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Critical Analysis of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring

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Writer, scientist, and ecologist Rachel Carson’s metaphors, rather than highlight the connections between human beings and the natural world, aims instead to reveal how human actions affect other living and feeling beings in nature. Through metaphor, Carson illuminates how human actions dramatically, harmfully influence other sentient beings in order to emphasize that the Earth is a shared space.

In Silent Spring (1962), Carson uses personification to apply human qualities to the natural world in order to make them more relatable, possessing intelligible qualities rather than foreign essences. For example, in her chapter on the effects of chemicals on plant life, “Earth’s Green Mantle,” Carson personifies the sagebrush by tracing how it became the primary plant of the highlands in the American West before humans decided to eradicate it for grasslands. A variety of plants had “attempted the colonization of this high and windswept land” until the pioneer sagebrush alone “could hold its place on the mountain slopes and on the plains” (64-5). The sagebrush is depicted as the hero of the colonizing effort, eliciting our sympathetic reaction to its persistence and strength. Yet the story of how humans proceeded to systematically eliminate the sagebrush engenders feelings of dismay and discomfort, illuminating that we share this earth with many nonhuman beings, on whom our continued survival, the survival of the planet, depends.

In her chapter “Rivers of Death”, Carson grants salmon the ancestral quality of yearning for home. She explains that “for thousands and thousands of years the salmon have known and followed these threads of fresh water” that help them to “return to the tributary in which [they] spent the first few months or years of life” (129). She continues by tracking how chemicals have interrupted this cycle, killing countless salmon in the process. Carson’s metaphors create a kind of overpass that allows readers to safely cross the “Rivers of Death” to reach a state of empathy, bridging the gap between human and nonhuman worlds. Through personifying metaphor, Carson thus draws the reader’s attention to destructive human practices that rob the nonhuman world of their habitat, their home. In her concluding chapter, “The Other Road,” Carson represents the future metaphorically as a fork in the road: the current road leads only to “disaster,” whereas the alternative “offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth” (277). She urges for the exploration of various solutions that will preserve rather than destroy nature.

In his essay “‘This Green Earth: The Vision of Nature in the Romantic Poets,” M. H. Abrams declares that the Romantic use of metaphor—“an emotive power”—may be the only way “to release the energies, the invention, and the will to make the sacrifices that are needed if we are to salvage this no-longer-quite-so-green Earth while it is still fit to live on” (150). He suggests that understanding nature through metaphor is a more powerful approach—and more likely to spur action – than an argument lacking such emotional tools.

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Cixous’ proclamation of l’écriture féminine’s ability to “speak matter,” draws an alliance with the physical world, an affiliation that works to ground thought in material sources, rather than abstract reason endorsed by patriarchal forms of discourse. This subject is tackled with depth and elegance in Sandra Steingraber’s Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood (2001)—the author’s account of her pregnancy and the birth of her daughter, Faith. Steingraber demonstrates the intricacies of what Stacy Alaimo calls “trans-corporeality” (Alaimo, 2) by documenting our myriad connections to the biosphere. “When I became pregnant at age thirty- eight,” Steingraber writes, “I realized, with amazement, that I myself had become a habitat. My womb was an inland ocean with a population of one” (ix).

In her book Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (2010), material feminist Stacy Alaimo explains ‘trans-corporeality,’ or the movement of matter across and within bodies and nature, by which human beings are inseparable from the environment, both natural and man-made. Trans-corporeality counters the “obsessive pushing away of nature” (Cheah, 108) that dominates social theory and humanities scholarship as well as everyday practices and beliefs. To think trans-corporeally facilitates a reconsideration of environmental issues as an embodied experience, in the flesh, here and now. Thus, by insisting on the material and lived interconnections between bodies and the matter and forces of the world, trans-corporeality denies human exceptionalism by considering all species as intermeshed with the physical world (Alaimo, 77).

Exploring the effect of toxic chemicals on her developing fetus, the challenges of regulating these chemicals, and the limitations of a lifestyle approach to risk, Steingraber shows not only how “a woman’s body is the first environment” but also that “if a mother’s body is contaminated, so too is the child who inhabits it” (x). Interweaving poetic, scenes with her interpretation of scientific information for a non-specialist audience, Steingraber builds on the work of Rachel Carson.

Spearheading the surge of environmental consciousness during the 60s and 70s, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) is considered by many to be the most important environmental book of the twentieth century. Carson focuses on the science behind a pressing public policy issue: the long-term effects of misusing synthetic chemical pesticides, which she saw as a symbol of human arrogance. She argues for a change in the way humans view the world by asserting that “man, however much he might like to pretend the contrary, is part of nature” (188). She links ecological science to the health science of toxicology observing that “there is also an ecology of the world within our bodies” (189). Silent Spring was written and published during Carson’s battle with breast cancer. She wrote urgently to save us—all of us, both human and nonhuman worlds—from the poisonous chemicals aimed at pest and disease control while cancer metastasized in her own body. She died just two years after Silent Spring was published.

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Critical Analysis of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. (2022, August 12). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 8, 2022, from
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