Ecocritical Theory in 20th Century Fiction: Connecting Nature with the Empowered Self
San Francisco State University
The process by which a person discovers the
and becomes empowered to speak and act in accordance with that Self is
dependent upon numerous factors, each of which holds varying importance
depending on the particular journey of that individual. The spiritual
journeys and quests for Self of three protagonists, Ernesto from José
María Arguedas's Los Ríos Profundos [Deep Rivers], Janie from Zora Neale Hurston's
Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Celie from Alice Walker's The Color Purple,
can be interpreted by analyzing each protagonist's relationship to
nature. Much has been written about Hurston and Walker, both separately
and in comparison, with a huge body of criticism focusing on the
struggle of African-American women to extricate themselves from
situations of oppression and the specific search for voice as a means
to achieve that freedom. As the question of voice is one that meshes
smoothly with the search for Self, many critics have focused on the
narrative stance of Celie as a first person narrator of an epistolary
novel, and of Janie as a focalizing character of her tale, which is
narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator. It is difficult to
argue that a first person narrator like Celie has no voice (although it
has been contested by a minority of critics) because the situation of
direct narration implies at least a degree of personal possession of
her voice. Thus the debate often centers on how and to what degree her
voice gains power. Regarding Janie, however, a full-scale debate rages
on as to whether a protagonist who does not express herself in the
first person except for instances of quoted monologue and dialogic
exchange can be capable of achieving her own voice.2
My purpose here is not to overturn the existing multifaceted criticism
relating to the narrative voices of these protagonists. I believe that
within this debate, a space has opened up that deserves further
attention; that space holds the relationship between nature and the
human journey of self-discovery and empowerment, a space which can be
and sometimes is linked to the attainment of voice, but more
importantly emphasizes the spiritual enlightenment that can be attained
when the voice and power of nature is perceived and accepted into one's
soul. I will show how nature specifically helps these protagonists move
through their personal journeys, helping them to achieve their
pursuit of this relationship between natural spirituality and self
empowerment, Celie, Janie, and Ernesto serve as interesting examples
because, as different as each protagonist and his or her journey is,
they all find themselves within systems in which they are subjugated.
Celie is an African-American woman living within an immediate system
dominated by black men, nestled within a larger system that is first
and foremost ruled by whites. Janie is an African-American woman of
mixed race and elevated social standing within her black community, and
so finds herself separated from her black townsmen not only based on
her racial difference but also because of her place in society as the
mayor's wife. Ernesto is a Peruvian boy of at least partial Spanish
descent who was raised by Indians. When separated from his father,
Ernesto finds himself unsettled within a climate fraught with racial
tension at the urban boarding school that lies on the edge of the
wilderness in an agricultural region of Peru. Each of these
protagonists is oppressed by his or her respective system and
ultimately succeeds in the journey for Self through a distinct
relationship with his or her natural environment.
Multiple literary movements and critical theories exist in which Deep Rivers, The Color Purple, and Their Eyes Were Watching God
could be situated. In terms of the relationship of humans to nature,
explorations of Transcendentalist theory, American Naturalist theory,
and finally, Ecocritical theory are all relevant. Since I will focus my
literary examination on one or two aspects of modern Ecocriticism, I
will not provide an exhaustive description and history of all three
movements. However, the path from the early Transcendentalists to the
modern Ecocritics is intriguing to follow in summary because each is
intensely influenced by similar situations of culture, science,
religion, art, politics, community, nature, and the human condition.
The importance of nature is central to all
three theories, yet the questions that each was developed to answer have evolved through the ages. In the early 1800s,
the Transcendentalist movement arose out of Unitarianism.3 Lawrence Buell summarizes the belief
of the Transcendentalists in man's personal ability "to perceive spiritual truth intuitively" rather than through the
directed study of "natural creation and the revelations of the scriptures" proscribed by Unitarianism (Literary 5).
Transcendentalists looked at nature as a symbol of the goodness and inherent virtue of man's spirit, and used their
relationships with and understanding of nature in order to illuminate their personal relationships with God
(connecting to God being the central goal). The movement cycled from nature to God to a tentative but hopeful
reconnection with organized religion, a circle that was often problematic because they required religious laws to be
consistent with what they observed in nature (Literary 147-149). Transcendentalism as a movement is one focused more
the artistic creations that can result from the artist's or author's expression of his (or her) experiences with nature.
I find this less applicable to my chosen texts because of a few factors. First, two of the three protagonists are women,
while the Transcendentalist movement is one dominated by men and their search for truth in man's relationship to
and God, and man's expression through art of that relationship. Not to imply that women cannot or have not
included themselves in the movement, but the history of the movement decreases the coherence with the journeys of Janie and
Celie. Furthermore, the fact that the movement was predicated on white privilege in general, serves in my mind to alienate
Ernesto along with the others. In addition to the exclusionary issues of race and gender, the Transcendentalist focus on
the Christian God in man's relationship to nature differs largely from the natural spirituality about which I will
Janie, Celie, and Ernesto ultimately find.
