Silent Spring | Study Guide

Rachel Carson

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Silent Spring | Chapter 11 : Beyond the Dreams of the Borgias | Summary



Spraying is not the only threat of environmental contamination. Across the life span, humans are subjected to repeated exposures to chemicals, leading to a progressive buildup in the body. Most are unaware this is happening. Carson argues medicines and poisons have traditionally been respected as dangerous and in need of careful use. However, poisonous chemicals are commonly used in the home. In the kitchen much food has been exposed to DDT; washing and cooking does not negate the effects of the poison. Many lawn and garden products contain harmful chemicals, yet homeowners seem oblivious to the dangers.

Carson anticipates the reader's question, "Doesn't the government protect us?" She explains the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only regulates interstate commerce and the staff is small. Carson points out laboratory tests measure effects in highly controlled conditions. But in real life the human being experiences a "piling up of chemicals from many different sources."

Carson's proposed solution is to stop tolerating the use of highly toxic chemicals. She suggests sufficiently staffing governmental agencies so they can adequately look out for the safety of the public. In addition, she calls for education of the public concerning the dangers of chemicals and research into alternatives.


In the previous chapter Carson makes the case humans are impacted by the use of pesticides. In this chapter she extends her claims, showing humans are not only exposed to harmful chemicals sprayed from the air. Rather, chemicals are, in fact, surrounding readers in their homes, from before birth to death. Carson compares dripping water that wears away stone to the buildup of chemicals in the human body.

Carson characterizes the danger as if it has a life of its own, and she makes this point repeatedly. She refers to "this spreading contamination," as if chemicals contaminate through a will of their own. "These hazards of course follow the purchaser right into his home," she writes, portraying the chemicals as a villain. This villain pursues an unsuspecting victim who is "lulled by the soft sell and the hidden persuader."

She invokes the image of household tools common to all, such as the garden hose and the lawn mower. These tools were "once innocuous" but are now "fitted with devices for the dissemination of pesticides." In this the unsuspecting consumers see themselves as participating in the destruction. Granted they have been unaware, but given the information provided by Carson, they are no longer able to claim blissful ignorance.

The title of the chapter, "Beyond the Dreams of the Borgias," is dark, referring to a Renaissance Italian family known for their power, greed, and treachery. They are notably remembered for poisoning guests for political purposes. Of this family John Burchard said, "Who could fail to be horrified by the ... terrible, monstrous acts of lechery that are committed openly in his home, with no respect for God or man?" Carson, however, does not leave her reader in despair. She shows there are solutions. First and foremost, she argues, readers must stop tolerating the poisons that are foisted on them. She views education as a necessary component—something she is doing with this book. And finally, she urges the seeking out of alternatives, which she argues are viable and underexplored.

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