How does Jenny Diski present the experience of seeing penguins in Antarctica?

The register of the piece is reasonably informal; the conversational tone is created mainly through the use of colloquialism (“packed so tight”, “The fact is”) and humour (“I don’t know who counted but I’m inclined not to argue”). The text also contains contractions (“don’t”, “I’m”) that would not be found in a more formal text, and a ‘dead metaphor’ (“…up a storm”) which most readers will find familiar. As a result the audience can identify with the text more readily. Collectively, these techniques engender informality which supplements the genre: it is the recount of a personal experience, and the register that is used creates the effect that the tale is being recounted to someone whom the author knows – she seeks to include the person reading the text. This is also achieved through the use of the second person personal pronoun “you”. Despite this, the piece holds more descriptive aspects, that create striking images among the generally informal narrative. In the phrase “great florid gash”, the use of the intensifier “great” and adjective “florid” emphasise the horridness of the penguin’s injury; the author blends description and narration to create an engaging piece, that is not simply an account, but dually an interesting depiction of the experience. This will hold the reader’s attention.

I feel the author empathises with the penguins, not only through the pathos she creates through her depictions, but through the employment of litotes and a shift in perspective. The perspectival shift (“their noisy boats”) uses “their” to refer to humans, patently from the penguin’s perspective; she appears to empathise as she speaks from the penguins’ view. Her empathy reinforces the presentation of this experience is incredibly personal, for we gain a poignant sense of her individual feeling. Litotes (a figure of speech consisting of an understatement in which an affirmative is is expressed by negating its opposite) is used twice in the text. The first appearance of this technique (“penguin life is not that cute.”) occurs at the beginning of the final paragraph, and due to its unusual nature, it becomes a distinct message in the reader’s mind. It is made clear after this that the life of these penguins is rife with hardship. Furthermore, that it occurs at the beginning of the final paragraph is pertinent, for it becomes structurally cohesive: the same device is used at the end of the final paragraph (“It’s not much of a life being a penguin.”), which provides an effective concluding sentence, relating back to a key point. The ending paragraph regards death and hardship in the lives of penguins (“final, inevitable collapse”); the start concerns life (“breeding ground”). I believe this could signify the processes that underlie existence; beginning with birth and ending with death, as does the structure of the piece. Penguins and humans both must conform to the same ‘laws’, so are we entirely different? The author, however, does stress the hardness of life in this “indifferent landscape”. The “rocky”, “icy” setting of Antarctica provides the basis for a comparison which we subconsciously make to our own environment. We demonstrate resourcefulness as humans, but would we be able to survive without tools and shelter in such a place, while these penguins can?

The “timeless[ness]” of the penguins’ “standing” is matched with the “unseen”, “unwitnessed” environment, which presents Diski’s experience as a rare glimpse into nature – as something esoteric and highly special. The polyptoton “unwitnessed, unwitnessing”, employed to describe the action of the penguins, not only connects the penguins with their surroundings (they are part of nature) but describes both nature’s mysteriousness and ignorance of our presence. I feel the penguins are extensions of nature itself. This means the notion of our unimportance to ‘nature’ is stressed through the penguins’ response to us. Direct concession (“They were not even slightly interested in our approach.”) reinforces this, as well as commoratio, in which the same idea is expressed but in several different ways (“It seemed that they didn’t even compute humans… they lost interest rapidly [in humans].”)

Anthropomorphism can be found throughout the piece (“Poised between fake dignity and letting their hair down…”), which characterises the penguins. Diski tell us that penguins are “remarkably like caricatures of ourselves”, which conveys a sense that we are not so entirely different from these creatures, and thus – despite often lacking respect for nature, and our urban, industrial ways – we are still part of it. On a more basic level, the use of anthropomorphism is intriguing and humorous; through this technique it is indeed possible to see why penguins are so similar to ourselves and would be considered “cute”.

Diski presents her experience in a very individual fashion, that not only entertains the reader but causes us to question our role in existence, and ponder the simultaneous cruelness and kindness of nature, and how this reflects humanity itself. We seem so inconsequential to these penguins, but have we considered: what if we actually are inconsequential in nature?