Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek


Annie Dillard takes a meandering route, moving forward and backward and around again as she writes about how she attempted to search out gifts from the universe in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She equates this exploration to how as a child she would leave pennies along the sidewalk near her home for anyone to find, sometimes leaving chalk arrows, or clues for them to see the penny. (Dillard 1) In the same vein of a passerby finding the pennies, she set out to find presents left by the universe in the backyard of her home on Tinker Creek. Dillard explained, “I’ve been thinking about seeing. There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises” (1). Dillard’s view of nature in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is both beautiful and sometimes risky and horrible as she sets about finding how to see nature’s gifts by seeing what isn’t seen by the natural eye, by seeing before understanding, and by seeing with the senses by letting go.

 When Dillard begins trying to see the gifts of the universe, she simply looks, being observant as she walks around Tinker Creek. She knows that if you look for clues like the cut wheat-stalks of grain, she will find mice, or if she looks for caterpillar droppings, she should be able to find the caterpillar (Dillard 1). However in the reflective style that is intertwined with her observations, Dillard also realizes that experts or lovers of certain subjects (like experts of mice or horses) are able to see things that the mere observer misses. At one point an airplane flew overhead and its shadow on the creek bottom gave sight to gifts Dillard could not see outside of the shadow. “At once a black fin slit the pink cloud on the water…I saw hints of hulking and underwater shadows, two pale splashes out of the water, and round ripples rolling close…and out of that violet, a sudden enormous black body arced over the water” (Dillard 4). As she reflects on this, she recalled a time when she saw clouds reflected in the water that she could not see in the sky. She later read the explanation that “polarized light from the sky is very much weakened by perfection, but the light in clouds isn’t polarized. So invisible clouds pass among visible clouds, till all slide over the mountains; so a greater light extinguishes a lesser as though it didn’t exist” (Dillard 4). Dillard admits that although this experience led her to see the beauty of the water, she saw it because she stayed out later than was wise. She could have easily walked into a rattlesnake or other creature. Another time she got so caught up in walking hawks through her binoculars that she nearly staggered off a cliff (Dillard 5). As Dillard sought finding the gifts of nature, she tried to relearn how to see before understanding.

Dillard read a book about the experiences of blind patients who had surgery and could then see. They had no understanding of what they were looking at and so saw the world in an entirely different way. Dillard attempted to recreate what they must have seen but learned that it didn’t work as knowledge of what she is seeing is too ingrained. There was a child that “when her doctor took her bandages off and led her into the garden, the girl who was no longer blind saw ‘the tree with the lights in it’” (Dillard 7). Dillard saw the color-patches the newly sighted did for a while, but could not sustain it. She lamented, “But the color-patches of infancy swelled as meaning filled them; they arrayed themselves in solemn ranks down distance which unrolled and stretched before me like a plain. The moon rocketed away. I live now in a world of shadows that take shape and distance color, a world where space makes a kind of terrible sense…the fluttering patch I saw in my nursery window—silver and green and shapeshifting blue—is gone; a row of Lombardy poplars takes its place, mute, across the distant lawn” (Dillard 8). She wishes that the people who had just received their sight would have been given brushes to paint what they were seeing before understanding took over and then we could see that as well (Dillard 8). But there is another type of seeing, she moves on, seeing by letting go and giving into the senses.

Dillard says that letting go is like going from seeing the world through the lens of a camera, looking one from shot to the next, or letting the camera go and allowing everything in. In one moment she was looking into the creek, not seeing much, when she let go and “blurred my eyes and gazed towards the brim of my hat and saw a new world. I saw the pale white circles roll up, roll up, like the world’s tuning, mute and perfect, and I saw the linear flashes, gleaming silver, like stars being born at random down a rolling scroll of time. Something broke and something opened. I filled up like a new wineskin. I breathed an air like light; I saw a light like water. I was the lip of a fountain the creek filled forever” (Dillard 9). She warns that although wonderful, staying in that sense-filled state can lead to a type of madness as it will “flow unheeded in the dim channels of consciousness” (Dillard 9). Dillard concludes that with all of her searching that “Seeing is a gift and surprise” (9).

