The following is an analysis of a personal essay by Annie Dillard, entitled "Living Like Weasels." It is available online at
Rhetoric in Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels”
A consequence of the freedom inherent in the genre of the personal essay is that the essayist may fit its form to its function, shaping the style and structure of its rhetoric to achieve whatever aim she pleases. The artistic effectiveness of this freedom is well illustrated by Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels,” an essay that seeks not merely to describe or reflect on a meaningful experience, an encounter with a weasel, but also to convey the very essence of that experience to the reader on a somewhat deeper level.
In particular, Dillard’s writing reveals a strange duality present at the very heart of her reaction to seeing the animal, centered on the question of whether or not the weasel (and all it represents) is fundamentally alien to humankind. For in many ways the essay holds up the weasel as an ideal - of nature and wildness, of sensory and spiritual existence. Insofar as these qualities strike her as admirable, Dillard presents the weasel as an exemplar of proper living, which a person might do well to imitate. But at the same time, she also reflects – in both the text and the subtext of the essay - on the extent to which there is an impenetrable barrier between the weasel’s world and her own, since humans seem far removed from the mindlessness and purity of wild animals. In this sense, Dillard hints that the weasel’s example is not entirely applicable to humanity.
As readers, what are we to make of the paradoxical coexistence of such contradictory messages within a single piece of writing? In fact, Dillard’s development of such a marked antithesis represents a significant stylistic decision. By structuring her essay’s rhetoric around the (real or imagined) conflict between human nature and weasel nature, Dillard makes this duality real for the reader in a manner that a more direct exposition would perhaps have been incapable of portraying. This sense of paradox then leads the reader towards the essayist’s own resolution to the contradiction, a resolution that actually comprises a rather subtle “synthesis” of the two conflicting ideas.
Dillard neither dismisses the example of the weasel as completely irrelevant to human experience, nor determines to emulate the weasel per se; rather she distills what she admires about the creature down to its ability to live wholly in “necessity,” acting only according to its own nature. In another, more abstract, example of form fitting function, Dillard reveals this synthesis to the reader most clearly through the very existence of her essay itself. For in writing “Living Like Weasels,” she demonstrates that she is herself attempting to live in necessity, to “live as (she) should, as the weasel lives as he should” (188)1.
Dillard integrates an awareness of man-nature2 dichotomy into every part of her essay, from the broadest foundations of its structure down to its smallest phrases and images. On the microscopic end of this spectrum, “Living Like Weasels” is dominated by a preponderance of startling thematic and rhetorical juxtapositions. These emphasize the contrast Dillard seeks to develop; they portray the weasel as both human and alien, both an example for us to imitate and a wondrously odd spectacle for us to marvel at. At the same time, such devices serve to break down the reader’s preconceptions concerning the barrier between human and animal existence. For example, the first series of these juxtapositions occurs in the essay’s second section, in which the author describes Hollins Pond:
There’s a 55 mph highway at one end of the pond, and a nesting pair of wood ducks at the other. Under every bush is a muskrat or a beer can. The far end is an alternating series of fields and woods, fields and woods, threaded everywhere with motorcycle tracks—in whose bare clay wild turtles lay eggs. (186-187)
This rapid-fire sequence of images has a twofold effect. On a literal level, the contrasting images of civilization
emphasize the separation between those worlds. In a way, this contrast preemptively challenges the romantic identification with the weasel which Dillard goes on to develop; there can be no détente
between the ducks and woods and muskrats and fields that define the weasel’s existence, and the highways and beer cans and motorcycle tracks that define her own.
But the same imagery also has an entirely different effect on the reader, diametrically opposed to the first. For stylistically, this passages places man and nature on precisely the same level; Dillard’s grammar binds the two together as equals, rather than opposites, and images such as the “motorcycle tracks—in whose bar clay wild turtles lay eggs” suggest that in fact wilderness and civilization may be entirely intertwined with one another. Thus, on the whole, Dillard seems to suggest that Hollins Pond exemplifies both the inherent conflict and the oddly comfortable symbiosis
that can arise from the coexistence of man and nature. As a result, this passage undermines our perception of each of the two sides to Dillard’s central duality.
