Evidence exists to support multiple interpretations of meaning in a text. That method which takes advantage of the largest number of methods, and applies them in a way that affects change outside literary study, is the method I prefer. A method commonly called “ecocriticism” is the approach I’ve found that fits this bill best. Ecocriticism explores the way texts reflect humanity’s interaction with the non-human world. I have included links to more resources on ecocriticism below, but the methods here are my take on this approach.
Ecocriticism sees texts as manifestations of how a culture feels towards its physical environment. It notes commonly overlooked textual elements, such as space and attitudes towards the “natural” (e.g. flora, fauna, climate). Figurate language, particularly personification, should be read with a consciousness of how humans interface with nature. Ecocriticism seeks out implied hierarchies among characters or non-characters (such as animals, or resources). Ecocriticism reads texts with a desire to examine how humans and other elements of the ecosystem cohabit the intra-textual system.
An ecocritical analysis utilizes most critical approaches to probe the human-non-human relationship, but feminist, gender, race, and postcolonial theory are the most commonly used. Their terminologies frame how the human-non-human relationship is described, and the way elements of a text are assigned meaning within that relationship. An ecocritical analysis of Mrs. Dalloway might describe the various attitudes towards London presented in the novel, and how concepts of the other and postcolonial theory privilege that space over others in the novel, such as the countryside at Bourton or India. “Mending Wall” could be viewed through the lens of how ideas of racial segregation find legitimization in agriculture’s use of monocropping (“his pines…will never eat my apples”). Ecocriticism’s analysis is expansive and inclusive, just as the environment is expansive and encompassing.
Ecocriticism articulates with all possible contexts and cultural phenomena; connections with others fields and theories are crucial and foster growth. Literary representations of environmental injustice beg ties with Marxist theory, while elements of Shakespeare or Chaucer would lend themselves easily to New Historicist applications of ecocriticism. Broad and diverse contexts in which to situate texts also encourage involvement beyond literary studies. Ecocriticism gives literature and its study a dialogue and call to action in engaging this major issue of our time.
Ecocriticism adds a seat for the environment at the critical feast. Not only is it a growing subject of study in English departments nationwide, but it also resonates very well with the discourse of sustainability on the our own campus. Benjamin Rush’s writings are widely accessible on campus; what does Rush have to say about the natural world? About humans’ role in it? How does your favorite novel or short story portray the human-non-human relationship? That economics article you just read?