Seeing by Annie Dillard: Summary & Analysis

Seeing by Annie Dillard: Summary & Analysis
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  • 0:00 Annie Dillard
  • 1:29 Synopsis
  • 4:07 Themes
  • 6:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sophie Starmack

Sophia has taught college French and composition. She has master's degrees in French and in creative writing.

Most people take the act of seeing for granted, but Annie Dillard wants her readers to slow down and actually consider the world around them. In this essay, we'll look at the structure, meaning, and themes found in her 1974 essay 'Seeing'.

Annie Dillard

Have you seen anything out of the ordinary today? Did anything surprise or move you? Did you stop to admire a tiny flower growing up out of the pavement or a ray of sunlight illuminating the leaves of a tree?

These are the kinds of moments Annie Dillard writes about in 'Seeing', a personal essay from Annie Dillard's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1974 non-fiction book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Most of us take the act of sight for granted and rarely stop to consider all the marvels we take in every day. We may not even notice what's happening around us, caught up as we are in our own affairs.

As an essay, which is a short composition focused on a specific subject, 'Seeing' is not focused on plot, characters, or narrative, the way a fictional story would be. Rather, Dillard is interested in exploring the idea of sight: what we see, why we see, and how we see. She uses personal anecdotes, careful observation, and evidence from scientists, naturalists, and other writers to do so.

Although she is most known for her non-fiction writing, Dillard got her start as a poet, and 'Seeing' reflects Dillard's interest in figurative language by relying on metaphor, symbol, and rhythm, as well as concrete details. The essay format allows her to blend these different modalities as she muses on many different concepts related to sight.


The essay begins with an anecdote, or little story. Dillard remembers how, when she was a child, she loved to hide pennies that she imagined would later be found by strangers. This memory becomes a metaphor for the act of seeing. As Dillard writes, ''there lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises, if only we care to find them.''

Dillard recounts looking for a bullfrog in a marsh, observing insects flying by in the air, and seeking out birds in a wooded area. Only careful, devoted observers will be able to see these. This relates to the essay's focus on intentional observation. Dillard also introduces the concept of the expert in this section. Experts, she says, can see what laypeople can't because they have the technical knowledge and experience. A herpetologist, for example, will come into an area and find dozens of snakes that the locals never bother to notice.

Dillard next moves into a meditation on not seeing. The first type of not seeing she explores is darkness. She relates an experience that happened when she stayed out late at Tinker Creek, an outdoor area near her home. Allowing herself to sit still in the darkness, Dillard imagines she feels the Earth turning as it revolves through space. She appreciates what can only be felt, not seen.

Dillard then discusses blindness, another kind of not seeing. She relates several anecdotes about people who underwent surgery to regain their sight, many of whom were unable to adjust to their new ability. The blind possess a kind of spatial awareness that sighted people do not, she says, and the blind describe the world from a completely different and fresh perspective. Seeing is a miracle, Dillard explains, but not seeing can also open one up to a different realm of consciousness. Exploring darkness and blindness gives her more appreciation for the light.

'Seeing' concludes with a final meditation on the epiphany, or 'aha moment,' Dillard sometimes experiences when she's given herself completely to the act of observation. Sometimes, the world appears completely new, almost like a painting. Like a spiritual revelation, these moments happen as if by chance. Although she has to put herself in the right place and the right frame of mind, she can't force the epiphany to happen. For Dillard, seeing is a religious experience in which she feels herself in the presence of something greater than herself.


Now let's take a look at some of the themes in this essay.

Nature is a major theme of this essay.

An amateur naturalist herself, Dillard's sight is trained on the outdoor world. She writes about birding, fish, trees, and even a jar full of pond water, which she takes home to observe, finding inside it many tiny living creatures. Dillard writes that nature is a ''now-you-don't-see-it, now-you-do'' affair; it ''reveals as well as conceals.'' The act of seeing nature is a deliberate and painstaking one, and the beautiful moments she witnesses must be sought out and worked for.

Science is also a major theme of this essay.

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