The Living Analysis

The Living (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Annie Dillard’s first novel, The Living, marks a dramatic departure from her earlier work. As essayist, naturalist, autobiographer, and poet, she has been noted for her intensely personal narrative essays and nonfiction works, such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974). In The Living, she has discarded the introspective, confessional style in favor of an impersonal, third-person narration that allows her to tell the story of the early settlers in Bellingham Bay, Washington Territory, during the first generation of settlement, from 1855 to 1897. The result is a grand historical novel in the nineteenth century style.

In The Living, Dillard traces the interconnected lives of five pioneer families that settled in Whatcom, on Bellingham Bay, ninety miles north of Seattle, in Washington Territory. Her characters—the Fishburns, the Sharps, the Irelands, the Honers, and the Obenchains—are vividly and intensely drawn. Although her characters are for the most part fictional, Dillard emphasizes the historical accuracy of her portraits, concentrating on accurate details of dress, speech, and local customs. As she indicates in her preface, Dillard’s novel recounts the story of the settlement of the four linked communities located on Bellingham Bay—Whatcom, Old Bellingham, Sehome, and Fairhaven—that were consolidated in 1904 to form the city of Bellingham. The novel is divided into seven major sections, the first four telling the interconnected stories of four families and the last three examining the fates of their children. In order to write this novel, Dillard did a great deal of background research, immersing herself in local county histories, family biographies, and memoirs. She was particularly intrigued by the memoirs of local real estate developer George Bacon, whom she incorporated into her novel.

To a remarkable degree, The Living captures the hopeful and optimistic spirit of the early pioneers in the Pacific Northwest. Dillard recounts the incredible hardships of the Fishburn family’s overland journey by covered wagon, in which Ada Fishburn loses her child Charley when he falls from their wagon and is crushed under a wheel. Later, her husband Rooney is killed in a freak accident while digging a well. Her other two sons—Clare and Glee—are the survivors who prosper in this new country. The strength of the novel is in the resiliency of the characters rather than in the plot—as the title implies.

The original Northwest pioneers came from all walks of life—from wealthy Eastern families to poor European immigrants and Chinese contract laborers. John Ireland Sharp’s family leaves the mainland to homestead on Madrone Island in Bellingham Bay after the Panic of 1873. There the boy meets the evil Beal Obenchain, a bully, sadist, and murderer. After the rest of his family drown in Bellingham Bay, the orphan John Sharp is taken in by the Obenchains, a family of German immigrants. A brilliant student, John is sent east to study classics at Oberlin College and later returns to become the local high school principal. An idealist, he becomes disillusioned with socialism after witnessing mobs of unemployed American workers attacking Chinese laborers. Sharp takes in two brothers, Johnny Lee and Lee Chin, to protect them from mob violence. He retreats into his books and practices an austere stoicism, returning each summer to vacation on the remote Madrone Island where he spent his boyhood.

Eustace and Minta Honer, wealthy and cultivated Baltimore aristocrats, decide after their marriage to head west and homestead in the new Washington Territory. Better situated than most pioneers, the Honers can afford to buy and clear 320 acres of fertile bottomland along the Nooksack River and build a ten-room frame house and the biggest barn in the county. Eustace farms scientifically, raising hops for eastern beer brewers. He drowns while helping to clear a logjam on the Nooksack River, and Minta is left widowed with three young children. When her parents, Senator and Mrs. Green Randall, come to bring her home to Baltimore, Minta refuses to go. Her younger sister June remains behind with her and later marries Clare Fishburn.

The most sinister character is the hulking, idle Beal Obenchain, who becomes a study in gratuitous evil. Even as a child, there was something strange about him, a coward and bully who attempts to hurt or dominate others to cover up his fear. Beal seriously injures John Ireland Sharp in a fight when he kicks and thrashes the younger boy while he is down. Later on, Beal maliciously strangles a calf in his father’s barn as a test of his willpower. He grows up to be a large hulking idler, avoiding all work and haunting the shoreline, Caliban-like, living under an overturned cedar stump and scavenging for clams and mussels along the muddy flats of Bellingham Bay. A cold, deliberately cruel man, contemptuous of others, he fancies himself an intellectual and reads Arthur Schopenhauer. Having no life of his own, Beal attempts to possess the lives of others. As a symbol of the enigma of evil, he resembles the giant water bug in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that slowly sucks the life out of a small frog.

