Man and the Natural World: A Case Study on Literary Themes

by Sara Letourneau
published in Writing

Calling nature a “force to be reckoned with” might be an understatement. Between the seasons, myriad landmarks, and extreme weather events, it can wreak havoc with our lives on one day, then let its beauty take our breath away on the next. Plus, remember how often we read or hear news about survivors of floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. Indeed the environment’s impact on us – and sometimes our impact on it – can lead to a fascinating story, both in real life and in literature.

So, today’s Theme: A Story’s Soul will explore the theme of man and the natural world. We’ll take two novels from different genres and study how they explore this concept. See if you notice any common elements they share and what important observations their characters make, then we’ll compare notes at the end.

Man and the Natural World as a Theme in Rae Carson’s Walk On Earth A Stranger (YA Historical Fantasy)

walk-on-earth-a-strangerRae Carson’s Walk On Earth A Stranger introduces readers to Leah Westfall, a 16-year-old girl with gold-sensing powers who escapes for the California Gold Rush after her uncle kills her family. Between Leah’s magic and the journey to California, the story highlights the peaks and valleys (no pun intended) of our delicate relationship with the great outdoors.

Weather and natural perils impact Leah’s journey as soon as she sets out. Her flatboat ride on the Tennessee River veers through narrow gorges and along whitewater rapids, and the persistent dampness and winter cold compel her inside at mealtimes for warmth (150). Months later, Leah’s wagon train braves rainstorms, oppressive heat, lack of water and shade, and animals such as rattlesnakes and buffalo. This passage explains how California Territory’s dry summer climate affects her physically:

“Dust coats our trail, sometimes gravelly and coarse, sometimes fine as flour. We wear kerchiefs over our noses, but I still chew grit all day. My eyes crust over every night, and I wake each morning to find them blurry and swollen. The back of my throat is a patch of desert… And all day long the sun pours fire on our heads.” (384)

The wagon train’s route also features several natural landmarks. After a rest at Independence Rock, Leah and her fellow pioneers pass through Devil’s Gate, which symbolizes the start of the most treacherous terrain they’ll cross. As one passenger says, “‘Only way to reach the green grass of Oregon or the sweet gold of California is through hell itself.’” (330) Leah reacts similarly when her travel party reaches the Rocky Mountains. She describes the Rockies as “giant rocks split open and turned on edge every which way, like God started a quarry and got distracted,” even calling the road they’ll climb “a backbone breaker.” (351) In both cases, characters regard these landmarks with an awareness of their dangers.

Nature isn’t always an antagonist, though. Other scenes in Walk On Earth A Stranger show its benevolence, from Leah’s strategic spots for deer-hunting to her off-road hiding places. She also expresses wonder and gratitude for “the sunrise on the snowy mountain slopes” (9), a close encounter with a screech owl, and a Kansas field that “has exploded with wildflowers” (217), among other things. These moments remind the reader that nature can protect or amaze us just as often as it can threaten or frighten us.

Man and the Natural World as a Theme in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (Literary Fiction)

Life of Pi coverIn Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Pi Patel recalls his harrowing tale of survival aboard a lifeboat with Richard Parker, a 400-pound Bengal tiger, after the freighter ship carrying his family sinks. Their tense rapport, as well as their constant exposure to the Pacific Ocean’s elements, proves how mankind’s relationship with nature often feels like tug-of-war.

Pi was 8 years old when his zookeeper father forced him to watch a tiger kill a goat. In his flashback, Pi recalls how the tiger growled and “looked as if he were about to burst through [his cage’s trapdoor]” before it opened (35). Richard Parker acts no differently. During their time on the lifeboat, Pi witnesses the tiger killing a shark and defending himself against a school of flying fish – and swallowing some of those fish whole. No wonder Pi thought he might be “the next goat” when Richard Parker first climbed aboard the lifeboat (99). His understanding of a tiger’s predatory nature is so acute that he fears Richard Parker will eat him, too.

Pi’s fear later inspires him to reverse his and Richard Parker’s roles. Instead of killing the tiger to ensure his own survival, Pi realizes “[it] was not a question of him or me, but of him and me… We would live – or we would die – together.” (164) Thus, for the sake of companionship and hope, Pi begins to tame Richard Parker. He uses a life jacket whistle, knowledge from working at his father’s zoo, and enthusiastic shouting to establish their separate “territories” on the lifeboat and his alpha role over the tiger (168). When Richard Parker finally challenges their new hierarchy, Pi looks him “dead in the eyes. Suddenly his brute strength meant only moral weakness.” (222) Though he’s forced to be cunning to keep Richard Parker subdued, Pi wins the animal’s respect so they can co-exist on the lifeboat.

Richard Parker isn’t the only force of nature that Pi deals with. Both characters must endure the Pacific Ocean’s waves and thunderstorms with little shelter. Weeks of water, sun, and salt exposure ruin Pi’s clothes and the lifeboat’s contents; and lead to thirst, fatigue, and boils that, when they burst, were “so painful I would gasp and cry out.” (192) Yet Pi also finds moments where he appreciates the ocean’s glories. He marvels at whales, dolphins, and other marine life that swim by. He also watches lightning strike the water during a violent storm, describing it as a “gigantic, blinding white shard of glass from a broken cosmic window” and how he felt “dazed, thunderstruck… but not afraid” (233). It reminds Pi yet again that nature can be both beautiful and terrible, life-threatening and life-affirming.

