Analyzing the Text
The list characterizes nature as uncaring, unsentimental, ascribed meaning only by man (9). The degree of man’s influence on the portrait of nature grows according to the development of the list. The list structures the argument because it is a point by point path of how her argument will develop in the essay.
Oates uses this narrative to introduce the topic and to take the reader, along with the narrator, “out of time” (26). She therefore opens up the text for an analysis of nature.
She realizes that the earth is “hard, emphatic…a genuine force”(48-9) and that the sky is “blank…empty” (70-71) and infinite (75). Together, these two forces make the narrator feel very small and insignificant.
The idea is that Thoreau attempts to depersonalize himself by depersonalizing Nature. He finds the beauty in the impersonal death/violence of Nature but then is incredibly human himself through the death of his brother. Oates’ tone, which is aggressive and to the point, echoes the highly personal note — proving her argument that men are not impersonal, unlike nature which is “coolly detached” (199-200).
Writers and artists perpetuate “nature-as-experience” rather than “nature-as-itself” by filtering nature “through our optical nerves…our fiercely romantic expectations. Nature that pleases us because it mirrors our souls” (141-3). Poets and writers glamorize, “exaggerate the significance of anything we focus the white heat of our creativity upon” (150-1). This helps them feel more important.
The ants represent words about nature, or the tools for Oates to write her poem about Spring. It bookends the narrative at the beginning by putting the narrator back in time, instead of out of time — and so bringing the reader back to the present reality, after having engaged in abstracted thought brought on by the first narrative.
It is effective as literary criticism because it pulls in examples from other recognized literary authorities to both prove and disprove her argument about nature. She shows, through the use of literary sources, how poets/writers talk about nature in a self-reflecting way. The structure follows the list placed in the beginning (in a type of road-map) and the two narratives open and close the philosophical discussion of the middle with some real experiences in nature.