In a Nutshell
You're So Vain, You Probably Think This Squirrel-Song is About You
Ever wonder what goes through the mind of a squirrel as it eats an acorn? No? How about what goes through the mind of an acorn as it's being eaten by a squirrel? Still no?
Well, maybe it's time to start. Let's get green, people. And we don't just mean in a treehugger kind-of-way. If you use ecocriticism to analyze a text, you'll discover just how much nature is looking back at you while you read.
Take, for example, the story we began with: that squirrel and his tasty acorn. If you analyze this narrative using more established modes of literary theory, you probably won't think much about what a squirrel actually is. And why it loves to eat acorns so stinkin' much. Instead, your analysis will probably sound something like this:
"The acorn in this story is a symbol for a woman's broken heart. The squirrel is a stand-in for a cheating husband chewing up the love of his wife and spitting it out onto the cold, hard ground."
(Now picture us saying that in a tweed jacket, puffing on a pipe. Stop. Giggling. Stop it.)
When people engage with stories about animals or acorns or trees, we have this wacky tendency to think they're all about us. Take that old classic, Animal Farm. As you read Animal Farm, you might think, "Man, the mean pig acts a lot like my gym teacher. This story reminds me so much of my childhood."
Soon, you arrive at a literary analysis that's totally centered on your puny little human thoughts, actions, desires, and motivations. But whatever happened to the pig itself? And the squirrel? And the acorn? (Sorry, the internet has made us kind of obsessed with squirrels.)
Anyway, our point is this: in case you haven't noticed, humans can be very self-centered. Or, to dress our claim up in fancier terms, we often think in anthropocentric ways. Ecocriticism wants us to take a step back from our navel-gazing and ask such questions as:
- What do we mean, exactly, when we say "nature"? What is and isn't part of "nature"?
- How have people related to nature in different ways at different points in history? What's all that got to do with evolving technologies, industrialism, and post-industrialism?
- Is "place"—like, under an oak tree with a squirrel eating a nut—a distinctive lens through which we should read literature and see the world?
- What do our different approaches to the natural world—e.g., Rape and pillage? Preserve? Adore? What?—and to writing about the natural world, tell us about human development throughout history? What do they tell us about nature itself? About subjectivity and objectivity?
Right. So. Ecocritics consider the many relations between literature and the natural world. And in seeking to expand our understanding of the environment, they crank that music and let literary studies party with the hard sciences. Rock.
Now let's put our ecocritic hats on and return to Animal Farm for a moment. Orwell used pigs to symbolize fascist tyrants, yes. But if you look for clues as to the science of pig behavior inside the text, you'll find ways to enrich your understanding of this symbol. Did you know that pigs are really smart animals—kind of like dolphins, and, well, humans?
And, did you know that their physiologies are really similar to the human body as well? That's why radical doctor-types can transplant genetically modified pig hearts into monkeys… and maybe, someday, into humans. So, let's check in on our Metaphoric Depth-o-Meter; now, why do you think Orwell chose to put pigs on his animal farm?
(Hint: it's not just because piggish means greedy or unpleasant. Though that is one reason.)
Besides, doesn't it feel good to be an interdisciplinary scholar? We think so. And that's why we like this newfangled Ecocriticism movement so much; ecocritics analyze literature with the primary text in one hand and a science book in the other.
All this scholastic hand-holding and Kumbaya-ing is supposed to help us think of the world as an entity that exists outside of ourselves. But also as a fundamental force that shapes us as much as we shape it.
In case you haven't caught our drift: this is literary environmental activism, baby.
The Big Eco-Heads
Ecocriticism is a young literary theory. Just a toddler, really. (Spell check won't even allow the word yet). So there's still a lot of work to do, and few scholars who're doing it. For now.
As of Shmoop-O'Clock Today, we've got this short-list batting for Team Ecocriticism:
- Lawrence Buell. He thinks we lack imagination when we analyze nature. He's on that whole, "not every pig is a fascist just because Orwell said it was" bandwagon.
- Serpil Oppermann. Ole Serpy stresses the need for this theory to be interdisciplinary. Like, how are we supposed to wrap our little minds around the real meaning of the tree in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn if we don't even understand how photosynthesis works?
- Dana Phillips. This guy thinks we over-romanticize nature, and that contemporary nature writing is basically a crock. He'd really like for us to re-think what we mean when we use the word nature to begin with, actually.
These three proud lit crit parents don't always get along. But they all agree on one central notion: both our imaginations and understandings of the environment expand when we dissect the relations between the human, the natural world, and the text.
Why Should I Care?
Why Should Readers Care?
When most lit critics analyze texts, all they think about is me, me, me. What do The Canterbury Tales have to do with my contemporary life? With my beauty and my flaws and all o' that?
But humans didn't invent the material world that authors write about—the rose (as a rose, not just as a symbol), California's redwood forests, and so on. As people, we've just fashioned particular ways of talking and writing about the material world. So, Ecocriticism challenges us with this question:
Why read literature as though it's all about us, when so much of what gets captured in The Canon is not human—is more than human, even?
Ecocritics want us to
- investigate what the tendency to see ourselves in every-little-ant (that is, to anthropomorphize our natural world) tells us about the human condition.
- analyze how the actual real, scientific facts of nature influence our lives and our literature.
And that's why you should care about Ecocriticsm, kiddos: it helps to wrest us out of ourselves and into the real world. Now, stay tuned for the answer to one of the tantalizing questions we've just raised.
Why Should Theorists Care?
We bet you thought we were going to say, "because squirrels are cute and there are tons of pictures of them on the internet," didn't you? Well, we aim to surprise. And we know that theorists should care about Ecocriticism for much more important reasons than "Nature is rad" and "Animals are adorable."
See, incorporating the scientific study of natural objects into literary criticism helps scholars to better understand how nature might be its own force in literature—one that operates outside of human principles and motivations. It grants new insight into people.
When we view great texts through a less anthropocentric lens, we can reveal the hidden ways volcanoes and clouds and other awesome nature-type-stuff influences human thought and behavior. We may even get at the root (pun intended) of why we're so obsessed with seeing ourselves in every overturned leaf and glassy pond. Quick, someone call Narcissus and tell that old scoundrel his secrets are about to revealed.