Annie Dillard and the Polyphemus Moth

The Polyphemus Moth

A couple of weeks ago I re-read Annie Dillard’s story of the Polyphemus moth in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek  This little story also appears in Dillard’s An American Childhood, and  it is a beautiful and gut-wrenching bit of memoir.  Dillard has said that this encounter with the Polyphemus moth when she was a young child changed her life. 

 I can understand why.  Even though it’s easy to interpret the episode as pure metaphor (the pain of being unable to “spread one’s wings” I suppose) I think the story is more potent when read literally.  Whenever I read it, I think of young children, those moments when they truly perceive the nature of suffering for the first time, and how devastating those moments can be.  Here is the story:
“The mason jar sat on the teacher’s desk; the big moth emerged inside it. The moth had clawed a hole in its hot cocoon and crawled out, as if agonizingly, over the course of an hour, one leg at a time; we children watched around the desk, transfixed. After it emerged, the wet, mashed thing turned around walking on the green jar’s bottom, then painstakingly climbed the twig with which the jar was furnished.

There, at the twig’s top, the moth shook its sodden clumps of wings. When it spread those wings—those beautiful wings—blood would fill their veins, and the birth fluids on the wings’ frail sheets would harden to make them tough as sails. But the moth could not spread its wide wings at all; the jar was too small. The wings could not fill, so they hardened while they were still crumpled from the cocoon. A smaller moth could have spread its wings to their utmost in that mason jar, but the Polyphemus moth was big. Its gold furred body was almost as big as a mouse. Its brown, yellow, pink, and blue wings would have extended six inches from tip to tip, if there had been no mason jar. It would have been big as a wren.

The teacher let the deformed creature go. We all left the classroom and paraded outside behind the teacher with pomp and circumstance. She bounced the moth from its jar and set it on the school’s asphalt driveway. The moth set out walking. It could only heave the golden wrinkly clumps where its wings should have been; it could only crawl down the school driveway on its six frail legs. The moth crawled down the driveway toward the rest of Shadyside, an area of fine houses, expensive apartments, and fashionable shops. It crawled down the driveway because its shriveled wings were glued shut. It crawled down the driveway toward Shadyside, one of the several sections of town where people like me were expected to settle after college, renting an apartment until they married one of the boys and bought a house. I watched it go.

I knew that this particular moth, the big walking moth, could not travel more than a few more yards before a bird or a cat began to eat it, or a car ran over it. Nevertheless, it was crawling with what seemed wonderful vigor, as if, I thought at the time, it was still excited from being born. I watched it go till the bell rang and I had to go in. I have told this story before, and may yet tell it again, to lay the moth’s ghost, for I still see it crawl down the broad black driveway, and I still see its golden wing clumps heave.”

from An American Childhood

by Annie Dillard



18 thoughts on “Annie Dillard and the Polyphemus Moth

  1. I remember this passage from Annie Dillard. reading her writing for me is like diving in to warm water…and then discovering I can breathe under the surface. It’s a totally immersive experience. Thank you for bringing this to mind once again.

  2. This story has such a restrained power to it. Had I written it, I would have been gushing about how tragic it was. Dillard simply tells it like it happened but still manages to leave a heavy weight behind with phrases like “the moth shook its sodden clump of wings”. Thanks for taking the time to share this with us.

  3. Early in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she wrote: “We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence. . . .” Then, “[t]hat it’s rough out there and chancy is no surprise. Every live thing is a survivor on a kind of extended emergency bivouac.”

    The book made such a strong impression on me when I read it at 17. I am still always looking for the “the tree with lights in it.” There’s also this:

    “If the landscape reveals one certainty, it is that the extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation. After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness, heaping profusion on profigacies with ever-fresh vigor. The whole show has been of fire from the word go.”

    • Thank you for offering up those passages, Cindy. This is actually the first time I’m reading Pilgrim all the way through…I read passages of it for a class in college but just recently purchased the entire book. I have to admit, I prefer to read it in small doses because there is so much to absorb!

  4. This is a very powerful story, and I think you’re right that it is actually more powerful if read literally.

    I don’t know if you’ve seen the Versatile Blogger award going around (or perhaps have already been so honored). Anyway, I’ve named you as one of my “versatile bloggers.” You can learn more here:

    No Pressure on this; I am not offended at all if people choose to ignore these awards. -Jean

  5. Pingback: Grammar and Reading - NCTE

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