Intro to Ecocriticism


Until this summer, I’d never heard of ecocriticism. Cheryll Glotfelty, one of the editors of The Ecocriticism Reader, offers a bit of a mission statement for the term in her introduction to the text.

She describes how critics from specific perspectives (feminist, Marxist, etc.) have unique approaches to texts that can affect how a culture at large understands and thinks about related issues. For example, feminism and the feminist movement have radically changed public discourse and opinion on what women can do and the rights they should have. Although as we’ve seen from annual VIDA Counts, we still have a long way to go in terms of making space for women’s voices, our representations of women have become more nuanced, and we can more easily find texts authored by women. We can also articulate why the absence of women authors and a lack of realistic portrayals of women are problematic.

Glotfelty argues for an ecological approach to literature, saying that without one, we are essentially claiming that nature, the environment, and climate change are neither relevant nor important to us. By reading through an ecocritical lens, we can better understand our relationship to nature, and, in turn, find productive ways to frame, discuss, and address problems of nature and the environment as a society.

I’ve been reading my way through some foundational texts and found Glotfelty’s comparison to feminist criticism to be helpful. She uses Elaine Showalter’s developmental stages of feminist criticism to illustrate ecocritical possibilities:

Stage 1 — Representation
– Feminist Criticism
Critics examine how women are traditionally portrayed in literature and identify stereotypes and absences.
– Ecocriticism
Critics examine how nature is portrayed in literature. What are the stereotypes (Eden, savage wilderness, virgin land, etc.), and when is nature absent? What does this reveal about our views of nature and the environment?

Stage 2 — Canon and Context
– Feminist Criticism
Critics examine work written by women, filling in gaps in both history and the canon. Work is reissued. The lives of women authors are studied for additional context.
– Ecocriticism
Critics examine nature writing, a genre that has often been overlooked. Its history is rediscovered, and writers like John Muir, Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Rachel Carson, and others are considered against the canon. The lives of writers are also studied, specifically the environments in which they wrote. How were they affected by their environments?

Stage 3 — Theory
– Feminist Criticism
How are gender and sexuality constructed in literary works?
– Ecocriticism
How is humanity defined? How is nature constructed in writing? What is our relationship to nature?

Really rich, really great stuff that’s making me see and read differently, which is the whole point of criticism.

© 2016 Anindita Basu Sempere. 
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