On the one hand, it feels forced and awkward; on the other, she juggles the old masters with biologists and anthropologists effortlessly.)

4. When Dillard writes "and I hate it because" (p. 69) how does the "and" effect her prose? Why doesn't she begin a new sentence? Does the run-in evoke something of her childhood exposure to nature?

5. How does the word "tattoo" (p. 69) function in this passage? Dillard uses it to mean a repetitive rhythm, but does it function at all as an inscription? What is being inscribed? On what surface?


Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper, 1988.

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Last modified 3 December 2006