Leiningen Versus the Ants by Carl Stephenson

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What is the main conflict in the short story "Leiningen versus the Ants"?

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This is a good question, because, while the obvious answer is that the conflict is between man and nature, an equally correct answer would be to say that the conflict is between man and his own fear.

Leiningen's Brazilian plantation is directly in the path of a swarm of billions upon billions of ants, which devour everything they come across. The local governor urges Leiningen to evacuate the area, but Leiningen is confident in his ability to outwit the ants. He firmly believes "that intelligence, directed aright, invariably makes man the master of his fate," and he therefore refuses to flee in the face of danger. He has taken many precautions against the ants, digging ditches around his property and filling one with water, the other with gasoline. The Brazilian governor calls the ants "elemental," and Leiningen intends to fight this "element" with the other elements of water and fire.

When the ants arrive, Leiningen's precautions are put to the test, and while they hold, he glories in the triumph of his intelligence over this challenge from Nature. His confidence inspires his workers with equal sang-froid, and as long as everyone remains calm, they are able to match each move the ants make with another move that forestalls the ants' advance. Once Leiningen's precautions begin to fail, however, "even he could not free himself from a qualm of malaise." He wonders if "this brain [had] for once taken on more than it could manage[.]" Still, he is determined to keep his chin up and solider on.

On the first day, there is a terrific battle to keep the ants from crossing the first ditch, which is filled with water. When some ants get across and attack one of Leiningen's native workers, the man screams in fear and pain, and Leiningen realizes "that another such casualty, yes, perhaps this alone, might plunge his men into confusion and destroy their morale," and that if that happens, they're all as good as dead. He manages to calm the injured man by instructing him how to remove the ants, and order is temporarily restored.

On the second day, the ants build little leaf-rafts to sail across the water-ditch. For a time, Leiningen is able to slow their advance, but then the ants get over the water and begin devouring the workers, who scream in agony.

When Leiningen heard this, he knew the plantation was doomed. He wasted no time bemoaning the inevitable. For as long as there was the slightest chance of success, he had stood his ground, and now any further resistance was both useless and dangerous.

Still he does not succumb to fear. He sounds the signal to retreat behind the second ditch, the one filled with gasoline, and his workers follow him:

And there, drifting in twos and threes, Leiningen's men reached him. Most of them were obviously trying to preserve an air of calm and indifference, belied, however, by their restless glances and knitted brows. One could see their belief in a favorable outcome of the struggle was already considerably shaken.

Fear is gaining the upper hand over the men's determination to resist the ants' onslaught, and their desire to believe in Leiningen's invincibility. Nevertheless, they decide to stay with Leiningen at the plantation, rather than take rafts to the other side of the river.

On the third day, the...

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