Keys to Exploring Man and the Natural World as a Literary Theme

What techniques and common avenues do Walk On Earth A Stranger and Life of Pi use to explore the “man versus nature” theme? Here’s what I noticed:

Central to the Plot:

In both stories, the plot pushes the protagonist into the elements in order to achieve their goal. Thus, nature plays an important role from the get-go, from placing obstacles in the protagonist’s path, to setting the scene’s tone and influencing character.

Dangers and Survival:

It’s common for stories with this theme to show the perils of man’s relationship with nature as well as characters fighting for their survival. Both Pi and Leah must suffer harsh weather and the unique hazards of their locations. Pi must consider the added complication of living with a carnivorous animal.

Beauty and Wonder:

Walk On Earth A Stranger and Life of Pi also present breathtaking moments of natural beauty. Sunrises, panoramic views, close encounters with various animals – these and other scenes remind Pi, Leah, and readers to be grateful for nature’s gifts and wary of its unpredictable duality.

Man’s Impact on Nature:

Pi’s taming of Richard Parker, especially from a psychological angle, is a fascinating look at how the human race can affect nature. We can also look at the real world for more concrete examples, from deforestation and coral bleaching, to pollution and poaching-driven animal extinction.

Multiple Examples:

Once again, the repetition of elements demonstrating a literary theme will drive that theme home to readers on a subconscious level. No wonder we’ve made repetition part of our working definition for “theme.”

It’s Your Turn!

  • What books have you read that demonstrate the theme of man and the natural world? How did they accomplish this?
  • Write a story where the protagonist must brave the elements in order to reach her story goal, or where the setting’s environment has been impacted by mankind’s actions. What kinds of scenes or character observations would highlight this theme?
  • What are some encounters you’ve have with weather, animals, or natural landmarks that were either beautiful or terrifying? How did these experiences influence your perspective on nature?

What topics would you like to see featured at Theme: A Story’s Soul? Share your thoughts by commenting below or tweeting me at @SaraL_Writer with the hashtag #DIYMFA.


Sara 2015Sara Letourneau is a fantasy writer in Massachusetts who devours good books, loves all kinds of music, and drinks too much tea. In addition to writing for DIY MFA, she is a Resident Writing Coach at Writers Helping Writers and is hard at work on a YA fantasy novel. She also freelanced as a tea reviewer and music journalist in the past. Her poetry has appeared in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two print anthologies. Visit Sara at her personal blogTwitter, and Goodreads.

  • Wonderful article and choice of theme, Sara! Nature is such a beautiful and powerful thing, it’s no wonder so many novels are filled with it. When I lived in Italy, I could look out my window and see the Alps, and that sight has stuck with me for years ever since and has worked it’s way into my writing today. Autumn and spring are another wonderful part of nature that inspires me, the vivid colors and scents.
    The Vanishing Throne novel gives wondrous descriptions of the highlands, so much so that I would love to see it for myself one day! It’s beauty impacted the characters as well as us readers.

    • Sara Letourneau

      Thanks, E.! I think this is one of my favorite theme case studies, since I love nature, too. I’m not really an outdoorsy person, but I love being out in good weather, walking, on the beach, and taking in beautiful views. Speaking of which – what a view you must have had when you lived in Italy. Wow.

      And you’re right that so many novels touch on this theme. LOTR (especially The Two Towers, with Saruman’s destruction of Fangorn Forest), The Old Man and the Sea, many of Scott O’Dell’s novels… and Andy Weir’s The Martian and Jay Kristoff’s Stormdancer are good examples of more recent books showing that theme.

      The Vanishing Throne! Yes, that has some amazing descriptions of its settings, especially the imagined ones like the Faerie realm in the first couple chapters. That one sent chills up my spine.

  • sjhigbee

    You’re absolutely right in mentioning The Martian – going back to one of the main books that influenced it, Robinson Crusoe – they are both about Man versus Nature. But sometimes games can be played with this conflict, as in Carrie Vaughn’s recently released YA novel Martians Abroad, where childen born and raised on Mars return to Earth in their teens and struggle with the increased gravity, the different air quality and the fact the planet is crawling with life. I really enjoyed the way the book flipped around this classic scenario.

    Another amazing post, Sarah. I really enjoyed this one as in my space
    opera, this is always there… the fact that everyone in space ships is
    one stupid move or unlucky breach from a sudden, agonising death. I really enjoyed the examples you gave us:)

    • Sara Letourneau

      Robinson Crusoe! It’s been ages since I read that book, so it didn’t even come to mind. But yes, that’s another great example of the “man and the natural world” theme. And in your space opera, the setting puts a whole new spin on the idea, since outer space is nothing like Earth and has its own dangers.

      Thanks as always for reading and commenting, Sarah. 🙂

  • Faith Rivens

    This is such a wonderfully well written article Sara! I love how you’ve explored so many different facets of nature. As Pirate Eyes is set mostly on the ocean, the element of water plays a great part in the narrative and Keira’s connection with the might of it allows for moments of wonder and hardship 🙂

    This past weekend, we rewatched the Lord of the Rings extended editions and you’re right about Fangorn Forest! My sister and I were commenting on how it’s still relevant today, the deforestation and man’s need to conquer nature and how nature often has a way of striking back!
    Thanks for sharing your insight! It’s always inspiring <3

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