Dillard’s search in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek turns out to be an interesting guide to go about seeking the beauty and sometimes horrors of nature by looking at what isn’t normally seen through the natural eye, by trying to glimpse what might be seen without labeling it with our own understanding, and by using our senses and letting go. What Annie Dillard learned is that “although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought…a gift and a total surprise” (9). Dillard searched for years among the peach trees to see the same light the girl who had been blind once saw, but it was when she wasn’t looking and “was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance” (Dillard 9). Just like finding a penny in an unexpected way, the universe gave Annie Dillard the prize she had been seeking all along.


Dillard, Annie. “Seeing.” Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, HarperPerennial, 1974. WayBack Machine,


Monday, June 07, 2021

Hamlet: Depression Unchecked Leads to Tragedy

“To be or not to be” (3.1.56) is one of the most famous literary lines in fiction. Even people who have never read William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet have heard this phrase, however many would be surprised to learn that it is a line about the contemplation of suicide. Hamlet may as well have been saying, “To live, or to take my own life?” That was his question. Unfortunately, that same question has been contemplated by many people in the Elizabethan era and throughout the decades to our current time period. That Shakespeare was able to portray characters with issues of depression as well as some of the causes of mental health, demonstrates the brilliance he had of tapping into issues that plagued everyday people. Or perhaps it was his ability to observe people around him and then flesh out their issues into his characters. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet explores mental illness through word play, allusion, and the pressures of family and society’s expectations. 

In regards to hinting about a character’s state of mind, William Shakespeare was very clever with how he played with words. Clues are given of Hamlet’s “melancholy” and building depression as well as the cause of it when Hamlet first comes onto the stage. The first glimpse of Hamlet’s depression is foreshadowed subtly with a word that can be interpreted two ways. At the beginning of the play, right after the marriage of Claudius and Hamlet’s mother, Claudius asks Hamlet why he still looks so sad. “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” (1.2.66). To which Hamlet answers, “Not so, my lord. I am too much I’ th’ sun” (1.2.67).  There can be two meanings of this, yet both are correct. “Claudius may interpret the word ‘sun’ as celestial, or Hamlet may be referring to ‘son,’ as he is experiencing stress over being a son and the duty which comes with it” (Hall 9). Another play on words has to do with Ophelia and a hint of her upcoming mental struggle when Hamlet sees her reading a book and exclaims, “The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in they orisons” (3.1.97). A beautiful nymph on one hand, who is in prayer on the other hand allude to the causes of her later insanity. Shakespeare had Ophelia holding a book, which was also how the Virgin Mary was often depicted during the Catholic era of England. Then Hamlet seals the allusion to the Virgin Mary in his next breath when he asks her, “Be all my sins remember’d” (3.1.98). While Shakespeare played with the meaning of words to express encroaching insanity, he also utilized allusion to express the mental state of his characters.

Shakespeare revealed Ophelia’s madness to his audience by alluding to what was going on in his society. When Hamlet was written, the Protestant reformation from Catholic beliefs was firmly in place. Earlier female characters of Shakespeare had the option of fleeing to a convent, yet when Hamlet tells Ophelia to go to a nunnery, it is all the more hurtful because it isn’t an option. “With her avenues to both marriage and the female community of a cloister blocked, Ophelia seems to fall by default into madness. Instead of reciting lauds in the company of nuns, Ophelia must voice them alone” (Chapman 113). She drowns “chanting snatches of old lauds/As one incapable of her own distress” (4.7.176-177). By alluding to old Catholic based lauds, which have no place in the time of the play, Shakespeare is showing his audience how Ophelia has fled into her own mind. I see Hamlet as a depressed young man struggling between duties, however Ophelia’s mental illness became more than she could deal with and unable to cope, she retreated. The causes for this are stemmed in the family and social expectations that were firmly placed on both Hamlet and Ophelia. 

