Ecocriticism – A new idiom of literary criticism

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By – Dr. Girirja Jayasankar (introduction at the end of the paper), Issue. XXVII, April 2017


Abstract :

Ecocriticism is a new perspective of literary criticism, yet not just a branch of it. This approach to the analysis of literary texts is made feasible by the existence of a ‘green’ literature and its evergrowing significance as a panacea for the ecocatastrophe that looms large on the horizon of the modern world.The environmental revolution, which is the fourth largest revolution in the human history, in its nascent stages, was inclined to employ various tactics to engender fear in the minds of general public regarding an imminent environmental apocalypse and guilty conscience about the human role in it. But the recent vogue is to create awareness about the necessity of an environmentally sustainable mode of living through literary texts. Involved in this process, ecocriticism attempts to analyse the relationship between literature and environment.


Ecocriticism is a modern trend in literary criticism which evaluates literary texts using an ecological yardstick. It is a relook at the proverbial relationship between nature and literature that has undergone a major transformation in the twentieth and twenty first centuries. The man-nature relationship has become a complex one and hence the portrayal of this relationship in the literary texts involves the cultural and political paradigms of the present day human society. In this scenario ecocriticism ought to analyse the cultural and literary aspects of the factors that cause an environmental apocalypse.

Ecocriticism is an analysis of how the depiction of nature, human culture and the political agenda that shape the literary texts can be moulded to find a relevant solution to the emrging environmental catastrophe. This form of literary criticism is inter-disciplinary in nature. It employs principles from various discipline like history, psychology, philosophy, ethics and ecology to comprehend the nature-literature relationship. This emerging culture of environmental concern that focuses on literature and environment is a developing field of ecological criticism.

The term ‘ecocriticism’ is coined by William Ruekert in 1978 to address issues related to landscape and environment, which were never concerns of literary critics earlier. Greg Garrard, in his book ‘Ecocriticism’, quotes Cheryl Glotfelty’s definitiom of this new idiom, which appeared in the ‘Introduction’ to ‘The Ecocritical Reader’:

“ [It is ] the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment. Just as feminist criticism examines language and literature from a gender conscious perspective, and Marxist criticism brings an awareness of the modes of production and economic class to its reading of texts, ecocriticism takes an earth-centred approach to literary studies.”  ( Garrard,2004: 13)

Another important work in the field, ‘Ecocriticism: Creating Self and Place in Environmental and American Indian Literatures’, ecocritic Donelle Dreese mentions a few issues that are part of the usual concerns of ecocriticism:

“ . . . how nature is presented, when it is represented, how the environmental crisis has influenced literature, and how the concepts of the environment have evolved through the centuries.”  (Dreese, 2002: 1)

The Significance of Culture in Ecocriticism

The processes and products of human culture have a great significance in ecocriticism. The culture – nature dichotomy and the interaction between the two are the two major concerns of this branch of criticism. This is because ecological problems are considered as a major byproduct of the cultural and social issues. Hence ecocritical studies may include cultural studies involving analysis of TV, films, art, scientific writings, concervation and preservation moves like National Park Systems along with wilderness narratives and depictions of nature. According to Greg Garrard,

“. . . environmental problems require analysis in cultural as well as in scientific terms, because they are the outcome of an interraction between ecological knowledge of nature and its cultural inflections. This will involve interdisciplinary scholarship that draws on literary and cultural theory, philosophy, sociology, psychology and environmental philosophy as well as ecology.” (Garrard, 2004:14)

The Ecocritical Mode of Enquiry

The interdisciplinary world of ecocriticism examines the vital link between literature and the physical environment, thus providing a richer understanding of the interplay of language and environment in literature. A mere analysis of nature portrayals in literature is not the aim of ecocriticism. It analyses and understands the natural world, which itself is a complex and extrordinary text. This enables an ecocritic to advocate a cultural change in the human society by inculcating a more bio-centric world view which will prompt man to envision a global community that includes non-human and the physical environment.

In order to prevent ecocriticism from being a mere branch of literary criticism, ecocritics provide a broad cultural base for ecocritical mode of enquiry. Greg Garrard quotes the views of Richard Kerridge from his book, ‘Writing the Environment’, which emphasise the potential of ecocriticism to explore the cultural implications of any analysis of the literature about environment:

“ The ecocritic wants to track environmental ideas and representations wherever they appear to see more clearly a debate which seems to be taking place, often part concealed in a great many cultural places. Most of all, ecocriticism seeks to evaluate texts and ideas in terms of their coherence and usefulness as a response to environmental crisis.”  (Garrard, 2004: 4)

Ecocritics may not succed in suggesting remedies for the ecological problems but they can create an increased awareness among people about the need for a change in their perception of the environment. This is the ultimate goal of an ecocritic. For instance, the over – population and the resultant pollution of the planet is a cultural and social issue rather than a mere ecologcal problem, yet a major concern of ecocritics.

Foundation of Ecocriticism

Certain ecophilosophies form the basis of ecocritical inquiry. According to Greg Garrard they are as follows:

  • Cornucopia: The champions of this philosophy believe that most of the environmental dangers are illusory or exaggerated. Hence cornucopians are not environmentalists in a strict sense; anti-environmenatal industrials seem to sponsor them instead.
  • Shallow Environmentalism: As a contrast to the cornucopians, shallow environmentalists highlight the environmental hazards such as global warming and pollution and considers it the responsibility of the government to find solutions to such issues as well as resource crunch. They may not be ready for any radical change in life style to improve the situation.
  • Deep Ecology: Another ecophilosophy that inspires organisations such as Earth First!, Friends of Earth and Sea Shepherd is Deep Ecology. This philosophy has a wide range of influence even outside the academic field. Garrard considers Gary Snider as the “poet laureate” of deep ecology and Arne Naes as its philosophical guru. Deep ecologists attribute an intrinsic value to all human as well as non-human beings and projects the need for a sustainable way of life and a smaller population for the flourishing of the non-human population on the planet.
  • Ecofeminism: While deep ecology emphasises the anthropocentric dualism of humans versus nature, ecofeminism accuses the androcentric dualism of man versus woman. The major premise of ecofeminism is the belief that women are closely associated with nature and imbuebed with qualities that may lead to a more rational and ecologically- safe treatment of the flora and fauna.
  • Social Ecology and EcoMarxism : Akin to ecofeminism another ecophilosophy that provides a foundation to ecocriticism is Social Ecology and Eco-Marxism. This philosophy projects “ systems of domination and exploitation of humans by other humans” as the root cause of environmental issues.
  • Heideggerian Ecophilosophy: The views of the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976) has been an inspiration for many ecocritics. According to this philosophy, the surrounding world of a human being includes the flora and fauna and the role of the human beings is to let them disclose themselves in their own ways. Man is not viewed as the master of this world; he is just a guide for all that exists around him. The meaning of the world around finds expression through art, especially poetry. (Garrard, 2004: 16 – 32)

Environmental writing has become a vast and swift-growing field in the modern literary world. Ecocriticism has great significance as it enables a better understanding and appreciation of the unique vibrancy of the environmental literature. Hence, this study of the intimate link between word and world promises a new direction in literary criticism.


Dreese,, Donelle. N. Ecocriticism: Creating Self and Place in Environmental and American Indian Literature. New York:Peter Land Publishing. 2002.

Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. New York: Rouledge. 2004.



Girija Jayasankar, the author is a Professor and Head of the Department of English, ASC Degree College, Rajajinagar, Bangalore, which is affiliated to Banagalore University.

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