Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series Silent Spring Analysis

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Young adult readers will find in Carson a writer who not only makes science accessible but also reveals some of the crucial lessons of humanity. Her motive in writing Silent Spring was not merely to report and examine case after case of environmental poisonings, which she does with amazing breadth, depth, and clarity and with great compassion for the earth and all its creatures. Perhaps more important, especially for young adults, she was attempting to reveal some of the dire consequences of human arrogance—or, as she says in the book’s final paragraph, the consequences of humans’ attempting “control of nature” with “no humility before the vast forces with which they tamper.”

Viewed in this context, the synthetic pesticides (which readers come to know as they do principal characters in fiction) become monsters: Portrayed as both blessing and curse—Carson indeed calls them “sinister” and “evil”—the chemicals run amok, imperiling the life of the natural world and ultimately threatening to destroy their creators. By the end of Carson’s book, however, what emerges as the true antagonist in the world she describes is not the chemicals but rather their makers. Carson’s central message, as in Mary Shelley’s horror novel Frankenstein (1818), is a plea for prudence and responsibility in the application of knowledge and power—especially in the manipulation of life-and-death forces.

Much of the scientific knowledge that made the organic pesticides possible sprang from wartime experiments. In chapter 3, Carson explains the baleful genesis of some of these chemicals: “This industry is a child of the Second World War. In the course of developing agents of chemical warfare, some of the chemicals created in the laboratory were found to be lethal to insects. The discovery did not come by chance: insects were widely used to test chemicals as agents of death for man.” Images of war pervade Silent Spring: Carson speaks of DDT, for example, as a perceived hero “hailed” to win the “war against crop destroyers.” She uses such terms as “weapons,” “allies,” “enemies,” and “crusade.” Her descriptions of lethal chemicals sprayed “indiscriminately from the skies” recalls nuclear fallout, an “amazing rain of death.”

Whether killed or maimed, on contact or by slow accretion, the casualties of this war against insects and “weeds” comprise Carson’s focal subject: the western swan grebes in Clear Lake, California; moose, beaver, and fish in some of the sagelands in Wyoming; songbirds, rabbits, and cats in southeastern Michigan; meadowlarks, muskrats, squirrels, sheep, and cattle in Sheldon, Illinois; salmon in the Miramichi River; two children in a playground in Florida; a one-year-old baby in Venezuela; two cousins in Wisconsin. These are only a few of the victims Carson cites throughout the book to indicate the price paid and to show that “the chemical war is never won, and all life is caught in its violent crossfire.”

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