In a similar fashion, the essay depicts Dillard’s encounter with the weasel itself as both a union and a conflict. She compares their long glance to “as if two lovers, or deadly enemies, met unexpectedly on an overgrown path” (187), simultaneously emphasizing their familiarity and the intrinsic separation between them.
An interesting aspect of Dillard’s style, particularly in this section of the piece, is her tendency to overturn clichéd images. For example, she describes how her and the weasel’s “eyes locked, and someone threw away the key” (187), and later on, how she might have hung on to the weasel as it retreated under the wild rose, how she might have “held on for a dearer life” (188). This pattern of recasting familiar phrases and images in unusual ways might be interpreted as a form of rhetorical symbolism. By upending the linguistic cues she gives the reader, Dillard also overturns the ideas of man-nature interaction associated with them. The cliché of “locked eyes” becomes not only a bond between but an imprisonment of the parties involved; thus the language reveals to the reader that Dillard’s encounter with the weasel was associated with feelings both of communion and of entrapment. And likewise, the cliché of “hanging on for dear life” morphs from implying a desperate need to preserve one’s life to implying a powerful urge to transform it. The weasel’s mode of existence, the reader may infer, offers the latter transformation even as it evokes the former instinct for preservation of her own human manner of being.
In each of these cases, Dillard’s language and style juxtaposes man and nature – either in general or in the particular case of herself and the weasel – in a manner that leaves the reader keenly aware of the intrinsic barrier between a weasel’s way of life and a person’s, but that also hints at the existence of a bond between them. As such, these juxtapositions are an essential element of the development of Dillard’s antithesis. They convince the reader that however romantic it might seem, the way of the weasel, the “mindlessness . . . the purity of living in the physical senses and the dignity of living without bias or motive” (188) is inescapably alien to us. And yet they also impart the impression that a return to the wildness of the weasel’s existence would be akin to going home, living a life for which we are actually “programmed” on some basic level.
The very same pattern is evident in the essay’s larger, more macroscopic structure. In particular, Dillard uses a single vivid, controlling metaphor in sections one, four and six as a poetic framework for this argument. This metaphor, of course, is the image of a person as prey, seized by the talons of an eagle that represents “necessity.” Dillard uses a sort of symmetry to highlight the significance of this image, as it relates to the weasel’s life-strategy versus a person’s.
In the essay’s first section, the author presents the weasel in this image as something of an oddity, attaching to it the wonderfully bizarre labels of a “fur pendant” or a “stubborn label” (186). In the fourth section, Dillard abstracts the image of the eagle and weasel and gives it metaphorical significance, by describing humans as “living in choice, hating necessity and dying at the last ignobly in its talons” (188). Now the weasel is no longer odd for fighting the eagle even as it is devoured; now it is noble in a way that we humans are not! And finally, in the sixth section, she completes the pattern by romanticizing the weasel even more: dangling limp from the eagle, the weasel is now an inspiration to us, and “it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure” (189) to be like it.
In this manner, Dillard carefully crafts the reader’s perception of a recurring image so as to advance the notion that the weasel serves as an example to her, epitomizing proper living. However, at the same time she emphasizes that the weasel is admirable primarily insofar as it is inhuman – in living so completely in its necessity, the weasel accomplishes something that is very strange to us as creatures of choice. Thus this central conceit to the essay implies that the weasel, even in its unwavering fidelity to its own nature – which, according to Dillard, is ultimately the defining essence of the weasel -- stands separate and apart from the essayist’s own human frame of experience.
Hence, by the essay’s conclusion, the reader is left confused, caught in between the two conflicting ideas Dillard advances. On one level, she presents the reader with a romantic vision of weasels as resolutely “living as they should,” an example of purity and dignity for humans to follow. But on another level, that romantic vision is one of a dead animal stuck to the neck of the bird that devoured it – hardly an example one would wish to imitate! And what is more, through her use of stark, dramatic juxtapositions, Dillard shows that she and the weasel, human and animal, mankind and nature are irreconcilably different. Yet the very same imagery undermines the reader’s clichéd conception of such differences.