When a person is depressed, any kind of stress will seem compounded. For Hamlet, he is already sorrowing over the death of his father and with how quickly his uncle has married Hamlet’s mother. This is a source of his saddened state, however “it is not the death of Hamlet’s father, but the struggle to define the death that is the central problem for Hamlet’s family” (Hall 5). Hamlet is sad, yes, yet it is when the ghost of his father shows up and places upon Hamlet the duty to avenge his death, that Hamlet begins to spiral. “Shakespeare has depicted a man with an acute depressive illness with obsessional features, unable to cope with a heavy responsibility” (Pickering 1). Hamlet falls into a struggle to honor his father’s wishes while not wanting to hurt his mother. “Hamlet contemplates suicide to escape the discourse of sonly duty to exact revenge on Claudius, when he knows the action will destroy his mother, his family, and himself” (Hall 7). Hamlet believes that he has to either kill Claudius or kill himself. He ruminates on this decision throughout the entire play. Hamlet is trapped within the idea of doing his duty as a son for his dead father and in doing what society expects to not destroy himself or his mother to the point that he feels that he has no control to make his own decisions because he is bound by his duty as a son. To make it worse “in Hamlet’s case, what may be perceived as madness may be his way of protesting against the dominant narrative that his father has been forgotten” (Hall 9). Hamlet bemoans the fact that the marriage took place so quickly in the following lines:

Would have mourn’d longer,—married with mine uncle, 
My father’s brother; but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules. Within a month?
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not, nor it cannot come to good.
But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue. (1.2.147-155)

Polonius later declares that Hamlet is insane and everybody else starts seeing him that way because Polonius is so resolute about it. He affirms, “Your noble son is mad./Mad call I it, for, to define true madness,/What is’t but to be nothing else but mad?” (2.2.92-94). Everyone believes Polonius’s declaration that Hamlet is insane. This same scenario between one’s duty and what one wishes is echoed with Ophelia.

Ophelia is also trapped between two duties. Her father has asked her not to talk to Hamlet anymore, yet she is in love with Hamlet. She is trapped between what she wants to do, and her duty as a daughter to her father. Hamlet tells Ophelia to go to a nunnery, and he later kills her father. Ophelia “finds herself at a point from which she cannot escape so she appeases all by going mad…losing contact with one’s reality” (Hall 8). “In act 3, Ophelia appears to think that cooperating with her father will help Hamlet’s madness and thus secure her future marriage. What she cannot predict is the fact that Hamlet will read that choice of loyalties as an unforgiveable rejection of him” (Chapman 117). Retreating into madness is the way that Ophelia can satisfy the duties placed upon her by both Hamlet and Polonius. By safely tucking herself away in her mind, she stayed away from Hamlet (as her father required), yet also avoided all men as though she had gone to a nunnery (as Hamlet demanded of her). 

This theme of mental health is common today as many people struggle with conflicting duties and become depressed over it. Some examples put forth by Hall are a gay adolescent who is taught that being gay is not normal, or a career-minded woman with feeling of guilt over not being a homemaker for her family (7). Shakespeare understood the internal conflict between the messages that society says we should do, and what we (being true to ourselves) want to be. There may always be someone like Polonius that states, “he depressed, he needs counseling, he is wrong” with such conviction that the diagnosis is readily accepted by friends and family whether it is entirely accurate. For Hamlet and Ophelia, could the outcome have been different if someone listened to them? If Hamlet’s mother had simply listened to what her son was feeling and given his conflictions some relief, instead of parroting Polonius’s diagnosis of madness, could Hamlet’s sonly duty been assuaged? And what of poor Ophelia? She had no one to turn to. Had Shakespeare written a sympathetic character to give Ophelia a listening ear, or guide her to some sort of herbal anti-depressant of the time, would she not have entered the river? Yet Hamlet is a tragedy, with a tragic ending for all the characters involved. Perhaps the lessons of their tragedy helped people in the Elizabethan time and our current time avoid the same. William Shakespeare plays with words, utilizes allusion to the Protestant Reformation, and the pressures of family and society’s expectations to demonstrate a vivid portrayal of madness in his play Hamlet. 

