Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1814
Annie Dillard has consistently held a high place in American letters since the publication of her first book, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel (1974), when she was still in her twenties. This is despite the fact that her publications tend to be brief, infrequent, and distributed over a wide range...
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Annie Dillard has consistently held a high place in American letters since the publication of her first book, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel (1974), when she was still in her twenties. This is despite the fact that her publications tend to be brief, infrequent, and distributed over a wide range of genres, in both fiction and nonfiction. What is common to all of them is a poet’s skill in the use of figurative language, a passion for the natural world, and a philosopher’s sense of humanity’s place in the cosmos. In her best-known work, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), Dillard chronicled the wonder and terror of the natural world at the edge of civilization in Roanoke Valley, Virginia. Like her literary predecessor, Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond, Dillard is obsessed with humanity’s intersection with nature as she observes the process from the margins of society. This is no less true of The Maytrees, a novel set among the bohemians of Provincetown, Massachusetts, in the decades following World War II. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek revealed her fascination with Thoreau’s life in a cabin at the edge of town; The Maytrees demonstrates that this idea is still a potent stimulus for her imagination.
In their shack by the sea, Toby and Lou Bigelow Maytree are outsiders in bohemian Provincetown, which is itself a repository of outsiders. In her portrayal of this independent community, Dillard emphasizes that these characters bring the same sense of originality to their lives that they invest in their art. This is implied in the naming of her characters. On one side of the spectrum, there are writers for whom a character’s name evokes little interest beyond its utilitarian value: a signifier for someone who plays a role in a story. At the opposite end of the literary continuum are the writers who employ naming as a means of revealing a character’s role or his or her inner life. Ishmael, for example, is an appropriate name for the narrator of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) because he, like the biblical character of the same name, is an outcast. Dillard, on the other hand, takes a somewhat different approach. The singular nature of the inhabitants of this artistic community is embodied in their names: Deary Hightoe, Reevadare Weaver, Cornelius Blue, Sooner Roy. The oddness of the names is also due in part to their high vowel contentnot a minor matter to a poet as skilled as Dillard.
Indeed, Dillard brings a poet’s sensibility to the overall structure of the novel. At just over two hundred pages in length, The Maytrees is a lightweight in the world of modern fiction; if it were any shorter, it would qualify as a novella. In spite of its brevity, however, Dillard imposes a formal structure on her novel worthy of an epic narrative. In addition to the prologue, there are three numbered parts and a concluding epilogue. In formal terms, Dillard appears to be building a modest cottage with walls as thick as a fortress. It serves a function, but it initially seems out of proportion to the narrative she seeks to relate. This can be partly accounted for by the fact she often brings a skewed sense of proportion to her best writing. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, for example, the devouring of a tiny toad by a large insect triggers a wave of shock and horror in the narrator that permeates much of the rest of the book. Again, the key to understanding Dillard’s reasoning lies in the fact that this is a prose work by an accomplished poet. One should keep in mind that in a poemeven a brief poemstructure is both visually and aesthetically important, from the lines within a stanza to the grouping of stanzas into named sections. The density of the prose, moreover, often belies the brevity of the book. Thus, the initial impression of an oversized structure for such a small book is one that soon dissipates.
The plot itself is simple enough: A prologue follows the Maytrees as their romance progresses into marriage and a child; part 1 focuses on the breakup of the relationship as Toby Maytree falls in love with Deary Hightoe; part 2 finds Lou living alone and Toby in his second marriage; part 3 and the epilogue find Toby and Lou back together again. All of this sounds like a cliché, like a typical popular romance really, and it does not do justice to Dillard’s carefully crafted prose.
What enables Dillard’s work to succeed and hold the reader’s attention is the power and originality of her language. When Toby first meets Lou, Dillard reveals the signal importance of the event in words so poetic they could easily be set into a stanza: “She was young and broad of mouth and eye and jaw, fresh, solid and airy, as if light rays worked her instead of muscles.” It is a striking image of the character, one that works on more than one level. On the surface, it is a physical description of Lou Bigelow, one that captures some essential aspects of her appearance. Dillard is letting the reader know that, far from being the musings of an omniscient narrator, the passage implies that this is a view of Lou as perceived by the poet Toby Maytree. The succeeding passage confirms this: “Oh, how a poet is a sap; he knew it.” Given Dillard’s skill as a poet, it is also a deliciously ironic comment regarding her own craft.
