Read it Again: “The Word of the Lorax Seems Perfectly Clear”: Language and Anthropocentrism in The Lorax
This post was originally published on the former Worrisome Words site on August 25, 2017
One of the texts which has been most frequently cited in discussions of environmentalism in children’s literature is Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. A chilling tale about the destructive potential of the capitalist system, The Lorax is characterized by the linguistic gymnastics so famously typical of Dr. Seuss and ends with an injunction to its readers to make sure that they care for the environment and remember the role they must play in preserving it.
However, if one looks beyond the obvious pedagogical stance of this story to the narrative and linguistic structures from which it is built, it is possible to question whether this story is really as environmental progressive as it may seem at first glance. Anthropologist Layla Abdelrahim, examining the role of children’s literature in perpetuating anthropocentric social structures and cultural constructions, implicates both language and narrative in humanistic agendas.
According to Abdelrahim, “grammar comprises a system of rules that standardize the uniform application of previously derived formulae, thus ensuring the outcome of social interactions within a class and between classes remain stable and controlled” (Abdelrahim 17). Furthermore, because it builds upon this controlled and stabilized linguistic foundation, she further argues that narrative structures themselves replicate this process of normalization, arguing that language and literacy have “provided the means to encode a self-legitimating and self-replicating civilized epistemology” (Abdelrahim 17). In other words, literature is the means by which culture encodes the epistemology of anthropocentrism and enculturates new generations. With this in mind, it is important when examining an overtly pedagogical ecological text such as The Lorax to consider not only the stated moral, but also the narrative and linguistic structures through which it is transmitted. This post will examine two problematic instances within The Lorax: the Lorax’s dialogue exchanges with the Once-ler, and the ending of the narrative.
Here the Lorax’s syntax belies his egalitarian message, ascribing ownership and agency to those who possess the human ability to speak and to name described by Derrida (32) when he asserts: “I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.” Lebduska argues that “In condemning the Once-ler and speaking for the trees, Seuss’s Lorax offers a biocentric defense in which nonhuman nature has as much right to existence as humanity” (Lebduska 149). However, the Lorax’s syntax, and particularly his use of pronouns, undermines his ecological message by asserting his ownership and rights with regard to nature over and above those of the Once-ler.
When he demands to know “What’s that THING you’ve made out of my Truffula tuft?”, his use of the possessive pronoun contests the Once-ler’s appropriation in terms of a prior claim of ownership through the use of the pronoun “my”, repeated again in each instance of his dialogue with the Once-ler: “thanks to your hacking my trees to the ground”; “my poor Bar-ba-loots”; and “My poor Swomee-Swans” [my italics]. According to Teorey, “the Seussian rhythm and rhyme cause the environmental message to stick in readers’ memories after they put down the book” (Teorey 324). However, the playful rhythm of the Lorax’s rant further undermines his message by making his anger a subject of ridicule; as the two characters engage in this battle of rhetoric, the reader is left without an objective outsider to the language of ownership.
Not only the language of The Lorax, however, but also the narrative structure work to undermine the message of environmental responsibility being offered. Nathalie Op de Beeck suggests the ultimate impotence of the ending, pointing out that “In the end, the Lorax can do nothing but leave his home space, and the Once-ler runs out of resources before passing the last Truffula seed to somebody else” (Op de Beeck 266). More importantly, however, the ending functions not by reimagining the relationship between human-beings and nature, or between consumers and producers, but rather by perpetuating the situation of human possession already established through language.
As Johansson argues, “the child and the Once-ler share the same fate; they both bear the responsibility and the consequences of one another’s lives and actions” (Johansson 360); this mirror relationship established by the narrative replaces the humanistic perspective of the Once-ler with that of the reader/boy. When the Once-ler tells the reader/boy at the end of the narrative that “You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula Seeds”, he literally passes on not only responsibility for nature, but also literal ownership of nature in the form of possession of the seed, to be used or abused at will.Anthropocentricism, therefore, is perpetuated both through the linguistic and narrative structures of the story, ultimately undermining its environmentalist message of conservation.
Abdelrahim argues that “People constitute the repositories for the narrative that colonizes them” (Abdelrahim 17). If this is the case, especially for children’s literature, the texts like The Lorax convey important messages about the human-nature relationship which have the potential to either reconceptualize or perpetuate exploitative perspectives.
AbdelRahim, Layla. Children’s Literature, Domestication, and Social Foundation: Narratives of Civilization and Wilderness. Routledge, 2015.
Derrida, Jacques. The Animal That Therefore I Am. Trans. David Wills. Fordham University Press, 2008.
Geisel, Theodore Seuss. The Lorax. Random House, 1999.
Johansson, V. “’In Charge of the Truffula Seeds’: On Children’s Literature, Rationality and Children’s Voices in Philosophy.” Journal of Philosophy of Education, vol. 45, no. 2, 2011, pp. 359-377.
Lebduska, Lisa. “Rethinking Human Need: Seuss’s The Lorax.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 4, 1994, pp. 170–176.
Op de Beeck, Nathalie. “Speaking for the Trees: Environmental Ethics in the Rhetoric and Production of Picture Books.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 3, 2005, pp. 265–287.
Teorey, Matthew. “The Lorax and Wallace Stegner: Inspiring Children’s Environmental Activism.” Children’s Literature in Education, vol. 45, no. 4, Dec. 2014, pp. 324-339.
Jen is an Instructor of English at East Stroudsburg University. Views and opinions expressed here are her own, and not those of the University or any other organization.