The intention of this piece is to convince readers to live “as [they’re] meant to,” focus on their individual purposes (or goals), and never give up on whatever they feel they are meant to do.
The sentence, “He had two black eyes I didn’t see, any more than you see a window,” was very effective at highlighting the importance of the interaction with the weasel to the narrator. In this sentence, she personifies the weasel because she is very clearly alluding to the belief that “The eyes are the window to the soul,” which normally only applies to humans. (It is commonly believed that humans are the only animals with souls.) Also, with her underlying meaning that she essentially saw the soul of the weasel, she is emphasizing that her interaction with the weasel didn’t simply involve looking at each other; for the instant that they were looking into each other’s eyes, they completely understood each other. This sentence, and the reader’s resulting understanding that this was a very meaningful interaction with the weasel, the reader is more prepared to accept whatever the narrator may have learned from the interaction.
The arrangement in this piece is very effective. The story opens with some background information about weasels, including a story of an eagle that was discovered to have a weasel skull attached to it. Next, the piece moves into a personal narrative of an experience with a weasel, and then the background information and the story of the eagle are alluded to in the conclusion. By reconnecting the seemingly unrelated background story from the beginning of the piece to the conclusion, the conclusion seems as if it is drawn from more than one just experience with a weasel, and thus, the conclusion becomes stronger.
One memorable quote from this piece is “I should have lunged for that streak of white under the weasel’s chin and held on, held on through mud and into wild rose, held on for a dearer life.” This quote is noteworthy for two reasons. First, its use of repetition of the phrase, “held on,” makes clearer the sense of regret and longing that the speaker has for the life of a weasel. Second, the phrase “held on for a dearer life” very clearly alludes to the cliche phrase “hold on for dear life.” By changing the wording ever so slightly, the author’s different meaning is highlighted. Instead of holding on as tight as one can to save his/her own life, as in the cliche phrase, in this case, the speaker wishes she had held on tight for a better life, different than the one she has.
Although this essay is extremely abstract, the closing message of the essay is very clear. Dillard depicts her encounter with the weasel to show her readers that humans have become too distracted by their freedom of choice. When she breaks the connection between herself and the weasel, she blames herself for being unable to separate herself from the world’s chaos. She says, “I blinked. I think I retrieved my brain from the weasel’s brain, and tried to memorize what I was seeing, and the weasel felt the yank of separation.” At the end of the essay, she concludes that humans lack the ability to focus on the things around them, and therefore do not deserve the company of brilliantly simple creatures like weasels.
She is able to convince readers of her claim by shifting tones throughout the piece. She begins the essay writing with a inquisitive tone that would reflect the tone of many of her readers in a similar situation (“A weasel is wild. Who knows what he thinks?”). However, once she encounters the weasel, her tone changes; she becomes significantly less dubious. By the end of the novel, her tone reflects her complete awe of the weasel’s existence (“A weasel lives as he’s meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity.”). This shift in tones if effective because her beginning tone resembles the tone of her readers, whereas her final tone resembles what her readers’ tone should be.
I think the most influential part of the essay by far is the last paragraph. In it, Dillard breaks away from the weasel’s story and finally explains what the piece was about. She encourages readers to learn from her experience with the weasel. “I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop.” The paragraph is filled with euphony, and it’s a great end to the piece.
Annie Dillard arranges her work by presenting a contrast between the life a weasel, in the first part, and an insight into her own life, in the second part. When describing a weasel’s existence, she focuses on how a weasel uses his instinct to prey on species and in turn, survive. During the explanation of a weasel’s life, Dillard includes a description of when someone once shot an eagle out of the sky that had the skull of a weasel attached to its throat. As Dillard continues with her story, she describes a time when she visited a pond close to her house. By describing this moment in her life, the reader of this story is able to immediately recognize the differences between the life of a weasel and the life of a human. This contrast is essential to understanding the lessons presented later in the story because the reader learns that humans are allowed to choose what they do, while weasels act upon instinct.
