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
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.