By Deirdre Fanzo
Ecocriticism is a theory that grounds and stabilizes literature. Ecocritics argue that literature is not abstract or ethereal, but rather a definite and solid construction of the human mind that plays a significant role in human culture. According to these theorists, it is rudimentary to believe that human culture – or humanity as a whole – and their man-made, industrial environments exist as an opposing force to nature. They believe this binary is one that needs to be eliminated. People should rather view these two different environments as forces interacting with one another, coexisting, sometimes in harmony, and other times in terrible disarray.
Ecocriticism is a relatively new lens through which one can view and understand literary works. The word first appeared in William Rueckart’s 1978 essay, “Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism.” Ecocriticism is a way to study both literature and the environment by applying ecological concepts to a text and observing the way nature is portrayed in literary works. Rueckart considers the relationships between humans and the environment, as well as between a reader and a text, to be transfers of energy. In these separate transferals, humans and plants, readers and texts, both give and take. Humans give plants carbon dioxide, plants give humans oxygen. Readers give meaning to texts, texts impart a meaning or a message onto a reader. Readers must be aware of this flow of energy: they must understand that their relationship with literature is as real with their relationship with the environment. They must use literary texts and literary criticism as a way to display the human relationship with the outside world and encourage strong efforts to save and repair the environment. In a sense, ecocritics have to be “surface readers” – instead of digging deep to try and uncover what nature represents in a literary work, readers must accept nature at face value and let it exist as nothing other than itself.
Ecocriticism is a way to study both literature and the environment by applying ecological concepts to a text and observing the way nature is portrayed in literary works.
Ecocriticism is the opposite of what I will refer to as “Egocriticism.” Egocriticism is the human inclination to interpret non-human objects in texts as reminiscent of, or symbolic of, humanity or human-specific concepts. There are few words in the English language that are purely words to describe or explain nature or land forms. We use words like vein, limb, shelf, column. spit, fork, basin, trough, cap, and belt. All of those words are related in that they’re given context or meaning only through their relation to humanity. They are words that hail from such human sources as the body, buildings and industry, tools and utensils, and clothing. Humans have a tendency to use language that pertains to themselves and their own customs when describing very non-human things, which then encourages non-human objects to be read as a symbol for something related to humanity instead of exactly what it is.
Egocriticism is the human inclination to interpret non-human objects in texts as reminiscent of, or symbolic of, humanity or human-specific concepts.
I will demonstrate an example of both an Egocritical and Ecocritical reading of William Wordsworth’s poem “Nutting.”
Egocritical: In his poem, Wordsworth uses both feminine and masculine features to describe the clearing where the narrator finds himself. He uses the words “tall and erect” to describe the hazel trees, comparing their strong form to that of a man (l. 20). Wordsworth calls the clearing “a virgin scene” and describes what the narrator sees as “voluptuous” and compares it to a banquet: the narrator is clearly enticed (ll. 21-25). In this sense, the woods represent a woman in the narrator’s life, one who he may be in love with. There is serenity as the narrator relishes in the calmness and beauty of the clearing. However, this calm does not last: masculinity overpowers femininity. Wordsworth writes “Then up I rose, And dragged to earth both branch and bough, with crash And merciless ravage” (ll 43-45). This scene depicts man’s rape of nature, destroying her for no reason other than because he is able to. He displays to her that he is powerful and can do to her as he pleases. It is possible that the woman who these woods represent may have scorned the narrator’s advances, and he became upset and frustrated and responded to this very negatively. The immediate afterthought of the narrator is that he is sorry, a clear connection to an abusive relationship in which a man harms his lover, and feels instantaneous regret. He next approaches the clearing “with gentle hand” and states that it was wrong of him to do this because “there is a spirit in the woods” (55-56). This humanizes the clearing, and makes the narrator’s previous actions even more atrocious.
Ecocritical: In Wordsworth’s poem “Nutting.” the narrator has a clear lack of appreciation and respect for nature. The narrator uses phrases such as “fairy water-breaks,” “sparkling foam,” and “green stones That, fleeced with moss, under the shady trees, Lay round me” to describe the beauty and serenity of this clearing (ll. 19-23). However, despite the peace that this clearing offers, the man does not find satisfaction in it. For little to no reason, the narrator says “Then up I rose, And dragged to earth both branch and bough, with crash And merciless ravage” (ll 43-45). The actions of the narrator are reminiscent of the violence that man shows nature; it is almost as though the identity of the narrator is unimportant, and it could be any person committing these acts. The clearing was beautiful and serene until man arrived. After his arrival, the clearing, once lush and beautiful, was destroyed. This is similar to the relationship that humanity as a whole has with nature. Forests are destroyed at man’s will to make room for industry and urbanization. Nature, in this case, is a victim. The poem exposes nature as a sufferer at the hands of man. At the end of the poem, the narrator realizes what he has done is wrong. However, the destruction has already occurred and is completely irreversible. We, as readers, must recognize the destruction of nature in everyday life and fight to end this before it is too late for nature as a whole.
The first (Egocritical) reading displays a reader’s interpretation of the clearing as the representation of a woman present in the narrator’s life. Rather than reading the poem as an attack on nature, the reader interprets it as a man attacking a woman – or a man attacking something which represents a woman. The second (Ecocritical) reading approaches the poem by observing the narrator’s violence towards nature. Nature, in this reading, is not a symbol, but rather nature itself. He stands in for all of humanity, and his destruction of the clearing showcases the fact that nature is a victim and we need to fight harder to protect and take care of it.