A quote that I loved in this piece was “The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse This is yielding, not fighting…a weasel lives as he’s meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity.” This quote allows the reader to establish an image of their ultimate aspiration and then focus on that image as if that is the only thing that matters. The quote tells us that first we have to observe our goal from a distance to ensure we have the skills necessary to accomplish it, then finally, we have to apply ourselves fully, without thinking about or carrying out anything else. The intention of this quote is connected to the intention of the piece as a whole because Dillard wants us, as the reader, to be able to learn from the lifestyle of a weasel.
Throughout the story, Dillard’s voice changes just as her initial impression of the weasel she encountered changes. At the start of the essay, she informs the reader that she is fascinated because she is describing to the reader the information she has discovered about weasels and the way in which they live their lives. She describes her encounter with the weasel with enthusiasm because she says, “Our eyes locked, and someone threw away the key.” Dillard couldn’t take her eyes off the weasel because she felt as if she was looking through a window into a new world. Eventually, once Dillard had discovered what the weasel’s world, the new world she was fascinated by, had to offer, she displayed a motivational voice. Dillard wanted to motivate and persuade her readers into believing that the simple life a weasel lives, by having only a single necessity, is important and often times better than having complete freedom.
“Living Like Weasels” is written in the form of a narrative. While Dillard could have just written about we humans should live like weasels, she shows us why she believes this. This gives the readers insight into her thoughts and how she sees weasels. Within the essay, Dillard walks the reader through her thoughts as she first encounters a weasel. The readers are also able to see how she connects the way weasels live to how she wants to be able to live.
“Our look was as if two lovers, or deadly enemies, met unexpectedly on an overgrown path when each had been thinking of something else: a clearing blow to the gut. It was also a bright blow to the brain, or a sudden beating of brains, with all the charge and intimate grate of rubbed balloons.” This quote comes from her first encounter with a weasel. When the weasel and Dillard meet eyes, she begins to understand them at a deeper level. In that moment she understands weasels more than she understands people, as she later says “if you and I looked at each other that way, our skulls would split and drop to our shoulders,” implying that humans will never be able to understand each other on a level that deep.
“The weasel lives in necessity and we live in choice, hating necessity and dying at the last ignobly in its talons. I would like to live as I should, as the weasel lives as he should. And I suspect that for me the way is like the weasel’s: open to time and death painlessly, noticing everything, remembering nothing, choosing the given with a fierce and pointed will.” This quote shows exactly how living like a weasel would be, as the title suggests. Dillard wants to live in necessity rather than choice. She wants to rely more on instinct and present happiness than worry about the future.
I was all set to write about how Dillard personifies the weasel, but I think that verb isn’t quite the point. It’s more of a sanctification– a celebration of nature as pure and visceral, a moving away from human corruption. The weasel is less of a fable character and more of a holy figure. He exists for a single perfect moment, much like the way we depict angels as stationary, hyper-perfect beings. Rhetorically, it functions like personification, but serving a more abstract function that’s elevated to beatification.
This beatification is interesting in that it’s specifically applied to the weasel, an animal typically vilified in fables and fiction. Aesop’s The Bat and the Weasels pins the weasel firmly into an antagonistic role, calling him “by nature the enemy of all birds.” He’s an immutable predator, a vermin, an inherently evil being. Dillard elevates the most repulsive of animals to a holy icon, and the choice is deliberate. She embraces the unlovable, thereby reinforcing her point on a more transcendent, less human-influenced way of living.
It may not be quite so peachy, though. I ended up doing some further reading on this piece and found a student criticism from an NYU literary magazine. The critic’s piece is titled “Living like Wiesel,” playing off the name of Elie Wiesel, author and Jewish Holocaust survivor whose work warns against neutrality and indifference in situations of injustice. Contrasting Dillard’s work with Wiesel’s, the student critic argues that Dillard’s socially-detached “weasel-living” is dangerous and full of grave social consequences. I love the whole criticism, but especially this excerpt: “Wiesel cannot forget, we should not forget. The obligation to bear witness to the victims, the murdered—onerous as it may be—is not so horrendous (when faced with the alternative) that we should try to escape it, “under the wild rose as weasels, mute and uncomprehending” (Dillard 213). “Mute and uncomprehending”—to make the po-faced suggestion in the latter stages of the twentieth century that people should desensitize themselves to their surroundings is irresponsible, irrational, immoral.”