Leiningen Versus the Ants Questions and Answers
by Carl Stephenson

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What is a main theme of "Leiningen Versus the Ants?"

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The famous short story "Leiningen Versus the Ants" tells of a plantation owner who refuses to abandon his property in the face of an overwhelming approaching army of deadly ants. Instead, along with his faithful employees, he decides to stay and fight. He devises complex defenses consisting of moats filled with water and petrol and manages to hold the ants off for awhile. However, it ultimately seems that the ants will overrun the plantation and the defenders will die horrible deaths until Leiningen himself puts on a protective suit, charges through the swarms of ants, and, despite gruesome injuries, manages to reach the controls of a dam and flood the plantation.

The theme of this thrilling story is man versus nature. If we focus this and give it a little more detail, we could say that it is the triumph of the ingenuity and indomitable spirit of man against a formidable and relentless threat of nature. Man versus nature is a common theme in many classic tales. One example is Jack London's famous short story "To Build a Fire," in which a man hiking through Arctic wilderness struggles to survive in the midst of overwhelming cold and isolation. Another example is the short novel The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, in which an old man alone in a small boat in the Gulf Stream attempts to bring in a huge marlin.

The outcome of man versus nature struggles are not always the same. In "To Build a Fire," the man freezes to death. In The Old Man and the Sea, the ending is ambivalent, because the old man makes it back safely to shore, but the marlin he caught has been eaten by sharks. "Leiningen Versus the Ants," though, ends in triumph, as Leiningen survives his ordeal and saves the plantation and most of his workers.

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One main theme of "Leiningen Versus the Ants" is persistence; Leiningen refuses to back down in the face of a natural destructive force, and although he suffers, he wins out in the end:

The sporting zest with which the excitement of the novel contest had inspired him the day before had now vanished; in its place was a cold and violent purpose. He would send these vermin back to the hell where they belonged, somehow, anyhow.
(Stephenson, "Leiningen Versus the Ants," classicshorts.com)

Leiningen believes that his human intellect is more powerful in potential than the irrational, mindless force of the ants. Despite some setbacks, Leiningen continues to fight and plan for new situations. At the start of the story, the District Commissioner tells him of the ants and their destructive abilities; Leiningen accepts his advice and chooses to act rather than flee. As the ants overwhelm his defenses through their sheer numbers, he finds more and better ways to attack them; finally, although he is badly wounded, he unleashes the river and wipes the ants out, showing his persistence in the face of seemingly unstoppable odds.