Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

This post was contributed by Kaitlin Mondello, Ph.D.

Core Text

Kingsolver, Barbara. Flight Behavior (New York: Harper Collins, 2012).


This novel imagines that the Monarch butterflies’ annual spring migration to Mexico is disrupted by climate change in an event that forever changes the life of the main character, Dellarobia Turnbow. Set in Appalachia, the novelist’s current residence, the novel explores tensions between scientists, environmental activists, and poor rural communities over climate change. This novel is unique for its intimate portrait of these groups and is both sympathetic to and critical of each of them: passionate scientists struggle to make their work accessible to the public; activists are well-intentioned but out of touch with those living lifestyles completely different from their urban, middle-to-upper class backgrounds; and the people in the town are distrustful of the previous groups claiming that climate change is real when they are focused on their own daily struggles. Dellarobia’s emotional and intellectual awakening is seamlessly interwoven into the story of the butterflies without making nature into a mere symbol; rather, Kingsolver registers the personally disruptive events in Dellarobia’s life against the broader global disruptions of climate change and the effects on this species of butterfly. Kingsolver lays significant groundwork for the novel’s main characters before climate change becomes the clear focus of the novel as Dellarobia comes to confront this reality through meeting Ovid Byron, the leading scientific expert on the Monarch butterflies. The novel is deeply engaged with why people resist climate change, and offers a sympathetic portrayal of the struggle to accept and act on this knowledge.

Teaching Resources

  • Climate Change Takes Flight In New Novel. Talk of the Nation: Science Friday, Nov 9, 2012. In this Science Friday Interview (25 minutes), Kingsolver discusses her novel, in particular the research that went into it, her own background in the sciences, the need for writing about climate change and the power of fiction for this, the divide between the sciences and the humanities, etc.
  • Bartosch, Roman. “Scale, Climate Change, and the Pedagogic Potential of Literature: Scaling (in) the Work of Barbara Kingsolver and T.C. Boyle.” Open Library of Humanities, 01 October 2018, Vol.4(2). “This article discusses recent work in the environmental humanities on the role of scale and what Timothy Clark describes as ‘scale disorder’ when encountering imaginative engagements with the Anthropocene. With readings of Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘Flight Behaviour’ (2012) and T.C. Boyle’s ‘The Terranauts’ (2016), it suggests that the ‘scaling of perspectives’ is a viable and productive way of dealing with the representational and interpretive challenges of climate change (and) fiction. Drawing on the notion that literature can be seen as a specific form of cultural ecology, as developed by Hubert Zapf, it presents a concept of transcultural ecology that thrives on the tensions inherent in scale disorder and climate change imaginaries. These findings will be described with regard to the pedagogic potential of reading fiction as an attempt to come to terms with climate change.”
  • Houser, Heather. “Knowledge Work and the Commons in Barbara Kingsolver’s and Ann Pancake’s Appalachia,” Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 63.1 (Spring 2017): pp. 95-115. This article focuses on two novels: “Flight Behavior and Strange outline three phases of the commons: a longstanding history of working to gain sustenance from the woods and accruing knowledge about ecological processes that depended on open access to the land, a moment in the near past when residues of these practices endured even under increasing enclosure, and a twenty-first-century moment when enclosed land became common through activism and research as a response to its threat and extinction. As women challenge domesticity and resist privatization and surplus extraction, they make the land ripe for knowledge work that melds scientific and experiential epistemologies.”

Discussion Questions

1. Consider the novel’s title and Kingsolver’s use of chapter titles throughout the novel. What patterns and shifts emerge? How do the title and the chapter titles link Dellarobia’s story to that of the migrating butterflies? How are they related?

2. Trace Dellarobia’s development as a character through the novel. In what ways does she change and grow? What risks does she have to take to do this?

3. Class and education play a significant role in the novel. In what ways do these affect the characters, including the Turnbow family and Ovid and Juliet Emerson Byron. What parallels and tensions are drawn between Dellarobia, her son Preston, Ovid Byron, and his team of scientists?