The Battle of the Ants by Henry David Thoreau: Critical Commentary

In the essay 'The Battle of the Ants' Thoreau is concerned with an event; he has a story to tell. And like any essayist, he also has a persuasive purpose, a purpose, like that of any narrative essayist, is to offer an interpretation of the story – an interpretation that uses the story as a means of commenting on some aspect of experience.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-62)

The story of "the battle of the ants" takes up almost the entire piece. His story is lively, violent and it turns out to have an expected end. Our first task is to identify the principal parts of his narrative, to see how they are proportioned to one another and how they are put together. Looked at in this way, his narrative falls into roughly two equal sections: the scene near the woodpile and the scene inside his house. Within these manageable sections we can consider the basic elements of narration – description, dialogue and commentary – and examine the effects they create.

Description predominates in both sections. First, the writer sees two ants fighting. The he looks further and finds the chips covered with such fights describes the widespread-fight there. Finally, he is limited to the fight between one black ant and two red ants. In the second section, the writer takes up the chip on which the three ants are fighting. There he examines them with his microscope. The red ants have severed all the limbs except one of the black ants, and the black ant also cut off the head of the red ants and departed from there.

Since the characters of this story are black ants and red ants, there is no dialogue. The story seems to make sense when Thoreau gives us the first hint of interpretation: "The red republicans on the one hand and the black imperialists on the other". "I was myself excited somewhat even as if they had been men. The more you think of it, the less the difference." Once he provides the commentaries we can begin to see point of the story.

While telling the story, Thoreau does not omit himself; one is likely to forget that the precision and objectivity of this reporting imply an attitude, a method of observation. In every case he describes his method drawing close to the phenomenon. Ants carry on their warfare under a tumbler as he watches with a magnifying glass.

The famous ant war stands on its own as a narrative masterpiece and factual observation of nature, but the transition to seeing it as a mock epic of human battle representing humanity's courage and tragic pride is quite natural. The ants become Greek "Myrmidons" (the Greek word means "ants"); a particularly fierce ant becomes an Achilles; and Thoreau comments, "I was myself excited somewhat even as if they had been men. The more you think of it, the less the difference". 

The narrator is no more than the writer himself. Being close observer of this nature, he has not let anything of this surrounding escape from his notice. He has given philosophical dimension to his naturalistic observation. Thoreau went out to his wood-pile where there was pile of three stumps. There were two large ants, one red and other much larger and black. They were fighting fiercely with one another. Having once got hold they never let go, but struggled and wrestled and rolled on the chips incessantly. They were fighting a life-and-death battle. Later, the author noticed that the chips were covered with such several combatants. It was not a duel, a fight between two, but it was a bellum, a war between two races of ants. The red ants were fighting against the black. Thoreau has symbolized the participants of the war with the red republicans on the one hand, and the black imperialists on the other. On every side they were engaged in deadly combat. This war has been compared with the Trojan war of the "The Ilia". It has also been also compared with other historical battles. The war of the ant caused great sensation in the mind of the author.

It is very known fact that a war is waged for might or right. Participants attempt to make the opponent either to accept or refuge certain claims. In any case, there is injury and carnage. Both parties lose much of their wealth and many of their people. Russell says that a war is violent not only during the war but also after the war. He says peace after war is more violent than the war itself. When all are dead, or injured, there is nothing left except sufferings to both parties. The red ants were killed and the black was alive but he had neither feelers not any physical strength. One of the legs had also gone. He had become totally handicapped. He would live his remaining days being a patient or a handicapped. Those who see them realize the result of war. Thoreau’s feelings were excited and tormented by witnessing the struggle, its ferocity and carnage. It was like a human battle occurred at his door. In fact, neither victory nor the cause of the war was important. When there is to see destruction everywhere, victory or cause of the war is only nonsense.

More about The Battle of the Ants

Summary of The Battle of the Ants

Biography of Henry David Thoreau