Thursday, January 11, 2007

Death of A Pig

E.B. White’s essay tells the story of his unsuccessful attempt to save a pig suffering a fatal illness. The tone is wry. “I spent several days and nights in mid-September with an ailing pig,” the essay begins

and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting.

White first realizes the pig is in trouble when it does not “appear at the trough for his supper, and when a pig (or child) refuses supper a chill wave of fear runs through any household…” He manages to treat the pig in time to go out to dinner. Returning later that evening, having eaten “well and at someone else’s expense,” he finds the pig has worsened. The lack of eating on the pig’s part leads to White’s theme, the contingency of life:

the stuff that goes into the trough and is received with such enthusiasm is an earnest of some later feast of [man], and when this suddenly comes to an end and the food lies stale and untouched, souring in the sun, the pig’s imbalance become the man’s, vicariously, and life seems insecure, displaced, transitory.

White wants to think of the pig as different from him, in this respect, but cannot. “What could be true of the pig could be true also of the rest of my tidy life.” Using his characteristic wry delivery, he observes that after administering an enema the “pig’s lot and mine were inextricably bound now, as though the rubber tube were the silver cord.” Humor tempers the graver lesson the pig’s death teaches White, and us.

“Death of a Pig” is a deft essay, seamlessly weaving together the metaphysical with the mundane, perfectly balancing humor with White's weighty subject. An essay worthy, I thought, of sharing with my students of expository writing.

Reading “Death of a Pig” again two decades later, sufficient time to forget the turns of my thinking when I taught writing, I wonder what I believed I could gain by asking them to take a look at the essay. Taking a look was all I hoped for from my class, a look perhaps followed by discussion of the essay’s highlights, at least as I saw them.

Experience had tempered my expectations. During my first year of teaching in prison, a student named Shotgun threw chairs around the room after receiving a C on an assignment, a powerful incentive in my mind for grade inflation. I had much difficulty in another class explaining causality as an organizing device; cause and effect seemed as opaque to them as quantum mechanics is to me. Nevertheless, I pushed ahead, encouraging this later group of prisoners to read “Death of a Pig,” speaking enthusiastically about the essay’s virtues. When I received teacher evaluations at the end of the year, one student’s only comment summed up the experience: “We had to read about a dying pig.”

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