Jest and Ernest by Annie Dillard

The purpose of this piece is to explore why the maker of our universe created cruelty and beauty.

I love the point about God setting “bars and doors” on humanity’s knowledge of the universe. On one hand, we may not be meant to discover the meaning of cruelty and beauty until the after life. On the other hand, since nobody knows of the definite existence or placement of those bars and doors, we must keep yearning for an answer.

Emerson’s “Nature” paints the natural world as sublime. While it is useful to draw inspiration and knowledge from nature’s beauty, this piece emphasizes the importance of learning from nature’s apparent malice.

“Unless all ages and races of men have been deluded by the same mass hypnotist (who?), there seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous,”

–Hannah Doll

Dillard uses many appeals to ethos, referencing both religious and scientific figures—Allah, Pascal, and Einstein. These references are effective, because even though there is no easy answer to the philosophical questions that she has introduced in this piece, she provides several different perspectives for the audience to consider. By providing the audience with multiple viewpoints, she is acknowledging that her opinion is not the only answer to these questions, thus strengthening her appeal to ethos.

The use of rhetorical questions is successful, because Dillard introduces difficult philosophical questions about the meaning and depth of creation and the role of “nothingness” that emphasize that every moment is an “extravagant gesture”. These moments shouldn’t be overlooked as they provide crucial insight into the meaning of creation. For example, one of the rhetorical questions that Dillard poses is, “What do we think of the created universe, spanning an unthinkable void with an unthinkable profusion of forms?” This forces the reader to delve deeper into their thoughts about the expression of the universe and its different forms.

The arrangement of the piece—three short descriptive scenes—is effective, because each scene depicts a characteristic that is found in creation that contrasts with the one before. For example, the line, “Every live thing is a survivor on a kind of extended emergency bivouac,” emphasizes the brutality and violence of predation. In comparison, Dillard introduces the idea that, “…beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” This comparison is significant, because it implies that creation itself is beauty, joy, grace, power, mystery, pain, violence, and brutality all in one. These three scenes emphasize the innumerable qualities of creation that humans, as naturally fallible beings, are unable to grasp the true meaning of—was creation made in jest or earnest?

–Hannah Wagner

“Jest and Earnest” is written as a narrative.  By projecting her emotions and insights into the piece, Dillard is able to bring the reader into her frame of mind and how she sees nature’s cruelty.  She brings the reader in further by using words like “we” and “you” to make the reader consider the same things that she is.

“It could be that God has not absconded but spread, as our vision and understanding of the universe have spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly of its hem.”  This quote is suggesting that God has not left the universe; he has just taken on a different form.  So while cruelty may exist within nature, God is still behind it.  He still plays a role within the functionality of the universe, it’s just not manifested clearly to humans.

Within the essay, Dillard uses imagery of light and darkness multiple times.  She says that God created a thick darkness that humans must emerge from.  She then questions if we have “rowed out of the darkness, or are we all playing pinochle in the bottom of the boat?”  While she leaves this for the reader to ponder, she says that light is “the canary that sings on the skull.”  Later in the essay, she brings up the darkness that surrounds humans again, urging us to try our best to escape it.

-Steph Lohbeck


The encounters with nature Dillard describes in her piece help better the understanding of the symbolic journey that she embarks on. Divided into three parts, one which makes Dillard uncertain or doubtful, one which makes Dillard see the harmony of life, and one that reconciles Dillard with the nature of life, Dillard writes an essay in which she discovers herself through these narratives.
Jest and Earnest was intended to better develop the plot of Dillard’s novel, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This memoir depicts a time in Dillard’s life in which she lived in a cabin by herself, which resulted in her experiencing many different natural feats. Dillard wrote the book in order to better explain the two routes to God, via positiva and via negativa. Vía positiva, the belief that God is omniscient and good, was described in the first part of the novel, where Jest and Earnest is located. Through these stories, Dillard shows that even in times of doubt and suffering, God is always there.
The last scene of this essay is written almost abstractly. Dillard describes the scene of a feeding frenzy of sharks, and gives the ocean a metaphysical feeling. This is purposeful to prove the symmetry that nature has, perfectly tying together her three other stories.

–Katie Tegenkamp


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