An American Childhood

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Family, Authority, and Institutions Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The Interior Life  Theme Icon
Curiosity and Attention  Theme Icon
Family, Authority, and Institutions Theme Icon
Place and Environment  Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in An American Childhood, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Family, Authority, and Institutions Theme Icon

Even if the real drama of Annie’s growing up takes place within her own mind, most of her external drama has to do with her relationship to authority. Annie’s curiosity means that she’s a uniquely self-propelled child, but the flip side of her independence is that the institutions and authority figures that lend structure to her childhood irritate her and become sources of tension between her own desires and her institutional obligations.

This tension begins in the home as teenaged Annie feels rage and frustration at requirements as simple as having to sit down for breakfast with her parents. Family is a source of love and nurturing attention in the memoir, but while Dillard makes clear that she loves and admires her family, she is also honest about the ways in which she chafed against even this relatively benign “institution.” It’s possible, too, that Annie had a model for rebelling against her family; as the tension between Oma and Mother makes clear, families are prone to power struggles, and even good, respectful people can find themselves part of one.

Church and school are the two other major institutions that structure Annie’s childhood and adolescence, and she finds herself deeply at odds with both. While her friends can shift their behavior and demeanor to fit different institutional contexts—they can seem like different people at home, at dancing school, and in the classroom, for example—Annie struggles to be anything but herself in every situation. In many ways, this is a sign of confidence and integrity, and it also allows Annie not to accept norms without questioning their value. This means, for example, that Annie is not able to reconcile herself to the segregation of Pittsburgh social life based on religion, and she bristles at any hint of prejudice. However, Annie’s struggle with authority can sometimes be haughty and arrogant. By writing a formal letter leaving the church, Annie rebels against what she sees as a stifling and hypocritical institution, only to realize that she has humiliated her parents. As she grows up, though, Annie begins to recognize that it’s impossible to run away from all institutions, and that—while she can and should object to distinctions that are drawn based on prejudice—there can also be a certain power to the collective knowledge and authority of institutions like schools and churches.

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Family, Authority, and Institutions ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Family, Authority, and Institutions appears in each Chapter of An American Childhood. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Family, Authority, and Institutions Quotes in An American Childhood

Below you will find the important quotes in An American Childhood related to the theme of Family, Authority, and Institutions.
Part Two Quotes

They must have known, those little boys, that they would inherit corporate Pittsburgh, as indeed they have. They must have known that it was theirs by rights as boys, a real world, about which they had best start becoming informed. And they must have known, too, as Pittsburgh Presbyterian boys, that they could only just barely steal a few hours now, a few years now, to kid around, to dribble basketballs and explode firecrackers, before they were due to make a down payment on a suitable house.

Related Characters: Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) (speaker)
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

Annie has started dancing school, where she and the other girls are enraptured by the boys, who seem both more mature and goofier than the girls are. Annie doesn’t know enough about them to do more than observe and discuss them with her friends. But looking back on her dancing school days as an adult, Dillard poignantly reflects on the kinds of men these “little boys”—she now knows, decades later—would become. In a way ten-year-old Annie couldn’t grasp, Dillard knows now that she grew up in a privileged community of Pittsburgh elites, one in which adults raised their children to pursue the specific kinds of lucrative, respectable professions that their generation had.

Dillard recognizes that she and the boys were lucky to grow up far from poverty and insecurity, but she also considers that there’s something sad in the limited, strict trajectory made available to these boys, imposed on them by the authorities of their parents and schools. The constriction inherent to this trajectory is something that’s easier, perhaps, for her to see, since she wouldn’t eventually follow the same path.

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I had essentially been handed my own life. In subsequent years my parents would praise my drawings and poems, and supply me with books, art supplies, and sports equipment, and listen to my troubles and enthusiasms, and supervise my hours, and discuss and inform, but they would not get involved with my detective work, nor hear about my reading, nor inquire about my homework or term papers or exams, nor visit the salamanders I caught, nor listen to me play the piano, nor attend my field hockey games, nor fuss over my insect collection with me, or my poetry collection or stamp collection or rock collection. My days and nights were my own to plan and fill.

