Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 429

Richard Powers’s 2018 novel elicited widespread praise for its sweeping panorama of crucial social issues, focusing on the importance of trees for an eclectic assortment of characters. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, with its focus on the vital role of nature in shaping American values and becoming the focus...

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Richard Powers’s 2018 novel elicited widespread praise for its sweeping panorama of crucial social issues, focusing on the importance of trees for an eclectic assortment of characters. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, with its focus on the vital role of nature in shaping American values and becoming the focus of human obsession, the 512-page work has even been compared to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. In this novel, however, the characters do not hunt the natural wonder—in this case trees rather than a whale, and on land rather than at sea—much less want to kill them, but instead want to save the forests and the planet. Excessive zeal, however, leads some of them on a destructive path of no return.

At first providing the backstories of nine characters, Powers goes on to put them together into pairs, then add a third character, and then to merge and divide the groups as they center on pro-forest activities in the US Pacific Northwest. Personal emotions and divided loyalties ultimately undermine the activists’ abilities, however. The fervor with which Olivia and Nick pursue their calling, for example, leads them to a standoff with loggers and authorities as they spend a year camped out in the branches of one majestic tree. Powers contrasts the individual physical attachment to the living trees themselves with the technological possibilities of delving into their consciousness—a project to which the scientist, Patricia, is fervently committed.

But clashes with the law, resulting in the activists’ arrest, are not the least of their problems. The optimistic glow proves relatively short-lived as the novel turns dark. Illegal and unethical activities like arson begin to seem reasonable to the activists; when one such incident goes horribly astray, killing Olivia, the others attempt to cover it up. Fractured loyalties bring terrible, although not equally fatal, consequences for the others. Love for Mimi, as much as commitment to the cause, has motivates Douglas, for example; his desire to protect her likewise prompts his fateful decision to abandon the others. He rats out Adam, the former academic, who ends up going to prison for life. The artist, Nick, loses himself in his conceptual projects and makes his home wholly within the forest.

As the author mostly ties up the plot strands, The Overstory largely comes across as an old-fashioned realist, plot-driven saga. His serious attention to the cultural, social, and scientific dimensions of ecological commitment unify the novel, in part through organizing it around aspects of arboreal life—the roots, trunk, crown, and finally the seeds it sows for future generations.

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