Holy the Firm | Study Guide

Annie Dillard

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Course Hero. "Holy the Firm Study Guide." January 8, 2021. Accessed January 28, 2022. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Holy-the-Firm/.


Course Hero, "Holy the Firm Study Guide," January 8, 2021, accessed January 28, 2022, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Holy-the-Firm/.

Holy the Firm | Symbols



In Holy the Firm, fire is a symbol of creation and destruction. In the beginning of the book the narrator describes the positive qualities of fire. She recounts a time when she was camping in the mountains of Virginia. It is night and a candle flame gives her light by which to read. When a moth is caught in the flame it acts like a candlewick and the candle burns with more flame and even brighter for another two hours. The narrator shares, "But the world without light is wasteland and chaos." She continues the positive symbolism of fire when she says, "The seraphs are born of a stream of fire issuing from under God's throne." The seraphs are the highest order of angels who are "aflame with love for God." The narrator questions whether God is a holy fire "burning self-contained for power's sake alone? Then he knows himself blissfully as flame unconsuming."

The narrator is also aware of the consuming force of flame. She observes this destructive force when seven-year-old Julie Norwich is burned. The plane Julie is flying in with her father crashes and flames ignite her face. She is terribly disfigured and in much pain. The narrator is not casting judgment on the nature of fire. She is aware of the reality of its power to create and to destroy.


The moth is a symbol of self-sacrificing light. At the beginning of the book the narrator describes dead moths on the floor of her bathroom. They were caught in the spiderweb and died. The narrator describes their empty and headless carcasses with a religious simile "like a jumble of buttresses for cathedral domes, like nothing resembling moths." When she sees the moths in her bathroom, the narrator recalls another occasion when she closely examined a moth. She was camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and reading late into the night by candlelight. She saw a large moth with a two-inch wingspan become stuck in the melted wax of the candle and catch on fire. The narrator watched the moth's body act as a wick in the flame. The moth's skeleton burned for two hours and provided light for the narrator to read a book that inspired her work.

The narrator describes the burning moth in religious guises. She describes it as "a saffron-yellow flame that robed her to the ground like any immolating monk." She imagines the moth is glowing "like a hollow saint, like a flame-faced virgin gone to God." The moth represents a very spiritual, self-sacrificing light for the narrator and the moth inspires her. At one point when the narrator is carrying wine to the church for communion, she feels as if she is the moth. She thinks, "I am moth; I am light. I am prayer." The narrator is contributing meaningful light to the world as the moth provided light to her.


Salt is symbolic of preservation. In the beginning of the book the narrator relates how she came to the part of the world near the Cascade Mountain range in Washington to study "hard things." The hard things she names are "rock mountain and salt sea." The narrator is studying more abstract "hard things" as well. She is studying God, time, and space. She reads about the ancient custom in Europe and the Middle East of salting a newborn baby. This was done for hygiene and abundance and blessings for the baby, as well as to harden and clean its skin. The narrator refers to the preservative qualities of salt when she recalls the Bible. God made a promise that he called a "covenant of salt." The covenant will be preserved the way salt preserves food.

The narrator uses the word "salt" in a different context when she talks about the task of the artist. She believes the artist is "lighting the kingdom of God for the people to see ... his feet are waxen and salt. He is holy and he is firm." The narrator is equating the artist with Holy the Firm, the substance deep in the earth that is in touch with the Absolute. This substance seeps into all things and keeps the circle of life unbroken. Holy the Firm is the unity of all things. The narrator believes the artist must also be in touch with the Absolute. She comments on the work of the artist, "So must the work be also, in touch with, in touch with, in touch with; spanning the gap, from here to eternity, home." The same way that Holy the Firm is in touch with the Absolute, the artist must strive to be in touch with the Absolute. This is the work the narrator does as she shares her view of the world in her writing.

Questions for Symbols

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