Related Characters: Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) (speaker), Mother, Father (Frank Doak)
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

Annie has been given a microscope kit for her birthday, and she has just discovered an amoeba by peering through the glass into a sample she’s collected from a puddle outside. She races downstairs to inform her parents, but they are calmly sitting and having an after-dinner drink, and while they seem happy for Annie, they hardly express as much enthusiasm as she might have expected. Rather than being disappointed, though, Annie feels in some way freed. Other children might feel oppressed by their parents’ constant interference in their lives—and even Annie, as a teenager, will later feel burdened by the few obligations her parents require of her—but for now, Annie’s parents’ hands-off approach makes Annie’s artistic and scientific explorations her own. She can choose what interests her and map her own path to knowledge and discovery. As Dillard seems to recognize, her parents’ attitude doesn’t mean they are distant or unconcerned—instead, they are giving her the gift of independence, allowing her to develop her inner life by herself.

I left Pittsburgh before I had a grain of sense. Who IS my neighbor? I never learned what those strangers around me had known and felt in their lives—those lithe, sarcastic boys in the balcony, those expensive men and women in the pews below—but it was more than I knew, after all.

Related Characters: Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) (speaker)
Page Number: 199
Explanation and Analysis:

Annie is in a period of adolescence when she feels angry at everyone, frustrated by her parents and by school and church, the institutions that seem to press on her unbearably. Throughout this memory, she has been sitting in church and gazing with scorn on the other people there, from the teenage boys to the mothers. Having grown up with these families, she believes that she knows everything there is to know about them, and they no longer hold interest for her. In some ways, through this critique of her younger self, Dillard signals that she had forgotten the important lesson she’d learned from drawing the baseball mitt over and over again: that interest lies not so much in objects as in how you choose to look at them.

Years later, Dillard reflects that she chose not to take the time to really get to know and appreciate her neighbors—this is an implicit and ironic allusion to the moment in the Gospels when Jesus tells his disciples to “love your neighbor as yourself.” She shouldn’t have needed to leave Pittsburgh to learn from the people around her, but she found that she couldn’t appreciate Pittsburgh or its people until she had left.

Part Three Quotes

I was growing and thinning, as if pulled. I was getting angry, as if pushed. I morally disapproved most things in North America, and blamed my innocent parents for them. My feelings deepened and lingered. The swift moods of early childhood—each formed by and suited to its occasion—vanished. Now feelings lasted so long they left stains. They arose from nowhere, like winds or waves, and battered at me or engulfed me.

Related Characters: Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) (speaker), Mother, Father (Frank Doak)
Page Number: 222
Explanation and Analysis:

Dillard describes her transition from childhood to adolescence in a number of different ways. Here she again turns to evocative metaphorical language—feelings “leave stains” and “batter” her like the wind—in order to focus on the intensity and acute force of her experiences. These kinds of feelings are familiar to most people: Annie is hardly alone in wanting to rebel against her parents, and at feeling out of sorts and alienated by society itself. The institutions that have always structured her life, from school to church to family, seem more oppressive now than ever.

At the same time, it’s possible to trace a path from the equally intense (though more often exuberant and joyful) moods that she experienced as a younger girl, to the way Annie feels now. As aware of herself and precocious as she’s always been, her intensity seems to make it difficult for Annie to maintain control over her thoughts and ideas, rather than becoming exhausted by the weight of her own mind.

It galled me that adults, as a class, approved the writing and memorization of poetry. Wasn’t poetry secret and subversive?

Related Characters: Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) (speaker)
Page Number: 236
Explanation and Analysis:

Annie became obsessed with the French Symbolist poets before diving in to Middle Eastern and Chinese poetry, as well as beginning to write herself. She attends a small, nurturing all-girls’ school, and her teachers seem to want to encourage their students’ artistic pursuits—one of Annie’s teachers offers to lead a poetry workshop during their lunch hour. Annie’s response, though, is more suspicious than grateful. Her reaction can be explained in light of similar attitudes in the past: because of her parents’ hands-off attitude to her explorations, Annie has always been able to feel like books and even the natural world belong to her alone. Now, institutional authority is encroaching on her relationship with poetry, which Annie wants to guard jealously as part of her interior life, rather than having it institutionalized like so much else at school. Dillard adopts the perspective of her younger self here, but she also seems to characterize her earlier perspective with a certain measure of irony: poetry may feel “secret and subversive,” but even the poetry she loves has been published and shared with many people, making it part of the wider world, rather than belonging to one person alone.