Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

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Anne Dillard's short essay collection "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" uses narrative methods, instruments, and elements to investigate the themes of theodicy and pain. The topic of suffering is discussed in the essays in a way that demonstrates the term's relativity as well as the limitations in human existence that preclude a deeper comprehension of what suffering and theodicy mean. The vocabulary used in the essays is deliberately selected to express a deeper meaning of theodicy's view of good and bad. Theodicy refers to the understanding and exploration of the concept of evil in light of the existence of God while suffering refers to the state of suffering or pain. Theodicy and suffering are interconnected because of the belief that suffering is a sign of the evil in the world and in question such suffering, theodicy comes about. In this paper, a study will be undertaken to understand the manner in which the two themes of suffering and theodicy are explored in “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”. Moreover, the literary devices employed in the narration of the essays, rhetorical strategies and structures of the essays will be discussed with an aim of understanding the manner in which they were strategized to further the aim of the author to elucidate the two aforementioned themes. An understanding of suffering and theodicy is not conclusively comprehensible due to the limitations of human senses and language which prevent the complete understanding of what the terms mean.

The essays by Anne Dillard are written from a first person perspective thereby creating an understanding of the relative and personal nature in the quest for seeking deeper understanding into theodicy and suffering. The tone taken ranges from optimism to pessimism and in some instances, the narrator seems joyful while in other parts of the essays, the author sounds serious. The somber mood in the essays is used to show the seriousness of the narrator in the quest to understand theodicy and suffering. The choice of the words used, however, despite the seriousness of the tone; show that the narrator delves into their emotions which works to mar an objective assessment into theodicy and human suffering. In the first essay, “Heaven and Earth in Jest” (p. 7-13), the author uses a human perspective to understand Allah, for example. “It’s a good question. What do we think of the created universe, spanning an unthinkable void, with an unthinkable profusion of forms? Or what do we think of nothingness, those sickening reaches of time in either direction?” (p. 10). The use of the word “sickening” for example, shows the use of human emotion in an attempt to understand the genesis of the good and world in the world which is the purview of theodicy and suffering.

The inadequacy of the human perspective in understanding the themes of theodicy and suffering becomes evident in the essay “Seeing” (p. 14-23). The first person perspective falls short in understanding the evil and suffering from a human perspective. The author states that “The lover can see, and the knowledgeable” (p. 17) The author thereafter undertakes an analysis of the perceptions of human beings, claiming that one can only observe what they know or what they feel strongly about. Dillard speaks of an experience whereby she attempted to see a frog but was unable to because she was asked to look out for the color green and the frog was instead the color of wet hickory bark. The symbolism in the statement “If we are blinded by darkness, we are also blinded by light” (p.19) goes to show the fickle nature of the human perception in understanding evil and suffering. Human beings are dumbfounded by what they know and what they don’t. For example, the story of the people who were blind because of cataracts and had their eyesight repaired in adulthood provides an analysis into the difficulty of assessing whether an experience is evil or a sign of suffering. When the persons who underwent surgery were able to see, they preferred not to use their sight in some instances because they thought of it as suffering. Prior to having sight, they lived in the bliss of not knowing the magnitude of the world and the differences in human faces for example. The underlying lesson to be learnt is that human understanding is limited based on a relative personal understanding that clouds judgment on evil in relation to God.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Although the literal human language is deficient in the portrayal of the nature of God through the understanding of evil and suffering as propounded by human beings, literary devices and rhetorical strategies provide more insight. Literary devices which go beyond the literal use of words provide a better understanding through their ability to create a picture that would speak better than a thousand words. In the essay “Fecundity” (p. 86-96) for example, the author makes compelling statements full of metaphors and imagery in order to enable the audience understand the theme of theodicy and suffering. “The world has signed a pact with the devil; it had to. It is a covenant to which everything, even every hydrogen atom, is bound. The terms are clear: if you want to live, you have to die. You cannot have mountains and creeks without space and space is a beauty married to a blind man. The blind man is Freedom or Time, and he does not go anywhere without his great dog death” (p. 96) The allegory of the blind man and the beautiful woman is a symbolic representation of the evil or suffering as perceived by human beings and why through an analysis of theodicy, it can be understood as a necessary part of life that does not preclude the goodness of God. The metaphor of a dog (death) belonging to a blind man (Time) is used to further explain theodicy. A dog is a companion and in the case of a blind man, it is a trusted friend and guide. As a result, the author is able to explain that death is a guide to human beings. What human beings perceive as evil should not be understood in the literal context alone but rather provide a deeper understanding based on the bigger picture, the fact that life is a gift and as such, a sign of God’s goodness. Moreover, the use of a blind man married to a beautiful lady can be construed as irony noting that in the essay “Seeing”, the author had assessed the manner in which the human beings definition of seeing was limited to a blind’s man notion of seeing. Blind persons are able to ‘see’ through other heightened senses. As a result freedom or time is appreciative of space.

