An American Childhood

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Polyphemus Moth Symbol Analysis

Polyphemus Moth Symbol Icon

One day at school, Annie and her friends gather in awe around a Polyphemus moth in a mason jar. The teacher has accidentally put the moth in too small a jar, so it becomes crippled, unable to spread its wings. The teacher then sets the moth outside on the driveway, where it walks out—seeming, Annie thinks, to be thrilled and excited at its newfound freedom, even though it’s about to die. The moth thus symbolizes the simultaneous energy, power, and fragility of childhood; Annie, too, is learning to become self-sufficient and to encounter the world on her own terms. In some ways, Pittsburgh feels to her like a mason jar—cramped and stifling (even though Dillard does signal that this feeling is perhaps a limitation of Annie’s own ability to think creatively about her home). Towards the end of the book, Annie imagines her twenty classmates and herself, now about to leave high school, as Polyphemus moths crawling away, unleashed onto the world. She recognizes that she does have the skills and resources to leave home, so she is in a far stronger position than that moth. Nonetheless, its presence in her memory serves as a reminder of how delicate and exhilarating one’s upbringing and education, both informal and formal, can be.

Polyphemus Moth Quotes in An American Childhood

The An American Childhood quotes below all refer to the symbol of Polyphemus Moth. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Interior Life  Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Harper & Row edition of An American Childhood published in 1989.
Part Two Quotes

At school I saw a searing sight. It turned me to books; it turned me to jelly; it turned me much later, I suppose, into an early version of a runaway, a scapegrace. It was only a freshly hatched Polyphemus moth crippled because its mason jar was too small.

Related Characters: Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) (speaker)
Related Symbols: Polyphemus Moth
Page Number: 160
Explanation and Analysis:

The Polyphemus moth is an insect that Annie’s teacher kept in a mason jar in her classroom at school. Annie and her other classmates watch in fascination as it hatches and attempts to move its wings, but it cannot because of the size of the mason jar. As a result Annie’s teacher lets it outside, where it begins to crawl down the school driveway with what Annie imagines is a plucky, stubborn determination to continue on despite its injury.

Annie sees herself, at various points in the book, as a kind of Polyphemus moth: Pittsburgh comes to feel too small and cramped for her, for example, and she longs to be released into the world. The insect may be small, fragile, and weak, but its determination is inspiring to Annie, who maintains an optimism that she will be able to succeed in what she puts her mind to. But Annie also returns to the Polyphemus moth as an example of the wonder she finds in the natural world. The moth is an example of the marvelous unknown that lies waiting for her.

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Polyphemus Moth Symbol Timeline in An American Childhood

The timeline below shows where the symbol Polyphemus Moth appears in An American Childhood. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part Two
Curiosity and Attention  Theme Icon
Place and Environment  Theme Icon
One sight that particularly struck Annie, at school, was a newborn Polyphemus moth , crippled because its mason jar was too small. The students watched around the teacher’s... (full context)
Part Three
The Interior Life  Theme Icon
Curiosity and Attention  Theme Icon
Family, Authority, and Institutions Theme Icon
Place and Environment  Theme Icon
...her class like her own family; she imagined them all leaving, crawling away like the Polyphemus moth down the driveway. Annie loved French and Chinese poetry, but she knew almost nothing about... (full context)