Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek Dillard touches on all the important themes that would continue to inform her writing. At first glance, this book might appear to be a collection of occasional essays that track the changing seasons through one calendar year. In fact, that is how some critics have viewed this work: as essays on the perplexities of nature. While the book does take up this theme again and again, it is not for the simple pleasure of holding up a quirk of nature for its thrill value.
Dillard carefully built this volume after months of painstaking observation of and research about both metaphysics and the natural world. The rhythms of the book are tightly controlled and depend on recurrent images and themes that surface over and over, allowing Dillard to focus on the key issues at the heart of the narrator’s personal journey. As much as anything, this book is about seeing and about gaining the ability to see within oneself, into the surrounding world, and beyond to the divinity that informs the world.
The book opens with a startling image of violence, creation, and death in a description of the bloody paw prints left on the narrator by her returning tomcat. The world Dillard sees as she looks out from her cabin beside Tinker Creek in Virginia is one in which little seems to make obvious sense. Wherever Dillard turns, she sees the raw, brutal power of nature to reproduce itself, and she finds the sheer exuberance of the natural...
(The entire section is 1060 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Annie Dillard is no mere “nature writer,” and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, winner of the 1975 Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction, is more than a book about simply “walking around the woods.” Pilgrim at Tinker Creek blends spirituality, environmentalism, awe, and wonder with narrative, research, questions, and answers. Although the work is set at Tinker Creek in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley, it could be a story about any natural place, experienced anew by any person journeying through, like a pilgrim.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is organized into fifteen chapters, each with simple titles such as “Seeing” or “The Present.” The chapters move chronologically through the seasons, starting with winter in January. No chapter, however, is limited to what is happening at Tinker Creek in a given month. Rather, the chapters are thematic, as indicated by their titles. There is a larger theme of spirituality, as the book explores the two routes to God in the tradition of neoplatonic Christianity. The first half of the book shows the positive route, via positiva (celebrating a creator’s glory, reveling in balance and existence, knowing that a god exists and is good); the second half shows the negative route, via negativa (acknowledging God’s unknowability, as well as the bizarre fecundity and voraciousness of the natural world, where eventually everything will die and nothing can ever really be known).
(The entire section is 1384 words.)
Chapter One: ‘‘Heaven and Earth in Jest’’
The opening of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is one of the most famous passages from the book. ‘‘I used to have a cat,’’ the book begins. The narrator reports that she was in the habit of sleeping naked in front of an open window, and the cat would use that window to return to the house at night after hunting. In the morning, the narrator would awaken to find her body ‘‘covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses.’’
This opening passage introduces several important ideas and approaches that will operate through the entire book. Dillard insistently presents the natural world as both beautiful and cruel, like the image of roses painted in blood. She demonstrates throughout the book that to discover nature, one must actively put oneself in its way. The narrator sleeps naked, with the windows open, to put no barriers between herself and the natural world. But the natural world is a manifestation of God, and it is God she is really seeking to understand through the book. Dillard introduces the theme of religion as the narrator washes the bloodstains off her body, wondering whether they are ‘‘the keys to the kingdom or the mark of Cain.’’ Finally, the anecdote structure itself is typical; throughout the book, Dillard weaves together passages of reflection, description, and narration.
The book’s structure is...
(The entire section is 1455 words.)