Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver gives insight into climate change through a fictional story of a young wife and mother, Dellarobia, who changes both her own future and the future of the monarch butterflies. Using environmental facts, social construct, and symbolism, Kingsolver shows a variety of themes, the most developed of which is her use of the monarch butterflies to mirror Dellarobia’s life. Even more than a mirror, Dellarobia and the monarch butterflies are intertwined in such a way that they depend on each other for survival and progression.
Kingsolver begins her symbolism in the very first chapter of Flight Behavior when describing Dellarobia. She writes of “a woman with flame-colored hair who marched uphill to meet her demise” (1). This is undoubtedly referring to the color of the monarch butterflies that appear a short time later in the novel, and also play a central role in the development of the plot and mirror of Dellarobia. The monarch butterflies are also thought to be facing the end of their lives, and possibly the end of their species. Kingsolver also writes, “The shame and loss would infect her children too” (1). This line comes at a time in the book when Dellarobia treks up a mountainside to commit adultery. This generational effect speaks both to the social stigma her children would face if the community discovered her affair and also to the migration and life patterns of the flocks of monarchs, who pass on the responsibility to their young.
Dellarobia’s entire life is much like the life of the monarch butterflies in several ways. An unexpected pregnancy caused her to get married at age seventeen, and she had stood by that decision for eleven years. Much like Dellarobia, the monarchs were driven to migrate by an internal force to secure their survival. Though they did not migrate to the correct place, they stayed there in diapause, waiting for the next internal signal to make their next move. Both Dellarobia and the monarch butterflies waited for the right time to move on, while facing the hardships along the way.
As the butterflies wait it out in the wrong environment, many of them die off due to the cold weather they cannot survive in. This is a great mirror of Dellarobia’s own life. Dellarobia stayed in a lackluster marriage half-heartedly for many years for unknown reasons, but as time passed, parts of her died. Her long-lasting relationship with Cub, her husband, grew stale and stagnant, seen here, “She stared at Cub, trying to find holy matrimony in there, pushing her way back through the weeds as she always did” (39). As the passion in her marriage dwindled to mere tolerance, her passion for the new butterfly visitors strengthened and became a pathway to a greater cause.
Her enthusiasm for saving the butterflies blossomed, and eventually led to a job for Dellarobia, giving her the opportunity to both save the monarchs and to create a way for her to succeed. The job was accepted, but not without careful deliberation. Her worry about the social stigma she would face is apparent in the in the dialogue between Dellarobia and her friend, Dovey. “’Cub wouldn’t want me working,’ she said. ‘With the kids and everything. Can you imagine what Hester would say?’” (190). In Dellarobia’s metaphorical diapause, this new job is symbolic of the resilience of the strong butterflies who patiently waited for their moment of departure, saving up energy reserves through the hostile winter months. The urge to survive against all odds is a major component of both the butterflies’ lives and Dellarobia’s.
Unfortunately, survival was not a possibility for millions of the monarch butterflies, unable to sustain themselves through the harsh Appalachian winter. However, the remainder of the species who fared well in the new environment was strong enough to eventually depart, driven once again by the internal, natural clock to migrate. This is much like Dellarobia’s own life, as she starts to realize that her current situation is not the right one for her. The doubts and concerns of Dellarobia about her marriage culminate in a final trial, the saving of a newborn lamb. After saving the lamb, Dellarobia repeats, “It wasn’t all a waste,” a simple phrase about her relationship and life for the past eleven years (419). It is at this time she realizes that she must move on from her marriage for the sake of herself and her children.
Extensive symbolism surrounds Dellarobia’s choice to move on past an unsuccessful marriage into the next stage of her life. A late spring snow prior to the birthing of the lamb symbolizes the new opportunities and life that Dellarobia will have going forward. Kingsolver notes this foreshadowing, writing, “Despite the biological treachery of this snow, its beauty moved her. Even a field of mud and sheep droppings could be rewritten as a clean slate” (412). This alludes to the terrible end of a marriage, but the beauty of a new and better life.
Beyond the scope of Dellarobia’s marriage, the snow also brings a happy time, as Preston, Dellarobia’s son, discovers that the butterflies are preparing to migrate again. “She knelt with Preston on his unmade bed and looked out the window and saw what he saw, a bud colony on the neighbors’ dead peach orchard… Theoretically this meant they were ready to launch out” (420-421). This excerpt comes right before Dellarobia breaks the news of the divorce and their new life to Preston. The lives of the monarchs and Dellarobia are at the same stage; they must migrate with their offspring to a better place.
Though the migration is a positive step forward for both Dellarobia and the butterflies, it is also an extremely uncertain one. The monarchs will continue to migrate and venture into territory unknown to their species, adapting to new obstacles they may face. Their next destination is unknown, but they know they must leave. Such is the life of Dellarobia and her children. We see at the end of the novel an example of how unstable the world can be as a flood destroys the home they had lived in for years as a family. The flood is the final push for both the butterflies and Dellarobia. Kingsolver eloquently writes, “The shards of a wrecked generation had rested alive like a heartbeat in trees, snow-covered, charged with resistance. Now the sun blinked open on a long impossible time, and here was the exodus” (433).
The ability of Kingsolver to use symbolism as a base for the plot of her novel is remarkable. This elaborate symbolism also creates a relevant and enjoyable novel that lends itself to spreading awareness. To have every aspect of the life of the monarch butterfly intertwined into the main characters own life, both literally and figuratively, shows the very real fact that nature and man work in harmony . Flight Behavior creates a way for the realm of environmental awareness and the everyday lives of people to intersect in a way that encourages the readers to look further into climate change.
Kingsolver, Barbara. Flight Behavior. New York: HarperCollins, 2012. Print