The Battle of the Ants by Henry David Thoreau: Summary

The essay "The Battle of the Ants" is extracted from Walden, is the detail description of the war of the ants, with minute detail that is unnoticeable to us. The minute observation of the war has manipulated Thoreau’s thoughts to a great deal, heading to the human war and war among nations.


Henry David Thoreau (1817-62)



He gives the conclusion to the mankind – war is destructive and painful not only during the war itself but also after the war. After all, any kinds of destruction do not carry any principles of life.

One day when the writer went out his wood-pile, he saw two large ants fighting with one another. When he looked further he saw that there was a war between two races of ants, the red ants and the black ants. Usually two smaller red ants fought with one larger black ant. The whole area was covered with fighting ants. Both sides were equally determined to fight a deadly fight. In this war the red republicans and the black imperialists were taking part. They were fighting noiselessly and more seriously than human soldiers.

Then the writer observed a couple embracing each other and determined to fight till the end of the day or their lives. The red fighter was in the enemy area. He had cut off one feeler of the enemy. The black ant was dashing him from side to side and he had killed several red ants. Both parties seemed to have decided not to move back. They were fighting either to win or to die. At that time a single red ant arrived there getting excited. He had not lost any of his limbs. He arrived there like Achilles to avenge or rescue his Patroclus.  When he got an opportunity he sprang upon the black ant. Now the three of them were fighting for life. The writer felt that there were musical bands on both sides to excite the slow fighters and to cheer the dying fighters. They were like human beings. The more one compared them with human beings, the less difference one would find between them. Such a battle had never taken place there. They were fighting for principle heroically and like patriots. The results of this battle would be important and memorable.

The writer took up the chip on which the three were struggling, carried it into his house and placed it under a glass. Holding a microscope to the red ant, he saw that the ant had cut the foreleg of the enemy and that his own breast was torn by the black ant. After half an hour he found that the black ant had cut off the heads of the red ants and was carrying them as the signs of victory. When the glass was raised the black ant went off over the window-sill in a crippled state. The writer thought of the battle all the daylong and he was sad at the ferocity and the widespread destruction.

More about The Battle of the Ants

Critical Commentary of The Battle of the Ants

Biography of Henry David Thoreau

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