Activities for Applying Eco-Criticism in Literary Studies

Description

This resource provides six activities (printable or projectable worksheets) that guide students in applying eco-criticism in the study of literary texts. 

  • Environment & Identity in Literature 
  • Cultural Environment, Physical Environment & Nature
  • Cultural Environment & Natural Environment 
  • Considering Environment in Literature 
  • Social Environment & Natural Environment
  • Environmental Stewardship

These materials emphasize the relationships between identity and environment and help students assess the role that the environment often plays in literature as a location reflecting theme, character, and conflict. And while these worksheets do not invoke the name of eco-criticism, they enact the principles of this emerging critical theory in practical and intuitive ways. 

Why Eco-Criticism?

Eco-criticism is a school of literary theory that aims to foster an awareness of how individuals and communities are influenced by the environment and how they in turn also influence the environment. A central goal of eco-criticism is to examine the ways that literature communicates the values that animate this relationship.

Literary studies may not seem to be a likely area for discussions of environmental ideas, but literature is actually well-suited to discussions on the ways in which environment is conceptualized. 

Writers and professors like Corey Lee Lewis have made this point convincingly, arguing that in addressing climate change “[t]he role of humanities […] is crucial because the social attitudes and religious beliefs of a people are recorded and represented most exhaustively and accurately in their literature” (Reading the Trail 37). 

The humanities are uniquely situated to do the work of helping students develop what David Orr calls “ecological competence” wherein they are capable of recognizing not only how their communities and identities are shaped by the environment but also of seeing their own role in shaping the environment. 

Seen in this light, the English classroom offers a key opportunity to succeed where, as Lewis puts it, “environmental education often fails to achieve its goal of reeducating students with regard to their relationship to the natural environment because its scientific focus neglects important issues of environmental values, beliefs, attitudes, perceptions, aesthetics and ethics” (37). 

Analyzing literature is always a way of analyzing the culture’s ideology. We just don’t always look specifically at how the environment fits into that ideology. But maybe we should. 

The Importance of Place

Applying eco-criticism in the classroom invites students to become aware of their own perceptions of the environment in ways that go deeper than the fright-inducing common commentary on climate change. It aims to help students realize that “landscape is ideology in transit” (Zombiescapes and Phantom-Zones 2) – we are affected and shaped by the physical world around us in a variety of ways. 

When the focus is placed on the importance of place, we establish a framework for the “ecological consciousness” defined as the aim of eco-criticism by David Orr and, in focusing on ways the environment shapes identity, we level our analysis in an area that is natural for literary studies.

Applying Eco-Criticism

The activities in this resource ask students to identify ways in which character, conflict and environment interact in literary texts. 

Theoretical questions are translated into literary studies questions that feel familiar but which also help to foster a specific awareness of the importance of the environment that students can take with them outside the classroom.  

  • How is identity shaped by environment? What is the relationship between self and environment?
    • Review the text. Identify and briefly explain two ways that the environment affects the identity one or more characters in the story.
  • What is your view of environmental stewardship? What values, attitudes or outcomes do you associate with this idea?
    • Select a character in the text and explain how this character either exemplifies or fails to exemplify these traits. 

Within each provided worksheet, there is guiding text that explains the concept being examined and offers examples where needed. 

The activities can be applied to many different texts. No doubt, some of these texts are already on your course reading list. 

  • The Pearl 
  • Of Mice and Men 
  • Lord of the Flies
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • The Sun Also Rises
  • Things Fall Apart
  • The Catcher in the Rye
  • Teaching a Stone to Talk 
  • Moby-Dick 
  • The Old Man and the Sea 
  • King Lear 
  • Animal Farm
  • The Scarlet Letter
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • Death of a Salesman
  • The Stranger 
  • Waiting for the Barbarians
  • The Power and the Glory
  • “Rhime of the Ancient Mariner” 
  • “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World”
  • “The Story of an Hour” 
  • “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

Points of Comparison

While at first blush eco-criticism may appear to be an overly programmatic mode of analyzing texts, it is not very different than other established and popular schools of critical theory such as postcolonial theory and feminist critical theory. The essential goals and practices are the same. By applying an intentional lens to discussions of a given text, the theory treats the text as an opportunity to investigate values, biases, and cultural beliefs presented in literature. The text becomes a zone of discourse that is directly connected to questions of how we conceptualize women in our society in the case of feminist critical theory and pursues the implications of that conceptualization. For eco-criticism, the text becomes a zone of discussion for ways that we conceptualize the environment. 

Eco-criticism is similar to these other politically-inflected critical schools in another way as well. There is a hope in eco-criticism to affect behavior by generating a critical consciousness regarding our conceptualizations of the environment. This hope is aimed particularly at students. If eco-criticism is applied in the classroom, the thinking goes, students may attain a specific awareness of their own relationship to the landscape and the ecology of the world around them. 

Scholars have pointed to the imperative nature of much our environmental discourse (Zapf), acknowledging the tendency to attach ecological ideas to second person verb phrases (Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.). So there is reason to be cautious of uncritical moralizing, however well-meaning, when we invite students to engage in eco-criticism in the English classroom. To avoid this outcome and to also steer clear of generating artificial/superficial readings of literary texts, one sensible approach is to target an area of environmental thinking that presupposes the political and ecological mandates that form our discourse on climate change – the relationship between environment and identity.

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