Dr. Seuss’s birthday was earlier this month, and I took a closer look at The Lorax. I realized I had a lot of questions about this book. Why, for instance, in a book meant to contain a message about environmental activism, did Dr. Seuss purposely chose to create a Lorax who did not effectively protect the environment for which he was responsible?
Let me give a few examples of his ineffectiveness. He disappears for long periods of time. The landscape is full of stumps when the Lorax finally returns. When he does return, he sends away the Bar-Ba-Loots without certainty that they will find a safe new home. Similarly, he sends off the Swomee-Swans and the Humming-Fish without knowing where they will go. Another problem with the Lorax as advocate is that he, like the Once-ler, is an outsider. For instance, the Lorax isn’t affected by the pollution like the other creatures or the trees. He is able to come and go as he pleases, which suggests that his home is elsewhere. For someone who claims to want to protect the trees, the Lorax actually does very little to protect them; even the Once-ler calls him on this hypocrisy: “I yelled at the Lorax, ‘No listen here, Dad! / All you do is yap-yap and say, ‘Bad! Bad! Bad! Bad!”
The reason for this is that Dr. Seuss specifically intended for children, not the Once-ler or even the Lorax, to be the heroes and advocates for the environment in this story and who have responsibility to safeguard the future because of the failure of the adults around them. After all, the old Once-ler has held onto the last truffula seed for years; instead of planting it himself, he has waited for “someone like you” to whom to give that responsibility. Clearly, he is speaking to a young boy (or to the readers of the book). Other than this boy, all the characters in the story are adult figures. This includes the “old” Once-ler and the Lorax himself, who is described as “oldish” and “mossy;” his voice is “sharpish and bossy.” The Once-ler refers to him as “Dad.” Furthermore, the Lorax’s bushy mustache makes him look old, and like an adult parent, the Lorax speaks on behalf of his charges. The problem is although the main characters are the adults, it is up to the child (or children reading) to fix things for the future. This sends a message of hope, but also of gloom: as one writer points out, the book “puts a lot of responsibility on small shoulders” (Marris 149).
The gloomy message of the book was purposeful; Geisel admitted in interviews that the book was “intended to be propaganda” (Miller 27). He also stated that the book “came out of my being angry” and that in the book he was “out to attack what I think are evil things and let the chips fall where they might” (Miller 27). Although the environmental message was a broad one, not directed toward any particular industry or environmental setting, Geisel’s anger might have come from personal experience: in a 1957 interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Geisel revealed his own activism to protect his town, La Jolla, California, from “Creeping Urbanization” (Cahn 46). The article explains that when Geisel and his wife, Helen, moved to La Jolla, it was a quiet place populated by older, wealthy individuals. Then “came the burgeoning growth of Southern California. Soon they found themselves in the landing path of jet planes, while the town below was invaded by big spenders. A pox of garish neon lights began to blight the community” (Cahn 46). The Geisels, however, remained relatively immune to the encroachment. They lived in a tower in the town’s highest hill, and were screened by shrubs (Cahn 46). The description sounds rather similar to the “urbanization” that occurs in The Lorax, and the character’s separateness from the community that he wants to protect.
Suddenly the Lorax character starts to look a bit like Theodor Geisel himself.
And then there is the other adult figure in the story: the Once-ler. This character is never pictured, other than thin arms reaching out of buildings and vehicles, allowing us to imagine his ambiguous form. The Once-ler lives apart from the nearby town, in a tower-like structure on a hill above the town — much like the home that the Geisels lived in upon the highest hill in La Jolla. The Once-ler advocates for industrialization, calling upon his relatives to join in the expansion of his pollution-causing enterprise. Similarly, we find evidence of Geisel’s connection to industry: he was hired by Standard Oil of New Jersey (today known as Exxon) to create cartoons and advertisements for one of its products, Flit bug spray, for 9 years (Pease 47-48), earning him enough money to afford a spacious apartment in New York City (Pease 48). “Friends who were invited to dine at the Geisels’ residence reported that it was not unusual to find wealthy business executives seated alongside Broadway actors and Peruvian polo players at the couple’s table” (Pease 49).
Another significant and striking similarity between Geisel and the characters of The Lorax arises out of Geisel’s family relationships. Only a few years before he wrote the book, Geisel’s first wife, Helen, committed suicide; less than a year later, Geisel was married again, to a much younger woman, Audrey Dimond, who had sought a divorce soon after Helen’s death. Audrey had two young daughters with her first husband. She admitted in a 2000 interview that soon after her new marriage, she sent away her daughters to boarding school (Walder). The destruction of the Dimond family, and the sending away of the innocent children of that marriage, calls to mind the Lorax who sends away the creatures who are in his charge, and his limited interest in their well-being.
At the end of The Lorax, the only one left to suffer the wasteland is the Once-ler himself. It is not clear why he, too, does not “lift himself” way. Instead, he remains and “worries away” with all of his heart. Like the Once-ler, Theodor Seuss Geisel remained behind after the death of his first wife, after the destruction of a marriage, and the sending away of the children of that marriage. Seen in this light, The Lorax becomes less of a tale of environmental activism and more of a tale of apology to the young people to whom the book is literally dedicated: Lark and Lea, Geisel’s new stepdaughters and the only children to whom he would ever serve as a father.
At the end of the book, it is only when the boy shows up that the Once-ler understands the single word, “unless,” left behind by the Lorax: “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, / nothing is going to get better. / It’s not.” Considered in light of Geisel’s personal life, this message to his stepdaughters might be a message of hope: that the rocky beginning to their lives together might get better someday.
Cahn, Robert. “The Wonderful World of Dr. Seuss.” The Saturday Evening Post 230.1 (1957): 17. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 8 Mar. 2016.
Miller, John J. “Friends Of The Lorax.” National Review 64.5 (2012): 25-27. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 Feb. 2016.
Morgan, Judith and Neil Morgan. Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1995. Print.
Pease, Donald E. Theodor Seuss Geisel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.
Walder, Joyce. “Public Lives; Mrs. Seuss Hears a Who, and Tells About it.” The New York Times 20 Nov. 2000. Web. 1 March 2016.