Leiningen Versus the Ants Summary & Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 22-page guide for the short story “Leiningen Versus the Ants” by Carl Stephenson includes detailed a summary and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 15 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Rationalism Versus Nature and Western Science Versus Shamanism.
Viennese author Carl Stephenson (1893-after 1960) published “Leiningen Versus the Ants” in the December 1938 issue of Esquire magazine. Stephenson, who often wrote under the pseudonym “Stefan Sorel,” translated the story into English himself. Stephenson wrote and edited prose from 1954-1967, verifying that he likely died sometime in the 1960s. His death date is often confused with that of the American historian and leading medieval scholar, Carl Stephenson.
The story opens with Leiningen, a plantation owner in Brazil, talking to the District Commissioner, who is warning the planter to leave before a troupe of flesh-eating ants—“ intelligence” (Paragraph 4) to fend off the hungry horde of ants. He also believes that he’s lived in Brazil long enough to know how to defend himself, his 400 workers, and his plantation against the fearsome insects.
That evening, Leiningen gathers his plantation workers and tells them that the ants will soon arrive. The workers—all of whom are indigenous people—listen calmly, “unafraid” and “alert” (Paragraph 10). They are confident in their boss’s wisdom. The ants arrive the next afternoon. The horses first sense the insects’ arrival, becoming “scarcely controllable now in stall or under rider” (Paragraph 11). Then “a stampede of animals” (Paragraph 12), big and small, rushes from the jungle—stags, lizards, jaguars, cattle, and monkeys—to escape the oncoming ants. The animals run along the riverbank and then disappear.
Leiningen, however, has prepared for the ants by constructing a “water-filled ditch” (Paragraph 14) in the shape of a horseshoe. The ditch empties into the river. He’s also built a dam, which allows him to reroute water from the river into the 12-foot ditch. Leiningen plans to open the dam, allowing river water to flood around the plantation. This would create a kind of moat, supposedly making it impossible for the ants to reach him and the workers. For further protection, Leiningen cuts the branches of large tamarind trees that hang over the ditch, making it so that the ants cannot use the branches as a bridge to the moat. He then ferries women, children, and cattle to safety across the river on rafts. Lastly, he inspects “a smaller ditch lined with concrete” (Paragraph 18), which receives petrol from three large tanks. If the ants somehow get across the water, they would also have to get past the petrol, which would kill them.
Leiningen orders some workers to line up along the water ditch to keep a look-out. Meanwhile, he rests in his hammock, puffing on a pipe. A worker alerts him that the ants are some distance to the south. Leiningen rises, mounts his horse, and rides south. Over the hills, he spies “a darkening hem” (Paragraph 21), going from east to west for 20-square miles. The natives watch, increasingly uncertain about Leiningen’s ability to defeat the ants. They spy “thousands of millions of voracious jaws” (Paragraph 23). The ants get closer to the water ditch. Then, two flanking sides of the advancing ant army “ down the eastern and western sides of the ditch” (Paragraph 25). Both Leiningen and the natives sense that the ants, as primitive as they are, are thinking about how best to reach them and gnaw at their flesh.
At four o’clock that afternoon, the flanking armies of ants reach the ends of the ditch that run into the river and are unable to find a way over. They decide to cross the water. The ants that die in the river become “steppingstones” (Paragraph 30) for those that can still crawl across. Leiningen orders a couple of his workers to dam the river “more strongly” (Paragraph 31) so that more water…