Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 647
Eiseley’s approach is that of the essayist who links personal experience and philosophical reflection. Each of the book’s twenty-five essays might stand alone as an exploration of one period in the writer’s life. Like other prominent nature writers, Eiseley is a scientist with an overabundance of imagination, one who thinks...
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- Critical Essays
Eiseley’s approach is that of the essayist who links personal experience and philosophical reflection. Each of the book’s twenty-five essays might stand alone as an exploration of one period in the writer’s life. Like other prominent nature writers, Eiseley is a scientist with an overabundance of imagination, one who thinks in terms of visual images, symbols, and metaphors. Events and discoveries are analyzed for what they reveal or suggest beyond themselves. His mother’s broken mirror, which he examined as a child, becomes a symbol of her troubled psyche after he sees an identical one still in good condition that belonged to an aunt. A memory of early childhood, a prison escape that ended violently, becomes symbolic of humankind’s lifelong quest for self-fulfillment. These and other images and symbols serve as structural motifs whose recurrence links the isolated essays in the autobiography.
An awareness that somehow time is alien to the individual invites Eiseley to muse over vast stretches of the past. Thus, he concludes that humanity, a product of the ice ages, scoured the earth like the ice, leaving great destruction. The individual life is like the pieces carried along by a glacial stream, fanning out at the end and leaving fragmentary remains.
Yet, Eiseley is troubled by some uses of the past, including the excavation of early human remains by anthropologists. He had done such a thing himself, exposing the remains of Native Americans, a practice that he could justify only on the grounds that science, not commercial exploitation, was being served. He is likewise troubled by the use of living animals for medical experimentation—troubled perhaps because for him all life exhibits mysteries beyond humankind’s power to fathom. Even a comprehensive scientific theory such as evolution leaves many questions unanswered.
The book’s dominant theme is a celebration of the mystery of life, as is true of Eiseley’s other nature writings. That an individual survives so many narrow escapes and confrontations with death—lost in a cave, cold and exhausted above the moving wheels of a freight train, stricken with an often fatal illness—can be viewed as a mystery.
In science, his teacher Frank Speck persuades him that the theory of evolution does not adequately account for the coloration of a wood duck (though both seemed to forget that Charles Darwin considered selectivity for breeding similar to selectivity for survival). An essay in the final section, “The Coming of the Giant Wasps,” celebrates the complexity of life and the limitations of humanity’s understanding. The giant yellow-and-black wasp Sphex preys upon cicadas, which are larger than it is. Although both creatures emerge from the ground at the same time, they are instinctual enemies. The wasp must select its prey, sting but not kill it, drag the body into its nest, and lay its egg so that the larva can feed on the comatose insect, without having seen any of this done before. A year later, the life cycle, driven by complex instinct, recurs and the process repeats itself.
Despite Eiseley’s fascination with the mystery of life, the book is profoundly pessimistic. The final chapter evokes a spectral character from another world, who explores with the author the meaning of life. One of the few essays developed primarily through dialogue, it features the author rejecting the other voice and accepting the finality of death. Yet, Eiseley also affirms life by celebrating the courage of individual struggle while narrating significant events in his own struggle. Images sharpened by memory of courageous beings—the friendly mongrel that tried to follow the train Eiseley rode, the elderly worker who continued in his menial job even though he knew he was dying, the teacher who identified closely with Native Americans, and the doomed fugitive Tom Murry—recur as acts of piety in which the author celebrates what is striking in memory.