The Penny as Symbol in Annie Dillard's "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek"

Jon Segal, Graduate Student in American Civilization at Brown University, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

In The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard begins the chapter that will outline the major theme of her book with an anecdote about a game she used to play in her childhood. She tells the story of how she used to hide her own "precious penn(ies)" in nooks or crannies in trees or sidewalks, drawing chalk arrows to them so a stranger would find the surprise penny and pick it up, almost in an inversion of the colloquialism "like pennies from heaven."

After telling this story to the reader, she uses it as an analogy to describe her zeal for the hidden natural universe and the various beauties that one might discover if one can truly "see." The passage follows:

It is still the first week in January and I've got great plans. I've been thinking about seeing. There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But -- and this is the point -- who gets excited by a mere penny? If you follow one arrow, if you crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded with the site of a muskrat kit paddling from its den, will you ount that sight a chip of copper only, and go your rueful way? It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourishged and fatigued he won't stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get. [15]

This passage is significant. However, it is also somewhat paradoxical. The "malnourishment" that Dillard refers to could easily be sprirtual malnourishment, caused by an overbearing focus on the artificial, material world. If this is the case, is it not curious that she chooses the penny, a monetary unit, as her analogy to show the value of the world? How can her use of money as a symbol be resolved? What is the penny's worth? Is this effective or confusing for the reader?


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Last modified 24 November 2003