Study Guide

Ecocriticism Texts

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  • Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)

    As we imagine the story of this text, Captain Ahab comes along and interrupts the great whale's Sunday morning swim. And old Moby-Dick thinks, "Oh boy. Yet another crazy guy giving some insane speeches about God and the Universe from the deck of this ship. I'm so sick of being hunted."

    See what we just did there? We imposed human voices and thought processes onto a non-human being. Ecocritics are interested in investigating precisely how and why we do this—how and why we're so anthropocentric.

    So: how does anthropomorphizing Moby-Dick affect the reader's view of the natural world? Of human nature? Git it, good readers.

  • Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945)

    In this exciting text, some pigs organize a revolt against a drunk farmer. They write songs and compose a cool manifesto, build a windmill, and overtake the humans. But soon after they rise to power, they kill off a bunch of animals and start smoking, wearing pants and playing poker.

    In other words, the pigs give up on being miserable barnyard animals only to turn into miserable humans. The ecocritical moral of this story is: act like a human and things get miserable.

    Now, consider this question: How do our stereotypes about pigs influence our reaction to Orwell's use of them as his work's central villains?

  • Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (1949)

    The American dream-cum-nightmare drives the protagonist of this play straight into the ground. Literally. Why do ecocritics care? The only thing that Willy Loman can think to do to keep from going completely bonkers is to plant a garden.

    We're wondering: How does the idea of Willy growing his own food relate to his dementia at the end of this play? And how might Miller's critique of American capitalism expand environmentalist notions of the wilderness as a spiritual necessity?

  • Watership Down by Richard Adams (1974)

    In this novel, rabbits are rad and humans, once again, are the destroyers. Hazel and Fiver lead their rabbit-friends to a new home after theirs is destroyed by evil people-things. But they find they have no ladies to help get the party started.

    During these adventures, we learn that rabbits have cool folk tales and their own language. Some of them are even psychic. Who knew that rabbits' lives were so complex? Even though Adams is imposing human voices and some human habits on these creatures, this author relied on the actual biological characteristic of rabbits to weave his story.

    So, he seems to believe that if people become more attuned to the richness of animal life, they'll stop ruining the environment. How does this moralistic argument relate to ecocritic Aldo Leopold's land ethic, in your informed opinion?

  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1815)

    We're sure you've read this one. But still, we'll lay it out for you: a scientist wants to make a beautiful guy. Instead, he makes an ugly guy.

    Then the scientist runs away from his creation, even though the ugly guy wants to be friends. In fact, the poor scary-looking dude can't find a single friend. Let alone a wife, though he really wants one. Soon all hell breaks loose and lots of people die.

    Ecocritics like this story for lots of reasons, but here's one: the weather in 1814 clearly helped to inspire all the doom-and-gloom in Shelley's tale. How do you think researching the details of the eruption of Tambora and the unusual weather events that followed can expand our reading of Frankenstein?

    And what other scientific disciplines can be used as companion analytic tools for examining literary texts? (An exciting question indeed, if we do say so ourselves.)

  • Walden by Henry David Thoreau (1854)

    A Victorian hippie sporting an epic neck beard goes into the woods to reduce life "to its lowest terms." Not low as in, "down-in-the-dumps" low. Low as in, "what are the things I can live without?"

    While out there, our boy Thoreau builds his own cabin, grows his own beans, and launches his own personal campaign of civil disobedience. His actions affect the philosophy of History's greatest leaders for years to come.

    Oh, and he writes about it.

    And now for some head-spinning questions. Hold on to your seats.

    How is Thoreau's vision of "living life deliberately" related to ecological studies? What can we learn about a character just by examining his values concerning what he can and can't live without? What can we learn about our society by examining what our literary characters can and can't live without?

  • A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold (1949)

    Killing animals for fun ain't no joke, says Aldo Leopold. He saw a "green fire" die in the eyes of the female wolf he killed. And the entire Green Movement—you might have heard of it—takes its name from that fire.

    Leopold creates an entire ethic, which he calls a land ethic, around the idea that all non-humans and all ecosystems should be treated ethically. Because they're entities with rights, not just characters-of-our-own-devising.

    But what's this got to do with literature? Take a read, and tell us: how do you think Leopold's land ethic can be applied to literary analysis? When we're wearing our Ecocriticism hats, what do we conclude about a character who treats the land like his own personal resource for food and fun?

  • Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1964)

    A whole spring without any birdsongs? No thanks. This sad, sad world is what Rachel Carson considers in Silent Spring.

    Her main point is that all living things exist together. So what humans do to pollute the environment makes life miserable for a lot of other creatures. But she only thinks about these issues in real-life, ecological terms.

    What can we learn from the physical environments of our favorite novels, and how the main characters interact with those environments? What about the natural phenomena that occur as authors are working on their texts—how might something as seemingly mundane as the weather affect the way various authors have written their most famous prose?

  • Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (1968)

    Grandpa-Environmentalist Ed Abbey is one grumpy dude. He cusses when he gets upset, which is a lot. But he sure does love that wilderness.

    In this work, he talks about wilderness as a "human necessity," just like air and water and love. Abbey just wants us to understand how the cities we've built are slowly driving us insane. Where do you see this urban-born frustration cropping up in The Canon?

    How does an antagonistic view of the wild (think Captain Ahab vs. the ocean) affect a character's actions in a novel? Or the whole structure of the plot?

  • The Ecological Imagination by Lawrence Buell (1995)

    This famed ecocritic wants to tell us that there's more to nature than The Sound of Music. It isn't all beautiful mountains and tall green grass and blue sky (and a twirling, singing nun). And Buell thinks if we can grasp this concept—if we can only think more creatively about nature—maybe we'll treat Mother Earth differently. Check it out.

    What's that? You want some more questions that'll lead you to think like a tried-and-true ecocritic? We're happy to oblige.

    How does Mary Shelley re-imagine the nature of the scientist in Victor Frankenstein? How does this story reveal a "cultural failure" in the way we practice science?

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