On a deeper level, one can recognize some significant characteristics of Dillard’s writing, telltale points that recur throughout her prior works as well as The Maytrees. Note that the comment on the broadness of Lou’s facial features proceeds to the simile that likens her to light rays. Upon first reading, this perception of Lou seems flawed in its contradictory union of the concepts of solidity and airiness. In one sense, the description works within the context of the scene because its contradictory nature seems to capture the tumultuousness of love at first sight, but Dillard has consistently used such oppositional imagery throughout her long career. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, for example, she says of a monarch butterfly that it “climbed a hill by falling still.” The key to understanding the description about Lou lies in the simile to which it is tied. The invocation of light undoubtedly reflects Toby’s budding affection, but it also calls to mind the fundamental properties of light itself: It exhibits the characteristics of both waves (airiness) and particles (solidity). Unlike many poets, Dillard does not make a distinction between art and science. In her best works, the facts of modern science often form the basis for much of her imagery. In preparing for the writing of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she read widely in the physical sciences and frequently invoked statistics when describing nature. Of course, a bare recitation of facts and figures would be out of place in a novel. Even so, Dillard has thoroughly immersed herself in the formal study of the physical world, and it is something that suffuses the novel.
Her intensive study in the sciences often produces imagery so startling that it threatens to overpower the very story it is intended to relate. Early in the novel, Dillard tries to convey Toby’s growing affection for the beautiful young Lou. When describing Toby’s attraction to her, Dillard states that in Lou’s absence he “felt like one of two pieces of electrical tape pulled part.” This is a risky approach to writing fiction, one that proves beyond question that Dillard is more concerned with her craft than with pleasing the masses. It is such an arresting image that, rather than just conveying Toby’s feelings, it focuses the reader’s attention more on the simile than on what it is intended to represent. The same effect occurs late in the book when Toby returns to Provincetown and Lou after an absence of twenty years. Rather than simply indicate that he is now wrinkled with age, the text states that Lou “saw parallel lines in his cheeks like presliced bacon.” Not only does the imagery tend to overwhelm these somewhat shadowy characters, it also makes them seem less human at times. Dillard is too skilled a writer for this to be an oversight, and it is obvious that she never intended to dash off a conventional romance.
If there is a certain flatness to Dillard’s characters, it can be explained in part by the role of nature in the novel. In For the Time Being (1999), references to sand and clouds appear with such frequency that they almost function as recurring characters. A similar effect also occurs in The Maytrees, where once again nature seems to vie for equal attention with the novel’s protagonists. Although the book is nominally set in Provincetown, what action there is mostly takes place on the beach, a beach so isolated that it offers a perfect view of sand, ocean, clouds, and stars, but nothing of the town itself. Nature is always in a state of flux, but under such conditions one is confronted with an ever-mutating panorama of color, light, water, and earth. Conversely, if the scene is perpetually in motion, it also presents the viewer with the antithetical property of stasis. As Dillard herself succinctly states, “Each offshore surf line contained commotion but got nowhere, like someone’s reading the same line over and over.” Given this majestic backdrop of the larger forces of nature, the usual conflicts that drive fictionparticularly romantic fictiontend to pale in comparison. This is apparent when Toby abandons his wife and young child for another woman after some fourteen years of marriage. In most fictional renderings of the subject, a writer would seek to wring every last particle of emotion from the breakup and follow the shock waves as they impact both major and minor characters. Dillard, however, creates a character in Lou who bears no malice toward her former husband, and their prior relationship resumes as though no breakup ever occurred. To Dillard, the pattern of relationship formation and severance is no different than the ever-repeating patterns of nature.
Even though the plot revolves around the relationship between Lou and Toby, and the novel devotes about equal time to each of them when they live separate lives, it is Lou who emerges as the central character in the novel. As taciturn as she is beautiful, it is she rather than her poet husband who absorbs the lessons of nature and accepts the vicissitudes of life with philosophical calm. That Dillard succeeds so well in treading such difficult ground is a tribute to her formidable talent as a writer. With its deep wisdom and memorable imagery, The Maytrees will appeal to serious readers everywhere.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 44
The Atlantic Monthly 300, no. 2 (September, 2007): 130.
Booklist 103, no. 11 (February 1, 2007): 4.
The Christian Century 124, no. 21 (October 16, 2007): 45-46.
Entertainment Weekly, no. 939 (June 15, 2007): 81.
Library Journal 132, no. 5 (March 15, 2007): 56.
London Review of Books 30, no. 1 (January 3, 2008): 34-35.
The New York Times Book Review 156 (July 29, 2007): 12-13.
People 67, no. 24 (June 18, 2007): 50.
Publishers Weekly 254, no. 6 (February 5, 2007): 36.