The choice of the form of the piece of work as a collection of short stories and the choice of words were specifically chosen to implement the meaning of the text and the message that the author intended to put across. The aim of the author, throughout the essays was to prove the relativity of the human experience and the fact that human suffering and the concept of evil as relates to God can be disputed through a deeper understanding of the experiences in human life. The plot that the author uses is to begin a story using short experiences in her life before giving a deeper understanding into the experience thereby challenging the shallow belief in suffering and the idea that God allows evil into the world. In the essay, seeing, for example, the author begins by giving her experience as a young girl who would leave a penny for a lucky person to find. She would thereafter go home and never seek to know who found the penny. The use of such simple stories is aimed to draw the reader in and allow them to relate with the author before being given a deeper insight. The author thereafter speaks of the fact that as human beings grow, they lose sight of the importance of experiences in life. She states for example, that in the current day and age, she doubts that anyone would bend down to pick a penny. She then makes an assessment that a person who would not bend to pick a penny shows the height of poverty (p. 15). The choice of words can be understood in relation to the story she has given and the reader can therefore gain an understanding of the reason why human beings are so miserable and opt to blame their ‘suffering’ on a deity instead of understanding that a part of it is as a result of free will and choice. The choice of words also cause the reader to go about reading the work in a slower pace because it is laden with imagery and other literary devices which prompt the reader to delve into deep though over the ideas expressed which was exactly the intention of the author.

The parts of the essay that provoke the strongest feelings in me are the personal reflections after the narration of personal experiences. Before the author launches into critical assessment of the themes she intends to pass across, she uses rhetorical questions, for example, “Seems like we’re just set down here and don’t nobody know why” (p.8) The rhetorical questions used throughout the essays evoked the strongest feelings in me because they caused me to go into deep thought about the meaning of life, suffering and evil. The writer’s experiences further drive the point home on the necessity of a deeper understanding of everyday experiences because they are written from such a pure assessment of life. The idea, for example, that a young girl would place a penny for others to find, or that a tomcat would climb up on one’s bed in the night and leave bloody paw prints which the author would analyze from such an open minded perspective challenged the manner in which I answered the rhetorical questions posed thereafter. I learnt to avoid looking at the experiences in my life from a narrow perspective of a binary of good and bad or right and evil and rather to assess each experience based on the larger perspective such as the lessons that I could learn from my suffering and in which manner such lesions, although sometimes manifested through tears, were an important blessing.


The work “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” is a literary work that enables a deeper understanding into theodicy and suffering. The author challenges the literal interpretations of human beings of the concepts of evil and suffering by sharing experiences that show the manner in which a deeper understanding is necessary to understand and appreciate life. Imagery and symbolism plays a critical role in the piece of work because they invoke deeper thought which is the intention of the author. The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is not just a collection of short essays for entertainment but rather a life changing work meant to inspire others in life.

Works Cited

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Harper Collins, 1998.

November 17, 2022

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