This conflict that lies at the heart of the essay is distilled in its fifth section. In its first paragraph, Dillard imagines “very calmly going wild” (188), fully embracing the weasel’s visceral, experiential existence. In its second paragraph, she implicitly rejects this notion, comparing it to a holy vow, a denial of one’s fundamental nature by necessity in favor of what one wishes to become by choice. But where does all this leave the reader? What salvages the essay from obfuscation?
The answer, I think, lies in the rather remarkable fact that Dillard portrays the creation of "Living Like Weasels" as evidently a consequence or outgrowth of the very encounter she describes within it. She consciously chooses to mention the very brief span of time present between her seeing the weasel and writing this essay – it was “only last week” that she met the animal, she manages to mention twice (186, 187). As such, the essay invites yet another question from the reader: in crafting this piece of writing as a reaction to her experience, is Dillard following the example of the weasel or not?
Once again, it is possible to see things either way. On one hand, writing is an inherently intellectual pursuit, hardly the sort of “mindlessness” exemplified by the weasel. Indeed, it was Dillard’s own authorial instinct to try and remember the event, she says, that caused the weasel to feel, leaving her “mind suddenly full of data and her spirit with pleadings” (187). But on the other hand, and perhaps more convincingly, the fact that she is a writer is at the heart of Dillard’s very identity – more than anything else, the reader may assume, it is her “one necessity.” And hence in writing “Living Like Weasels,” Dillard was not betraying the ideal of the weasel so much as honoring it, “yielding…to the perfect freedom of single necessity” (189).
Thus, Dillard’s implied perception of her authorship actually gives the reader some insight into her own understanding of the weasel’s nature, and thereby helps resolve the reader’s confusion about the essay’s central dichotomy. For in Dillard’s case, neither aspect of the antithesis so carefully developed throughout the essay really holds water. From this we conclude, on one hand, that one should certainly not strive to Be the Weasel in every sense, escaping “out of your ever-loving mind and back to your careless senses” (188), for to do so would be to deny one’s very humanity. On the other hand, neither should one completely dismiss the example of the weasel, for to do that would be to deny the very powerful bond between man and nature that persists despite all their separation. Rather, the resolution Dillard extracts from her encounter is a compromise between these two opposing notions. Truly, the existence of the weasel - sensory, experiential, and mindless – is not really open to mankind; it is too alien to us. But what we can aspire to is to achieve some measure of the weasel’s purity and dignity in living according to our own fundamental natures, in “yielding, not fighting” to our one necessity and allowing it to “seize us up aloft” like the weasel in the eagle’s talons (189). This is the path Dillard chose to take in writing her essay, and on balance, this is the synthesis that both reader and writer must take from the experience of “Living Like Weasels.”
Ultimately, Dillard’s essay is about herself far more than it is about the weasel she encounters. The essay’s rhetorical strategy is to envelop the reader in a sense of the multifaceted duality which that encounter made so real for her. Only by understanding the manifold conflicts at work – between humanity and nature, civilization and wilderness, choice and necessity – can the reader understand what Dillard’s experience of the weasel really means.
And where Dillard’s artistry as a writer truly comes into play is the manner in which she weaves these conflicts into the very fabric of the essay’s style and structure, making the reader keenly aware of all that is at stake in the apparently insignificant event she describes. In this way, the rhetorical form of “Living Like Weasels” is not merely aesthetically pleasing (although it is), but also supremely functional. It is questionable whether a less artful, more straightforward exposition would have been capable of accurately portraying Dillard’s experience in all its richness. To borrow someone else's term, only a genre that gives the writer as much presence in all aspects of the writing as does the personal essay can convey to a reader the necessary sense of sharing in that presence. The genius of Dillard’s piece is the manner in which it makes the reader party to every aspect of her brief interaction with the weasel, including – most crucially – the essay’s own composition.
1 All references are to Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels,” reprinted in In Depth: Essayists for Our Time, 2nd ed., Ed. Carl H. Klaus et al, pp. 186-189. (Thomson Heinle, 1993).
2 Or perhaps more accurately, woman-nature, since Dillard writes in the first person.