The Lorax begins in a post-apocalyptic setting, a ravaged and desolate urban landscape. The illustrating shows a town at night, lit up with the lights of inhabitants, on a spooky, barren hill. A young boy approaches "The Street of the Lifted Lorax," and the story begins.
The boy pokes his head through the "Grickle-grass" to find a strange stump made out of bricks. This, the legend goes, was the old home of the Lorax, before somebody "lifted" it away. Next are a series of questions about the Lorax: what was it? Why was it there? The accompanying illustration betrays the home of some of the answers: the home of the old Once-ler, who is still alive.
But the Once-ler doesn't easily open up to strangers. The illustration shows a pair of eyes peeking out of a boarded-up window on the top floor of the Once-ler's home. If you pay him a motley assortment of valued items, the text notes, he will tell you his secrets by "Whisper-ma-Phone" so as to ensure no one else hears. The Once-ler lowers the Whisper-ma-Phone down and begins telling the story, although it is difficult to hear his strange voice over the phone.
As the story begins, the setting morphs and changes. The next illustration shows a verdant, lush land, full of "Truffula Trees." The Once-ler confides that he arrived to this land one day in the past, back when the Truffula Trees proliferated. There were animals, as well, in addition to trees: Brown Bar-ba-loots which, according to the illustration, looked like small scrappy monkeys. Humming-fish made loud, contented noises from the pond. The trees, the Once-ler admits, were the main attraction for him. They were soft and smelled sweetly. They inspired the Once-ler to stop his cart and open up a small shop. Next, he chopped down his first Truffula Tree and harvested the tuft. Out of the tuft he fashioned a garment: in the illustration it appears to be a long-sleeved, stretchy sort of unitard. The Once-ler named it a "Thneed."
But all of a sudden, when the Once-ler had finished making his first Thneed, he heard a sound. A small man popped out of the tree trunk he had just chopped down. The Once-ler describes him as "shortish," "oldish," "brownish," and "mossy," with a bossy voice. The illustration reveals a small creature, with a huge tufted mustache and whiskers above his eyes. He first appears hoisting himself up out of the chopped-down tree trunk. He introduces himself to the Once-ler as the Lorax, telling him that he speaks for the trees. Then, he becomes very upset, raising his voice and demanding to know what the Once-ler has done with his tree tuft. The Once-ler responds by placating the Lorax, telling him that he has only chopped down a single tree, and that he has made something very useful: a Thneed, or a multipurpose garment. The subsequent illustration shows the Lorax inspecting the Thneed skeptically. The Lorax is convinced no one will buy such a thing; until a man comes by the shop and promptly purchases the garment off of the Once-ler. In the illustration, the consumer wears a smart black suit. The Lorax is powerless to stop this transaction. Balancing precariously on the edge of the Once-ler's factory, he waves his arms and shouts again, "I speak for the trees!"—to no avail.
Dr. Seuss wrote The Lorax with the express intention of delivering a clear moral lesson to America's children. This goal clearly influences several aspects of the story. First, the protagonist of the story is a young boy, just old enough to wander off from the center of town on his phone, but child-like enough to innocently listen and absorb the lessons of the past. By creating a relatable protagonist for his audience of children, Dr. Seuss make the whole lesson relevant to them as well. Second, the structure by which the lesson unfolds is a typically moralizing one: an old wise recluse recounts a story to teach the new generation a lesson. By employing this familiar trope, Dr. Seuss strengthens his message of environmental conservation.
That message begins without hesitation: The Lorax opens in a clearly dystopic future. Indeed, Dr. Seuss's talent for vivid, fantastical imagery is on full display from the first page onwards. The invented "Grickle-grass," for example, employs alliteration and onomatopoeia to conjure the image of dense, scraggly, unappealing shrubs. The opening sentence, as well, employs the evocative phrase, "at the far end of town," immediately casting a decisively ominous tone over the story.
As is typical for Dr. Seuss's books, the illustrations work powerfully in conjunction with the text's imagery to create a vivid world. The illustrations on the opening pages depict saggy trees, a villainous-looking crow, and a gray-blue color palette. Even the Once-ler's home looks dilapidated and run-down. A droopy cactus perches on the roof, suggesting a dry, desert-like climate. These visual cues are the first to alert readers of the environmental destruction that has occurred in this place.
The Once-ler commences his story, and the landscape he describes is heart-wrenchingly different. The paradise that once-was is green, lush, and vibrant. Species such as smiling Humming Fish and playful Brown Bar-ba-loots thrive in harmony and without outside disturbance. The environment that the Once-ler describes is the epitome of the conservationist ideal: nature left alone, teeming with biodiversity, valuable for its pure, untainted beauty alone. The black-and-white contrast between the story's opening landscape in the present day, and this lush Eden, establishes a rigid moral conflict from the start. Nature is happy, innocent, and beautiful; whatever made the landscape dark and gloomy must be a sinister force.