Works Cited
Chapman, Alison A. “Ophelia’s ‘Old Lauds’: Madness and Hagiography in Hamlet.” Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, vol. 20, Jan. 2007, pp. 111-135. EBSCOhost,
Hall, J. Christopher. “A Narrative Case Study of Hamlet and the Cultural Construction of Western Individualism, Diagnosis, and Madness.” Journal of Systemic Therapies, vol. 35, no. 2, June 2016, pp. 1-13. EBSCOhost, doi; 10.1521/jsyt.2016.35.2.1.
Pickering, Neil. “Depressive Illness Delayed Hamlet’s revenge” BMJ Journals: Medical Humanities,
Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.” The Project Gutenberg,

Shakespeare, William. "Hamlet." The Project Gutenberg. 
Image: "Hugues Merle (French, 1823-1881), 'Hamlet and Ophelia'" by sofi01 is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit

Monday, May 31, 2021

Hamlet: Insane or Pretending?

There are many levels of mental illness and emotional stress and William Shakespeare deftly portrayed the two young characters in Hamlet in different levels of this mental state, although the cause of stress was similar to both. The focus tends to be aimed at Hamlet as the main protagonist, yet I believe that poor Ophelia had the same dilemma and wasn’t able to handle it as well so sank into full insanity, while Hamlet’s depression didn’t go into quite the same depths. Both of these characters are caught between what they want and what others expect of them. Hamlet’s father shows up as a ghost and demands that if Hamlet is a good son, he will kill Claudius. Claudius is the king and no one, including Hamlet’s mother, wants the new king dead. Plus, Hamlet isn’t sure that Claudius murdered his father, although he is fairly upset that life has just gone on for most people, including his mother, who got remarried as quickly as she could. According to Christopher J. Hall, “what may be perceived as madness may be his way of protesting against the dominant narrative that his father has been forgotten” (Hall 9). Then of course, Ophelia’s father, Polonius tells everyone that Hamlet is insane. Polonius says, “Your noble son is mad./Mad call I it, for, to define true madness,/What is’t but to be nothing else but mad?” (Act Two, Verse Two). Since everyone thinks that Hamlet is mad, he can get away with a lot more crazy behavior and questions if he goes along with. 

Ophelia, on the other hand, is also trapped between being a dutiful daughter and her love for Hamlet. Her father forbids her to speak with Hamlet and she ends up unable to cope with the conflict between them and retreats within her own mind. She “finds herself at a point from which she cannot escape so she appeases all by going mad…losing contact with one’s reality” (Hall 8). She ends up floating peacefully down the river, happily singing old Catholic hymns that have been outlawed by the Protestants so it’s the closest she can get to escaping into a nunnery as Hamlet had told her to do in a moment of anger.  

While looking at Hamlet’s mental state with the comparison of Ophelia’s true insanity right next to it, his ability to question his emotional state “To be or not to be” (Act Three, Verse 1) in many instances throughout the play, show that Hamlet was able to reason and weigh  possible outcomes for any actions he would take. In my opinion, he pretended to be insane in order to gain information of the truth of his father’s death, and he did it well. Was he also suffering emotional trauma and probable depression? Very likely, yet he was far from insane.
Works Cited
Hall, J. Christopher. “A Narrative Case Study of Hamlet and the Cultural Construction of Western Individualism, Diagnosis, and Madness.” Journal of Systemic Therapies, vol. 35, no. 2, June 2016, pp. 1-13. EBSCOhost, doi; 10.1521/jsyt.2016.35.2.1.
Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.” The Project Gutenberg,