Pilgrim at Tinker Creek | Study Guide

Annie Dillard

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Pilgrim at Tinker Creek | Chapter 4 : The Fixed | Summary



It is still February; Dillard writes emphatically, "I have just learned to see praying mantis egg cases. Suddenly I see them everywhere." Most of the chapter is a detailed account of gruesome facts about insects. Dillard is alternately fascinated and repulsed by these facts. She explains how mantises are so powerful they can eat garter snakes and hummingbirds, although they usually eat smaller insects and sometimes each other. Then she describes witnessing a mantis laying her eggs, the abdomen "swollen like a smashed finger ... out of which bubbled a wet, whipped froth." Continuing the description of mantises, Dillard describes their mating rituals in which the female eats the male's head, and the two continue mating nonetheless.

She continues with a story about a cocoon her teacher kept in a Mason jar. Because the jar was too small, the huge Polyphemus moth emerged with his wings permanently glued together. Watching the moth's doomed struggles to fly, once released from the jar, shocked Dillard, as the creature tried to walk away. "He was a monster in a Mason jar."

She also describes an experiment in which a group of caterpillars nearly starved to death despite the presence of food just inches away. Their instincts would not allow them to move off a set path to eat it. This is an example of what Dillard calls "the fixed," and it appalls her. It even makes her doubt God. Yet later she wonders why people turn from insects with loathing. Although revolted by them herself, she concludes they may be part of a divine plan.


In this chapter Dillard hammers relentlessly at her revulsion of something she calls "the fixed." It is not easy to understand what she means by this term, but it may help to remember Dillard is also a poet, and poets use imagery to convey meaning in a way that isn't always as straightforward as linear prose.

Instead of a clear definition, Dillard offers readers different images for "the fixed." These include the Mason jar in which the moth is captured and the pointless path on which the starving caterpillars are trapped. Dillard also cites the five moons of Uranus as spinning in a "fixed sleep of thralldom." If the reader absorbs these images without trying to analyze them literally, Dillard's meaning may become clearer. "The fixed" is anything that cannot be escaped, despite its destructiveness.

However, by the end of the chapter she stops railing and asks. "Where do I get my standards that ... the fixed world of insects doesn't meet?" Although Dillard doesn't mention it, readers may be reminded of the Old Testament story of Job. The prophet lost his wife, his children, his health, and everything he owned. Yet Job refused to curse God for his misfortunes, deciding he had no right to question the creator for how the world works. Dillard seems to be making a similar point.

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