The townspeople are uneasy about Beal and rumors abound about his misdeeds, but no one is willing to confront him directly. As an experiment in cruelty, he lashes the Chinese laborer Lee Chin to a wharf piling and leaves him to drown when the tide comes in six hours later. Becoming more brazen in his contempt for others, he decides to pick a victim at random and threaten him with murder, as a “purely mental exercise,” hoping to frighten his victim to death. Inspired by a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson—“Do the thing and you will have the power”—Beal chooses Clare Fishburn as his victim. Clare does not frighten easily, however, and Beal’s plans are thwarted when Johnny Lee, brother to the drowned man, discovers his brother’s handkerchief on Beal and takes his revenge.

The Living ultimately is the story of the region itself—of the displacement of the aboriginal peoples and the development of the Pacific Northwest. It is a story of a region with a magnificent natural setting of sea and mountains, rich and abundant natural resources, and friendly Native American tribes...

(The entire section is 2590 words.)

The Living (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In her first novel, THE LIVING, Annie Dillard traces the interconnected lives of five pioneer families who settled in Whatcom, on Bellingham Bay, ninety miles north of Seattle, in Washington state. Most of Dillard’s characters—the Fishburns, the Sharps, the Irelands, the Honers, and the Obenchains—are fictional, but she introduces some historical characters as well, notably Jim Hill and Frederick Weyerhaeuser.

THE LIVING captures the spirit of the first generation of settlement in the Pacific Northwest from about 1855 through 1897. The early Northwest settlers were hopeful and optimistic, despite the terrible hardships of pioneer life. The Lummi and Nooksack tribes helped the settlers adjust to their new life in the great fir and hemlock forests along Bellingham Bay. Gold mining, real estate, timber, and railroads fueled a book and bust economic cycle that led to a rise and fall of the region’s hopes.

Dillard does not spare the hardships of the pioneer life. Virtually every family suffered some loss from accidents, disease, or fire, sometimes leaving orphaned children to fend for themselves. Despite incidents of frontier violence, exemplified by Beal Obenchain, whose xenophobia leads him to murder a Chinese immigrant worker, Dillard stresses the independence and resourcefulness of the survivors. John Ireland Sharp, orphaned when his family drowns in Bellingham Bay, makes his way east to be educated at Oberlin College, then returns to become the local high school principal. Clare Fishburn, who marries Minta Honer after her husband is drowned in a logging accident, prospers in real estate and politics.

Dillard’s THE LIVING emphasizes the multicultural contributions of Native Americans, pioneers, and immigrants in the settlement of the Pacific Northwest.

Bibliography

Albin, C. D. “What the Living Know in Bellingham Bay.” The Christian Century 109 (October 7, 1992): 871-873. Focusing on the omnipresence of death and hardship in the novel, Albin sees the characters’ responses to the land as an education in how to accept the random irony of suffering. Albin praises Dillard’s techniques for revealing the inner lives of the characters. This is an admiring review, which ultimately decides that readers are strengthened by participating in the epic struggle.

Ames, Katrine. Review of The Living, by Annie Dillard. Newsweek 119 (June 8, 1992): 57. An enthusiastic review. Ames focuses on the authentic effect of the...

(The entire section is 1034 words.)

The Living Form and Content (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Living is based on a short story of the same title which Annie Dillard wrote in 1978. The novel is arranged into seven “books”; each of the first three focuses on a family that comes to settle in Whatcom. As the novel progresses, the families’ lives become increasingly intertwined. Each book contains chapters titled by date and location, showing the importance of time and place in this work of historical fiction. Although the original story focused on Obenchain’s death threat to Clare Fishburn, the novel features several strong women characters who are memorable for their emotional and physical stamina.

As a work of historical realism, The Living is primarily concerned with the settlement...

(The entire section is 626 words.)

The Living Context (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Living shows the importance of women in the history of western settlement. Dillard’s women characters are strong and capable; they survive innumerable tragedies and hardships and are the most impressive of “the living.” They are able farmers and businesswomen, competent housekeepers, and loving wives and mothers. The Living can be viewed in the tradition of literature that realistically portrays women on the frontier-a tradition that includes Caroline Kirkland’s A New Home—Who’ll Follow? (1839), Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (1918) and Oh! Pioneers (1913), and the work of Gertrude Atherton. Yet Dillard’s novel comes long after the settlement of the frontier; in The...

(The entire section is 357 words.)

The Living Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Albin, C. D. “What the Living Know in Bellingham Bay.” The Christian Century 109 (October 7, 1992): 871-873. Focusing on the omnipresence of death and hardship in the novel, Albin sees the characters’ responses to the land as an education in how to accept the random irony of suffering. Albin praises Dillard’s techniques for revealing the inner lives of the characters. This is an admiring review, which ultimately decides that readers are strengthened by participating in the epic struggle.

Ames, Katrine. Review of The Living, by Annie Dillard. Newsweek 119 (June 8, 1992): 57. An enthusiastic review. Ames focuses on...

(The entire section is 759 words.)