The Overstory

The Overstory Literary Elements


Fiction, Environmental Fiction

Setting and Context

New York, California, Oregon, The Cascades, and more; turn of the 20th century-early 2000s

Narrator and Point of View

There is an omniscient, third-person narrator speaking for numerous main characters, including both people and trees

Tone and Mood

The vastness of the novel and the multiplicity of the characters precludes simple answers to these, so multiple examples will have to suffice.

Tone: exultant, anxious, empathetic, self-assured, nostalgic, incredulous, mournful, foreboding, meditative

Mood: determined, enthralled, liberated, enlightened, crushed, fatalistic, uncomfortable, exhausted

Protagonist and Antagonist

Protagonists: The nine main characters; the trees Antagonists: the logging companies, corporations, the government, the human race

Major Conflict

This is not straightforward, as the work is so vast and diffused, but a major conflict is whether or not the various activists/coders/scientists/lawyers can make any real progress in forestalling the tremendous damage done to the natural world.

Also, there is a major conflict in each narrative:
-Will Nick and Olivia make a difference with their activism? How will Nick find meaning after her death?
-Will Adam understand what makes the activists tick, and will he truly be part of their ranks?
-Will Douglas make a difference with his activism, and will he find meaning in his life?
-Will Mimi come to terms with her father's death, will she make a difference, and will she find a way to live with what she's done?
-Will Patricia's research change the scientific, and wider, world? Will her knowledge of trees influence others?
-Will Neelay create the game he has always wanted to—a game that heeds the spectral voices of the trees? Will his mental and intellectual worlds make up for his limited physical one?
-Will Ray and Dorothy make their marriage last and find meaning within it, even when trauma strikes?


The most likely contender for this is Olivia's death during the botched act of eco-terrorism, and the subsequent scattering of Mimi, Nick, and Douglas.


1. Shouying tells his son, "The Communists will be here in six months. Then all of us . . . " (25) This foreshadows Mao's triumph and the purging of the wealthy and the bourgeoisie
2. Mimi means to write her parents but it slips her mind, which foreshadows the death of her father (41)
3. "These people are nothing to Plant-Patty. And yet their lives have long been connected, deep underground" (132)
4. When Olivia touches the dying chestnut, which Nick calls a "dying god" (177), this foreshadows the death of Mimas
5. Patricia senses her anonymity will never be the same again (224), foreshadowing her eventual fame and even notoriety
6. Ray thinks that there is something still yet to happen with him and Dorothy, some reason why they are still together; this foreshadows their individual and joint healing by the end of the novel (310)
7. Powers foreshadows the fate of the eco-terrorists when he says, subtly and pointedly, as if there was little hope of this ridiculously optimistic plan happening: "One more. It must be the last. Then they'll go their separate ways, having done what little they could to stop the race from killing itself" (345)


1. When Patricia asks her father what happened to the trees, her father simply replies, "We did" (114)
2. When Mimi is fired, the man sent to help her pack up her things, watch her, etc., says, "My name is Brendan Smith. I'm here to assist your transition from the company" (312)
3. Powers describes Olivia's painful and traumatic death as "softening into whatever happens next" (352)


1. Thoreau (5): Henry David Thoreau, 19th century American philosopher and writer of "Walden" and "Civil Disobedience"
2. "Back in Brooklyn, a poet-nurse to the Union dying writes . . . " (8): This is Walt Whitman
3. Trajan's Column (9): a 2nd century AD column in Rome commemorating Trajan's victory in the Dacian Wars
4. Wang Wei, a Chinese poet from the Tang Dynasty; known for his humanistic expression; worked in the capital
5. "It has to be destroyed, like the ring that must be thrown into the volcano's caldera" (46): Lord of the Rings
6. Dorothy plays Lady Macbeth and Ray plays Macduff, characters from Shakespeare's play "Macbeth;" Ray also marvels at the scene when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane
7. Douglas mentions "Charlie," an allusion to the term used to describe the Viet Cong (83)
8. Gilgamesh and Enkidu, characters from the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of humankind's first texts (88)
9. Moore's Law is, according to, "a computing term which originated around 1970; the simplified version of this law states that processor speeds, or overall processing power for computers will double every two years" (96)
10. "Every man should be capable of all ideas, / and I believe in the future he shall be" (98) is a Jorge Luis Borges quote
11. Auguste Rodin's sculpture "The Burghers of Calais"(1884-95) is commonly seen as a representation of freedom from oppression and standing up against tyranny (109)
12. "Her public reputation, like Demeter's daughter, crawls back up from the underworld" (140): Demeter's daughter is Persephone, who lives with Hades and only emerges during the spring
13. "It seems most of nature isn't red in tooth and claw, after all" (142): a reference to the famous description of nature, especially used in Tennyson's "In Memoriam"
14. "Surreal Cornell boxes" (174) is an allusion to the artist Joseph Cornell, who made intricate and intimate boxes filled with objects
15. Methuselah (196): a figure who lived hundreds of years in the Bible
16. Patricia thinks, "The woods are calling, and she must go" (217): an allusion to John Muir's famous quote
17. "All around them spreads a phantasmagoric, Ordovician fairy tale" (260): The Ordovician Period is a period of geologic time that followed the Cambrian Period. It spans 485.4 mya to 443.8 mya.
18. Mimi compares the man "helping" her pack up her things when she is fired to the angel in front of the gates of Eden after Adam and Eve have been kicked out (314)


Powers's imagery is most powerful when it is of the natural world: the trees that talk and grow and sustain each other, that warn and whisper, that give life to every creature. His trees are magnificent sentinels, terrifying relics of the ancient days, emblems of tragedy in their desiccated states, and givers of life and meaning to nature and human beings alike. They are very much alive and are presented as characters themselves.


1. "If you would learn the secrets of Nature, you must practice more humanity . . . " (5)
2. Douglas says of wood, "Cheapest priceless stuff that ever has been" (185)
3. Ray writes, "the proposal is bound to sound odd or frightening or laughable. This is partly because until the rightless thing receives its rights, we cannot see it as anything but a thing for the use of 'us'—those who are holding the rights at the time" (250)


1. There is a parallel between the tree names that the environmentalists choose for themselves and the trees that have made the most impact upon them.
2. Patricia's relationship with her father is paralleled in that with the judge, who also questions her and lets her expand and grow and be her best self (284)
3. The Prince in "War and Peace" is paralyzed, on his back in the middle of battle, unable to do anything else but look at the sky; this parallels what has happened to Ray, to whom Dorothy is reading that novel (372)

Metonymy and Synecdoche



1. "Death races across Connecticut and Massachusetts, jumping dozens of miles a year" (12)
2. "But Now, that next best of times, is long, and rewrites everything" (31)
3. "The question sinks down 571's [Douglas's] spine and settles into his bowels" (76)
4. "High school tries to kill [Patricia]" (118)
5. "Science, in [Patricia's] absence, has gone as crazy as she always thought it should be" (139)
6. "You'll want to learn what your work's been up to, while you were gone" (Henry to Patricia, 140)
7. "The sky does amazing things. It bruises a little in the freedom of the west, while to the east it splits open like a pomegranate" (171)
8. "[Neelay's] mind has been waiting for such a playground since he fell from his betraying tree" (225)
9. "In the dark-paneled courtroom, [Patricia's] words come out of hiding" (283)