Dillard's Scare Quotes

Mike Laws '04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

In this very class, earlier this year, we were warned to be wary of using or depending on the use of scare quotes-- the problem being, I think, that it is a facile and amateurish way to convey irony. If a word is intended sarcastically, it ought to stand out that way from the context in which it is uttered; at very most, capitalization might be required to draw the reader's attention to the fact of its irony.

So it comes as some surprise that Annie Dillard-- award-winning author and sage under study in this course-- would see fit to put a term, any term, in scare quotes. Early in chapter 3 of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, when discussing the starling overpopulation in southwest Virginia, Dillard writes,

Starlings are notoriously difficult to "control." The story is told of a man who was bothered by starlings roosting in a large sycamore near his house. He said he tried everything to get rid of them and finally took a shotgun to three of them and killed them. When asked if that discouraged the birds, he reflected a minute, leaned forward, and said confidentially, "Those three it did."

Now, aside from those scare quotes, two other methods of Dillard's stand out in this passage: first, the odd syntax of its second sentence (which is insistently passive-- "The story is told"), and second, the shift in tone (where earlier Dillard as narrator seemed awestruck and humbled in the face of nature, here she becomes cryptic, dark, sardonic.

So there are several questions that might be asked of this passage. For starters, why would Dillard set off the word control in quotation marks? Clearly she is calling more attention to the word, but why? Is it only, perhaps, to stress the idea that nature is fundamentally out of control, and that stories such as the one she will go on to tell must necessarily be farcical and ill-fated? Would we as readers not get that impression otherwise-- that is, if the word was not in the quotes? Secondly, why the odd syntax, and the change in tone? And if this is a story Dillard herself heard secondhand, that she was not privy to in the strictest sense of the word-- as the passive voice suggests-- then why the detailed description of the man's actions toward the paragraph's end?

How can Dillard possibly have known about the man "reflect[ing] a minute," "lean[ing] forward," etc.? Does this destroy her ethos-- or is it an innocuous embellishment?


Victorian Web Overview Annie Dillard Victorian courses

Last modified 24 November 2003