Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Monkey Wrench Gang is the most popular and best known of Edward Abbey’s novels and essays. In the two decades after its publication, it sold more than half a million copies. Abbey’s previous book, Desert Solitaire (1968), was a collection of essays lamenting the insults to nature he had witnessed while working in the desert, and The Monkey Wrench Gang is its fictionalized follow-up, in which he fantasizes revenge on the despoilers of the desert. In truth, the book is not quite fantasy: Abbey has admitted to toppling billboards and disabling heavy machinery, and at least two of his characters—Seldom Seen Smith and George Hayduke—are strongly based on friends of Abbey. Although Abbey is sometimes referred to as a twentieth century Henry David Thoreau for his devotion to the wilderness, neither the author nor his monkeywrenchers are icons of the simple life, with their fast cars and habit of tossing beer cans onto the highway—an act Abbey justifies by observing that highways are already a desecration and do not deserve better treatment.

The Monkey Wrench Gang has become a virtual totem for the radical ecologist movement. The Earth First! group has credited Abbey as an inspiration, and he has openly advocated subversive methods in defense of the environment. Yet the book does not present its characters as victorious; they are captured and subdued, although waiting to rise again. In fact, his characters’ actions cause the establishment to intensify its efforts to proceed with its subjugation of the wilderness and to direct its power to eviscerating the movement. At the end of the book, the four monkey wrenchers are reunited, presumably to fight again. However, there is little reason to believe that they will be any more successful in the long run than they were before, despite the optimism of the prologue.