Study finds new interpretation of Dr. Seuss’s 'The Lorax’

by Alex Fredman | 8/3/18 2:25am

It began over a dinner party, when two Dartmouth professors — Nathaniel Dominy and Donald Pease — had an unconventional discussion at the home of College President Phil Hanlon. The topic was the Lorax, the famed Dr. Seuss character, about whom Dominy posed a unique question: has our interpretation of the curmudgeonly creature who “speaks for the trees” been wrong all along?

After digging into the subject, Dominy and Pease — along with two New York University anthropologists, Sandra Winters and James Higham — published their findings last week in the journal “Nature Ecology & Evolution.” The character of the Lorax, they wrote, may have been inspired by the patas monkey, a species that author Theodor Seuss Geisel ’25 — better known as Dr. Seuss — viewed during a trip to Kenya not long before authoring his widely-renowned book.

Published in 1971 in the context of the burgeoning environmental movement, “The Lorax” directly addressed the movement’s concerns through the tale of the Once-ler, a greedy businessman who destroys a forest of “truffula trees” for the sake of profit despite pleas and resistance from the Lorax, a creature who lives in the forest.

Until recently, the predominant interpretation among scholars has been that the Lorax character, in speaking of the forest in possessive terms, was essentially protecting his own property, the article says. But an analysis of the Lorax’s physical characteristics showed that Geisel’s portrayal of the Lorax may have been inspired by the patas, creating grounds for a new literary interpretation of the character.

Dominy, an anthropology professor, said that he first made the connection between the Lorax and the patas monkey during his time in the field in Uganda and Kenya — something he would point out to friends and family who visited him.

“If Dr. Seuss had ever created a monkey, this would be the one,” Dominy would tell his guests. “This animal is so odd and idiosyncratic, and it looks like it’s been ripped off the pages of a Dr. Seuss book.”

During his conversation with Pease, who is an English and comparative literature professor and the author of a biography of Geisel, Dominy said that Pease pointed out to him that Geisel had indeed spent time in Kenya in 1970, during which he wrote the first draft of “The Lorax.” At that point, Dominy set out to prove a scientific connection between the Lorax and the patas monkey.

Winters, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at NYU, conducted a facial recognition analysis that linked the Lorax to the patas monkey. She wrote in an email that her conclusion was that key facial characteristics of the Lorax character could be linked to the types of primates Geisel would have observed during his trip to Kenya.

“The idea that such an iconic book was influenced, either explicitly or more subtly, by aspects of the local flora/fauna in Kenya is wonderful,” Winters wrote. “I think we make a compelling case for this in the paper, but of course we will never know exactly what was going on in Geisel’s head.”

Winters noted that drawing a connection between the Lorax and the patas monkey is significant because of the decline in population of the patas monkey, which the study says dropped 46 percent in Kenya between 1996 and 2004.

“Drawing the parallels [to the Lorax] is interesting, particularly given the current situation regarding habitat loss and patas monkey population collapse,” Winters wrote. “Ultimately, this project points to the connection between nature and culture, and how losses in one area have ripple effects.”

For Dominy, showing that Geisel may have been inspired by the patas monkey is important in re-imagining the Lorax’s relationship with the forest.

“[Geisel] saw weird-looking trees, he saw a weird-looking primate, and he recognized that there was this strong inter-relationship or co-dependence between this tree and this monkey,” Dominy said.

Dominy also said that Geisel portrayed the truffula trees, which share characteristics with the whistling thorn acacia tree in Kenya, as a keystone species — a species that has a disproportionate impact on the ecosystem — even before ecologists had coined the term.

“In many ways, he captured a really foundational and fundamental ecological concept long before it was formally articulated,” Dominy said. “And he did it with a children’s book.”

But how do these findings impact the literary interpretation of “The Lorax”? Pease said that scholars have tended to view the Lorax as someone who claims ownership over the forest because he used the word “my” in describing the trees. But if Geisel used the patas monkey — which has a commensalist relationship with the forest in which the monkeys benefit while the forest is neither hurt nor harmed — as inspiration for the Lorax, the character should be viewed in a new light, Pease said.

“The Lorax should no longer be understood as having spoken about the truffula trees as if he were its owner, or as if he was a policeman charged with protecting private property,” Pease said. “[The study shows] that the Lorax, in saying ‘my,’ was actually personifying the entirety of the ecosystem.”

Pease said that this viewpoint enriches previous interpretations of “The Lorax,” which he argues were problematic because if the Lorax was claiming ownership of the forest, he was then acting in the same self-interest as the Once-ler.

“How can the Lorax serve as a viable alternative to the Once-ler’s desire to make profit off the truffula trees if the Lorax has as possessive a relationship to those trees as does the Once-ler?” Pease asked.

The new commensalist interpretation, Pease concluded, places the Lorax in a more positive light because the character is acting to protect the ecosystem in a selfless manner — a view that carries implications for humanity’s relationship with the environment.

“The tale is encouraging every reader to recognize that she or he is part of an ecosystem whose survivability depends upon our increased care and sense of reciprocal relationship with the ecosystem upon which we depend — and in turn depends on us,” Pease said.