The Once-ler is his own worst critic.
In revealing the dirty secrets from his past, he confesses to almost single-glovedly destroying the forest, turning a blind eye to the suffering of its critters, and ruining his own business.
But before we start to Tweet nasty things about the guy, remember that there's a twist. At the end of the story, we learn that this compulsive knitter feels really bad about what he did, and wants to try to make things right. With that, he gives a boy the last Truffula seed and instructions on how to use it to regrow the forest.
Who's the Boss?
In "What's up With the Ending?" we ask ourselves (and you) why he didn't just plant the seed himself. Here are a few more Once-ler-centric thoughts on that:
(1) Cut him some slack! He just didn't think of it until now. At the end of the story, he tells the boy, "Now that you're here,/ the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear," (246-47). Sometimes it takes the curious questions of a kid to see the bigger picture. Don't forget it.
(2) Maybe his shame holds him back. Look at how the Once-ler lives: he doesn't seem to go out, ever; he hides his face and even his body from the boy; he whispers his story through a snergelly hose and makes sure the boy keeps quiet about it. Oh, and he spends all his time knitting and worrying about the past.
What a waste. The Once-ler is (or was) a brilliant inventor—he could have invented something snazzy to help regrow the forest. But until the boy comes along, the Once-ler's shame and dissatisfaction with himself and his life keep him from taking the steps to make things right.
(3) After his colossal failure, maybe our guy just doesn't trust himself to undertake any further ventures. We all know that feeling, right?
As a young man, the Once-ler is like an MBA candidate with a dream. He has an intense drive to succeed, and he works tirelessly on his Thneed business. In fact, this business is the Once-ler's raison d'etre, and he doesn't intend to quit any time soon:
"I intend to go on doing just what I do!
And for your information, you Lorax, I'm figgering
We have no problem with being driven. In fact, the boy in the story will need some drive himself to make the Once-ler's new dreams come true. But hopefully he has learned from the Once-ler not to lose sight of other important things (like the needs of others) in our quest to be the best.
Let's face it: the Once-ler is brilliant. If he can't do something himself, he builds a machine to help him. Sure, most of his inventions are designed to help him produce, promote, and distribute the Thneed, but we have to give him props for his creativity.
(Quick invention interruption: we do hear about some of his other inventions, like the radio-phone and the Super Axe-Hacker. But some of his other inventions we only see. How awesome are illustrated books?)
All this inventing gets pretty ironic. Smart as he is, the Once-ler's tunnel vision keeps him from inventing what he really needs: a machine to get Truffula Tufts without chopping down the whole tree. In his shortsightedness, he just doesn't consider the possibility of running out of Truffula Trees.
Hmm, it sounds like there might be a lesson in there. Okay, yep, we found it. The Once-ler reminds us (and our little ones) of the importance of planning for the future. You never know when you'll run out of Truffula Trees.
If He Had a Middle Name, It Would Be Greed
Dr. Seuss pretty much hits us over the head with this one. From the get-go, the Lorax accuses the Once-ler of being "crazy with greed" (110). Then he proceeds to gobble up every resource in the forest in order to "bigger" his business.
What's his end goal anyway? Money, right? But he doesn't even seem to want to buy anything with his money—all he does is work. No jet-setting or partying for this guy. It's more about a need for greed.
Does the Once-ler get less greedy after the Great Truffula Extinction? We're not really sure. On the one hand, he has the Snuvv, the hole in his glove where he hides the money the boy pays for the story. That kind of says it all. Plus, he's now greedy for some other things, too: fresh air, cute fuzzy animals, birdies and fishies. He's even greedy for his old nemesis, the Lorax. But on the other hand, if he were really, really greedy, he would have just moved on to another forest after he used up this one, and continued biggering. Why does he just stay in the mess he made?
The issue of greed is far from simple when it comes to the Once-ler. Same goes for our own society, right? We are still trying to figure out how to, if you will, be greedy responsibly. The beauty of Dr. Seuss is that you can keep it simple, or get really deep. The issue of greed is a good way to look at the complex way the Once-ler changes (or does he?) after he destroys the forest and his business goes caput.
What's in a Name?
Yep, the Once-ler is actually his name. His family members are also named Once-ler, but without the "the," it seems. Are you thrilled yet?
So if a teacher teaches and a Shmooper shmoops, that means a Once-ler… once-les? Yep, that's right. He once-les. And in Seuss world, that means he tells stories about the past. You know, once upon a time… But wait a second. The Once-ler didn't always once-le—he used to be a man of action. He was all about acting fast, on impulse, without thinking things through. Sounds like he just had to grow into his name.
Whatever the case, his name (with its oh-so-ominous sound) stresses the fact that he spends a lot of time with his past. It doesn't make complete sense, but hey, we're in a Seuss book. It's a little brainteaser and a signature kind of Seussy effect that we love so much.
P.S. Since we never see his face, we're glad the Once-ler has so much else going for him—otherwise Shmoop would be out of luck. And so would you.