Ecocriticism is a relatively new form of literary criticism which examines the ways in which literature presents the environment and non-human animals to the reader, and debates the use and validity of these presentations in terms of conservation of the natural world. Ecocritics believe that the impact humans have had upon the earth – including the damage caused – has its basis in our cultural values and ideals, which are perpetuated and shaped by the literature we produce.
To give novice ecocritics a quick grounding of the movement’s history, let’s look at the life of Aldo Leopold, one of the movement’s founding critics. Following his own direct experience of the destructive influence of humanity upon nature, hunting and killing predators as a job, Leopold rejected the long-held idea that the environment and the animals that inhabit it exist solely for the benefit of humans. Instead of viewing the ‘wilderness’ as something to be tamed, ordered and controlled, he began to view it as a healthy biotic community, which should be allowed to thrive of its own accord.
In his literary work, Leopold examines the real implications of killing a predatory wolf for the rest of the eco-system and focuses on the integrity and beauty of the wilderness. Rather than reflecting his own characteristics onto the environment, or describing it in terms of its use to humans, Leopold acknowledges the environment’s intrinsic value.
A common literary technique which is indicative of the detrimental value that nature can only be fully understood and sympathised with when we can view it in relation to ourselves is anthropomorphism, or presenting non-humans as having human characteristics. To demonstrate the use of this technique, and the problems it causes from an ecocritical perspective, I will analyse Kenneth Grahame’s hugely popular children’s novel The Wind in the Willows. In his novel, Grahame is clearly making a point about the importance and unrivalled beauty of the natural world (especially above that of the cultural world, as he demonises capitalism and the city), yet his point I arguably undermined not only in the way he describes animals in human terms (e.g. portraying their ownership of houses and money) but also other features of the natural world, such as water and foliage.
Structurally, the novel begins with Mole’s rejection of the human ritual of spring-cleaning in favour of climbing out of his burrow to be within the beautiful countryside above his home. However, the description of this countryside is itself anthropomorphised, somewhat undercutting Grahame’s criticism of the human world. The river, a ‘sleek, sinuous, full bodied animal’, is said to be ‘chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh’. This description of the ‘sinuous’ river could be said to be more reminiscent of a beautiful, even sexualised, human than a flow of water, and is problematic due to the fact that it focuses on the surface of the water (the part that presents itself to us), rather than the whole ecological system of the stream. This description portrays the river as only having significance in the way it looks to us, while also explaining the characters’ attraction and fascination to it by using the metaphor of a desirable human body. The natural phenomena in this novel are not presented as having intrinsic value outside the aesthetic, and are not shown as being an important, vital part of a larger system of nature.
As well as anthropomorphism being used in relation to natural objects, Grahame uses the technique extensively to present the non-human animals in his novel. A good example of this is the spoilt, loud and rude Mr Toad. Toad, a member of the British upper class, is portrayed as a ridiculous character, who is obsessed with the latest technological craze. His flightiness is seen most clearly when a speeding motorcar topples his beautiful horse and cart; rather than being angry with the irresponsible drivers, Toad is fascinated by the strange new machine, which has technically ‘beaten’ his own. Toad’s obsession with bettering and competition reflects the ideals of capitalism, and by presenting Toad as a stupid, childish character Grahame criticises capitalism and the human, material world.
However, Grahame’s use of anthropomorphism to achieve this goal could be viewed as short sighted. As humans, we often unconsciously reflect human characteristics onto other animals, and, more often than not, there are certain animals that come off worse. Toads and snakes tend to be seen as scheming or untrustworthy, while we view deer and badgers more positively. This has an effect upon how much we care about certain animals, and how much effort we put into protecting them. If, instead, animals are thought of (and presented in literature) as being important for what they actually are, rather than for the human characteristics they seem to possess, then we are more likely to respect all animals. Why should we need to see ourselves within animals in order to care for them?
We need the environment far more than the environment needs us, and it seems that to fully respect the natural world that we inhabit we must understand the way in which it functions on its own terms, without our interference. As our opinions about the natural world shift and change so, too, will its presentation in literature, and we will hopefully see more works that reflect a humbled understanding of the beauty and power of planet earth, without having to present all natural phenomena as if they were also human.