Annie Dillard's A Pilgrim At Tinker Creek and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five

Annie Dillard's A Pilgrim At Tinker Creek and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five

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Annie Dillard's A Pilgrim At Tinker Creek and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five


Throughout history people in general have tried in countless ways to explain the presence of a ‘higher being’. It is basic human nature to wonder about such things. Each and every one of these people has come up with a different explanation for their interpretation of the spiritual power. Annie Dillard and Kurt Vonnegut have given wonderful examples of how these interpretations can differ in their respective books A Pilgrim At Tinker Creek and Slaughterhouse-Five. Each of these books, although covering broad topics throughout, has focused on one center-point: The explanation of why we are here and what it is that we are supposed to do as people.

In A Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, author Annie Dillard offers a look into her thoughts by publishing her journal of daily activities while living in a rural area. These activities range from taking walks by the creek to pondering the meanings of life by analyzing a praying-mantis egg sac. Each and every one of her journals offers a deep insight into the spiritual world, not by a particular ‘God’ but more through daily interactions with nature. A pilgrim is described as one who travels far, or in strange lands, to visit some holy place or shrine as a devotee. Dillard is simply that. Many people think that Dillard was inspired to write this novel by a near-fatal attack of pneumonia in 1971. She was remembered as saying that after she recovered, she felt an insatiable need to ‘experience life more fully’. She spent four seasons living near Tinker Creek in an attempt to find herself. What she found was not only how to live a full life, but also religion. Her attempt to find meaning is made very apparent in the beginning of her book. “We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence...."Seem like we're just set down here," a woman said to me recently, "and don't nobody know why."” (Dillard, 4). These are vexing questions to us all, and Dillard was determined to explore them.

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When Dillard is describing the cataract patients, she goes on telling how “He does not yet have the notion that a larger object (a chair) can mask a smaller one (a dog), or that the latter can still be present even though it is not directly seen” (Dillard, 29). This interpretation of the perspective of people who have newly acquired vision is a metaphor for the search of a higher being, and a deeper meaning of life. This person, because of lack of exploration and experience, had no idea that a simple chair could hide a dog from view, just as many have no idea that a small house and a collection of woods and streams could, within it, hide a simple explanation of life. Dillard mentions illusion over and over. The frog that was literally emptied by the cannibal water bug, the tree that she had no idea housed thousands of birds, or the way the moonlight could change an entire landscape; all of these were illusions to her. Upon investigating further, she found the true ‘meaning’ behind them. She found that the simplest things were not always what they seemed. Throughout, she wrestles with the real and the illusive, and attempts to bridge the gap between the two, using nature as a means of explanation.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, Billy Pilgrim is a weak soldier in World War Two. His constant fantasies of Tralfamadorian life and of time travel are described as ‘real’ from the perspective of the reader for most of the novel. Toward the end however, the reader is forced to decide whether or not all of Billy’s time-travel and abductions were real at all. The use of Pilgrim for Billy’s last name was intentional. As mentioned above, the word pilgrim simply means one who travels to a foreign land. Billy, in this novel, was a pilgrim to his beliefs of the meanings of life. The fact that the human’s biggest blunder was its perspective of time was ingenious, his description of the train car and the horizon as a comparison of the human perspective to the Tralfamadorian perspective was wonderful. His fantasies about these places and times were simply a way for him to deal with life. He found no reason for living under a Christian, or for that matter, any religious code because of the violence and death that he experienced throughout his duty in World War Two. His presence at the bombing of Dresden simply supports the reasons for his lack of conformist religion. He describes the scene as being like the moon, but only hours earlier it was the most beautiful place he had ever seen. His way of dealing with senseless killing like the bombing of Dresden was to simply shut off the idea of a forgiving and loving god, and to open up to the idea of a different meaning for life. His time travels, like that of a person with a multiple-personality disorder, only occurred during the most taxing times of his life, when he was by the fireplace with the other soldiers, when he was in the train car cuddled “like spoons” with the other prisoners, all of these times were taxing and without fail, Billy traveled.

Characteristically, when a multiple-personality patient, ‘changes personalities’, they are exposed to some sort of outside stress, whether it be from abuse as a child, or simple lunacy, an outside stimulus has remained a constant as a reason for transformation. With this theory applied to the Billy situation in Slaughterhouse-Five, one could deduce that Billy was simply ‘dealing’ with his hard situations. Which is essentially the truth. Religion is a comfort for humans. We turn to religion in hard times, just as Billy did to his time-travel. Whether or not his experience was factual or not, isn’t the point of the story. The point is that Billy devised a religion; found his meaning of life by coming up with the idea of how things just ‘are’. Pilgrim, throughout the novel, makes the comment “So it goes” every time something dies. He goes as far as to make this comment about inanimate objects. After digging further into the novel, the reader begins to understand why Billy isn’t taken more aback by these ‘deaths’. It is because in his mind, every moment is happening at the same time, it ‘just is’. When some one dies in the present, Billy is convinced that they are living at that exact same moment in another time. So, death is not a closure by any means. It is simply an occurrence like taking a shower or washing the car. Billy used his idea of religion to deal with death in the least taxing way he knew possible.

Although Dillard’s perspective differs greatly from Billy’s perspective, they share the same ground. Both people are trying to explain life. Dillard does it by exploring nature and the ‘face-value’ of life, Billy does it by inventing a wild fantasy of time-travel and visits to distant planets. Either way, it is a step in the right direction. These two people devised a religion as a result of hardships in their lives. For Dillard, it was her sudden life-threatening case of pneumonia, for Billy, it was simply the experience of war. Both Annie Dillard and Kurt Vonnegut have compiled these stories not only to allow others to explore their perspectives, but to emphasize that things may or may not be exactly how we as individuals perceive them.
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