EcoCriticism Theory in Literature: Introduction & Analysis
“The poetry of earth is never dead”
Poets die; genres change or modify; writing style sees many changes over time; literary trends might change usually… however, the poetry of earth did never die; cannot die ever! This belief of John Keats was justified. Earth has seen ages; the earth has seen civilizations emerging and dying; the earth has seen bombings; the earth has seen disasters… it still stays. Anytime you feel claimed by the rush of this modern lifestyle, you feel like retiring to your ‘farmhouse’ and spend some time in the lap of nature (am I right?). This feeling towards nature, whether reflected by the poets or the novelists, made the creative writers ‘Romantic’ and when this feeling turned itself into a critical faculty of the intellectuals, it became Eco-Criticism (Ecocriticism) or Green Studies. There are several studies in this field which tend to highlight that it emerged as a trend in literary studies only after the 1980s in the USA and early 1990s in the UK. So, what is EcoCriticism? What does one mean by Green Studies? What is the relevance of these terms today? Let’s analyse these aspects, and this paper is an attempt in the same direction. I hope I will be able to make it easy for the students to construe the theory and sustain what they learn here.
What is EcoCriticism?
In the simplest possible terms, ‘Eco Criticism is the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment.’ It was proposed by the pioneer or the father of this theory in the USA, Cheryll Glotfelty. And I hope, even if this EcoCriticism or Green studies as a theory is not so popular, those who are curious in this field must be knowing it already. The study of nature as presented in the pieces of literature is what that has been the playground of the people concerned with this rather new movement in literary theories. As per the term Eco-Criticism, it only came into the major play after the attempts of Cheryll Glotfelty, right since the 1989 WLA (Western Literature Association) conference. Glotfelty urged the scholars to use this term to refer to the belt of studies which was previously popular as the study of green writing. It was his effort in the USA that Eco Criticism became popular as a theory with this name. Scholars also trace it back to 1978 William Rueckert’s essay and also Karl Kroeber’s back in 1974. However, the lion’s share, no doubt, rests with Cheryll!
EcoCriticism as a literary theory:
The easiest way to understand this trend in literary theories would be to learn what these people do. As you must be aware that traditional theories in literature put emphasis either on linguistics or on the cultural and social background, the Eco-Critics put all the weight on the ‘nature’ and believe that nature exists as a force which affects our evolution directly as a society. For the intellectuals involved in the development of ‘green studies’ the world is not (only, if not entirely) made of language and social ‘elements’. They tend to bring out the part which nature plays – either in writings or in general purview. However, as it entered into the field of literary theory, a part bifurcated and established itself as solely devoted wing concerned with the (re)reading of literary texts and bringing out the role of nature, representation of nature and natural elements in the literature produced worldwide. It’s a fact that the major foci of green studies intellectuals are the regional literature of different places as we know it contains a lot of fusion of nature. Nevertheless, the well-known authors, poets and literary figures always remain the central source which feeds the thoughts and findings of these studies.
What do the EcoCritics do?
Well, that’s a question I would always suggest my readers to turn to Peter Barry for an answer. The book Beginning Theory by Peter Barry is a great tool, if I may say, to understand the literary theories. The chapter given in the book that deals with EcoCriticism is way advanced and comprehensive than most of the other items I have read on the subject. I will follow his style and would let you know what does an Ecocentric reader or the Eco-Critic do.
As an Eco-Critic, a person would:
1. Read or re-read the major as well as other works of literature with a viewfinder to trace the natural representation in the writing.
2. Praise the authors, poets and intellectuals who put nature on a higher pedestal than other themes.
3. Give importance to the writings with an eco-centric perspective, such as, travel memoirs, essays about places, intellectual writings containing visual landscape in text etc.
4. Not conform to the traditional notions of literary theory that suggests linguistic or the social build and thus walking through the classic lane of ‘world beyond ourselves’.
Now, I will try to simplify the works of the Eco-Critics. They don’t simply give importance and read the literature from an ecocentric perspective. They look for the natural representation, no doubt, but, in rather a larger perspective. Life in proportion to nature, human civilization along with nature, importance of natural resources in our lives, our deeds which harm the ecological balance, wars and their adverse effect on our society, and many other things come within the purview of an ecocentric reading of literature. As rightly observed by Peter Barry:
“The ecocentric reading, by contrast, focuses outside, on the house and its environs, rather than the inside, on the owner and his psychology.”
The practices of ecocriticism tend to give more importance to the people like Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, Thomas Hardy and other Romantic Poets (mostly British). There is a public domain understanding behind this because we all know these literary figures gave more importance to nature and its role in life than any other thing. Wordsworth, for instance, always subscribed to the notion that nature is the best teacher. His seminal work, Prelude, is full of the illustrious role of nature in human upbringing. Ecocritics work to trace those examples and present it to the common readers.
As a reader or a student curious about the theory of Ecocriticism, you can also work out to bring out the most exemplary instances. For a simple instance, suppose the novels of Thomas Hardy, Under the Greenwood Tree, Far from the Madding Crowd and others as your subject. His novels are also called the Wessex Novels. His novels are set in the lap of nature and you will see it playing an important role. His characters grow with nature, mature with nature and eventually die with it. In simple terms, nature, as an active force in our life, is permanent and our life is ephemeral in a sense! Thus, giving more importance to nature and preserving it becomes our moral duty. Another great example of the permanence of nature is the poem Rainbow by William Wordsworth. I will let the task of inquiring into it and bringing out the element which suggests nature is permanent to you. Hope you will find it easily.
Major figures in the field:
Jonathan Bate (considered widely as the father of Ecocriticism in England)
Cheryll Glotfelty (father of Ecocriticism in the USA)
Patrick D Murphy
The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism by Laurence Coupe
The Song of the Earth by Jonathan Bate
The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology by Cheryll Glotfelty
Literature of Nature: An International Source-book by Patrick D. Murphy
What is Nature? Culture, Politics, and the Non-Human by Kate Soper