"Total Eclipse" Summary

Total Eclipse” by Annie Dillard is a nonfiction essay about her experience of watching a solar eclipse in central Washington.

  • The essay opens with Dillard and her husband in a hotel, having traveled several hours to witness a total solar eclipse that will take place the following day.
  • The next morning, Dillard and her husband join other eclipse-watchers on a hillside. The eclipse itself is an intense experience, making the world look “wrong” and filling Dillard with a strange sense of dread.
  • Dillard reflects on the experience over breakfast, noting how easily a “clamoring” mind is quieted by comforts of food and familiarity.

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Last Updated on May 13, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1051

As the essay begins, the author is in a hotel in central Washington, a place that is strange and unfamiliar to her. She has come to see a solar eclipse, which is due to occur the next morning. After a long drive from western Washington, she finds herself now lying in bed, next to her husband, Gary, and looking at a painting of a clown’s head made of vegetables. She finds the painting tasteless and ugly, but it compels her attention and is impossible to forget. 

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She recalls how the two of them drove for five hours to reach the hotel and how their trip was briefly delayed while bulldozers cleared a passage through a recent avalanche on a snowy mountain pass. Later, while waiting in the hotel lobby, the author read a magazine article about gold mining. In South Africa, India, and South Dakota, she discovered, mines run so deep that they are hot. The rock walls burn the miners’ hands, and if the air conditioners break, they die. The author reflects on this as she falls asleep.

Early the next day, the author and her husband check out. It is a Monday morning, February 26, 1979. They drive at random into the unfamiliar countryside until they find a suitable hill from which to watch the solar eclipse. As they climb the hill they see other people equipped with telescopes and cameras. The author is struck by the beauty of the Yakima valley, which she has never seen before. There are orchards and small towns on the lower slopes, and a shining river at the bottom. Behind them is the “enormous snow-covered volcanic cone” of Mount Adams.

The sun comes up behind a band of clouds, and more people arrive. The author notes that all these “rugged individualists” are wearing the same caps and parkas. As the crowd on the hillside grows, she thinks about how odd they must look, imagining alternative arcane and mysterious reasons for which they could be gathered here: to pray at the end of the world, or sacrifice virgins, or make an assault on the valley below.

The author has already seen a partial eclipse, which took place in 1970. This, however, was a completely different type of experience. A partial eclipse does not darken the sky or change the appearance of the sun, making it seem colorless. What she had already seen, and what she thought she was going to see, have done nothing to prepare her for a total eclipse. The sun becomes narrower, as though it is being shaved away against a blank background of sky. Soon the sun is “a wide crescent, like a segment of tangerine.” The sky turns a deeper blue, a “saturated deep indigo” that the author has never seen before.

At this point, everything suddenly seems wrong. The colors and textures surrounding the author all change, becoming unfamiliar. The grass at her feet looks like platinum, and her hands turn silver. The author feels as though she is watching a film from the Middle Ages and misses the familiarity of the twentieth century and the normality of daylight. She looks at her husband and sees him as part of the film, unfamiliar, like the rest of her surroundings. She seems to be remembering him, centuries later “from the other side of death.” The grass on the hillside looks like wild barley or wheat.

The author hears screams around her, as a disk of sky covers the sun “like a lid.” Everything is dark, apart from a faint ring of light in the sky. She has read that the eclipse is caused by the moon blocking out the sun, but she would never have thought of this herself. If she had simply looked up and seen such a sight without expecting it, she would probably have died of fright, as the Emperor Louis of Bavaria did in 840.

She remarks that photographs you may have seen of a total eclipse were taken through telescopes. They cannot convey the “breadth and scale” of what the author sees, any more than a Christmas card conveys the awe the shepherds must have felt at seeing a multitude of angels. When you are watching a real eclipse, the faint ring of light is tiny and insignificant in the vast darkness of the sky. What remains of the sun seems “too small, and too cold, and too far away to keep the world alive.” The author feels as though everyone standing on the hillside, and everyone on earth, is dead and “alone in eternity.”

When it is over, the author leaves the hillside and goes to a restaurant, though she is still so shaken from the eclipse that she barely understands how she is able to arrive there. Inside the restaurant, other eclipse-watchers are eating breakfast and talking about what they have seen. One of them, a college student, says that the ring of light in the sky looked like a Life Saver. The author likes this image, and it wakes her up from her reverie. She marvels at the dichotomy between mind and body. The mind wants to understand eternity and the universe, while the body is satisfied by a hearty breakfast. Once the body has had what it wants, the mind grows quiet. The restaurant, therefore, functions as a “decompression chamber” after the heady experience of the eclipse.

Reflecting later, the author remembers the suddenness with which the dark shadow rolled over her just as the sun disappeared. The sun was only gone for two minutes, but she felt both its beginning and end viscerally, as forms of violence. She recalls how the drivers on the highway below turned on their headlights, and some of them pulled off the road.

The author concludes with the strange reflection that as soon as the sun appeared again, the eclipse was generally agreed to be over, and everyone stopped watching. There was still a partial eclipse to be seen, and this is a rare event, one which they might well have driven hours to see. However, the author did not stay to watch it, and nor did anyone else. She adds, by way of explanation:

From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.

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