American Literary Naturalism followed in the wake of the
publication of Darwin's The Origins of Species, a book which caused upset in academic and social fields across the board
by reordering nature as a force outside of God. Transcendentalists had space for science in their theories because they
simply saw science as a manifestation of God. But with the appearance of Darwinism, a split grew between man and nature
that had once been satisfactorily bridged by the presence of the Christian God. With God essentially removed from the
equation, Naturalists attempted to reestablish what they believed to be "only a perceived rift [between the self and nature]",
arguing that "Human beings need[ed] only to learn to perceive the divine presence that lies immanent within the natural
world in order to be reconciled to it" (Civello 3).4 The Naturalist "impulse to deify nature, to reinstall the creator
within the creation" (Civello 11), is in my mind a tenet of Naturalist theory that remains applicable to modern texts
even though the shock of Darwinism is no longer as catastrophic to the literary human psyche as it was when the theory
of evolution was initially introduced in the late 1800s.
The shift to Ecocritical Theory, which appeared in the
late 1900s, highlights a celebration of the relationship between humans and environment in literature. It is important
to note first that, from a feminist perspective, Ecocriticism in general provides the desired inclusion of women into
the equation formerly limited to "Man and Nature". While the scholars are mostly white and hail from the United States,
the gender and race boundaries have been dropped within the theoretical and textual spaces so that the discussion is about
how "people" or "humans" interact with, perceive, draw strength from, and understand nature and the universe, rather than
simply how "white men" experience those things. Within Ecocriticism there exists a dual definition of environment, which
has opened up the field somewhat from its theoretical predecessors. Environment, according to Buell, must be seen as either
"natural" or "human built" or some combination of the two as modern circumstance deems necessary (Writing 3).
He provides in his introduction an important reference to Karl Marx, who supplied the following terms for classifying types
of environment: "first nature" and "second nature." First nature is considered to be a pristine environment or natural force,
one untainted by the influence of man. Second nature is "nature reprocessed by human labor" (Writing 3). The redefinition
of environment to include second nature allows urban areas, dwellings, or other such constructions into the Ecocritical
discussion as environmental entities that are thought to be as important in their relationships to humans as the forests or
Ecocritical theory studies the relationship between literature
and the environment, viewing the relationship between humans and nature as relevant to the creation of art, the modeling of
human experience, the journey for spirituality, and the discovery of Self.5 Theories range from studies in toxicity and
disease, to the effect of watershed patterns, to wilderness quests, to the mounting impacts of urbanization and
globalization. The aspect of Ecocritical theory that interests me in this specific investigation from twentieth-century
literature relates to the journey toward self-discovery, a quest that often takes place by an actual, physical movement
through nature by a person that facilitates that person's ability to recognize his or her spiritual Self in contrast to
The Color Purple, Their Eyes Were Watching God and Deep Rivers
could all three serve as indirect environmental advocacy texts simply because they depict the beauty and power of
"first nature." In fact, many aspects of the body of available Ecocriticism could be applied to these texts, together
or separately, that would result in interesting or provocative lines of inquiry and exploration. The focus of this study
launches from Buell's concepts of "place" and "place-connectedness" and depends on his distinction between first and second
natures so as to focus on nature and natural entities (first nature), rather than on constructed environments (second nature), as the force capable of aiding one's ascension to self-discovery. There are fine examples of constructed environments in
all three texts that serve as a contrast to the natural environments that aid in the spiritual empowerment of each character.
Each protagonist is able to escape places of second nature (Celie from Albert's farm, Janie from Joe's town, Ernesto from
the boarding school) by some interaction with or enlightenment by a place of first nature (Africa, the Muck, the Pachachaca
Buell's "Five Dimensions of Place-Connectedness" offers multiple blueprints with which to understand this physical, and
circular, passage between places of environment.7 "Place" is defined by a conglomeration of social, geographical, ecological,
and mental elements that combine to construct a reality of and perception of place that differs from one person to another.8
It is both physically located in a reality whose nature defines it, as well as mentally located within a framework of
perception and social constructs. There is not simply one place for each person, but rather a stack of places radiating out
from an initial center that Buell calls one's "primary place" (Writing 66). No matter which visual pattern emerges from the
configuration of multiple levels of place, the center can always be described as either the childhood "place template" or
some other grounding place or places that form the center of one's world (Writing 69). This place template serves to
provide the individual person with a memory of place whose impact can be staggering when that individual expands out into
The grouping of these places can be described by Buell's
"model of concentric zones," which is configured concentrically outward from one's primary place, and/or by his "second
model for place-connectedness," which is configured like a "scattergram or archipelago of locales" (Writing 65). While
Buell discounts the concentric zone model as reductive and obsolete in modern society, it works quite well to denote the
worlds of Janie, Celie, and Ernesto. Because they all remain within one country (except for Celie's imaginings of Africa),
enclosed in such specific regions, there is no need in these cases to highlight the complicated overlaps of minor,
tangential elements of other places by incorporating the archipelago model.9 The important relationships to appreciate
(which remain constant in whichever shape employed for visualization) is that boundaries exist between each realm, as do
"tenticular radiations" that exist between places which allow for elements to seep across borders (Writing 66). Accepting
other places as separate, yet with influence, is the point of drawing boundaries in the first place. After all, crossing
boundaries is more difficult when the line separating one place from the next is distinct. Therefore, the concentric model,
with its clear boundaries marked, will be more than sufficient to describe the place-connectedness of Celie, Janie, and
Ernesto in this study.
For example, Celie's primary place is her Pa's house,
where she spent her childhood. By placing Pa's house inside the first circle, it becomes imbued with all the meaning she
derives from "the patchwork of specific entanglements that make up [her] primary life routines" (Writing 66): the place
where she works, cooks, gets beaten, is raped, becomes pregnant, loses her children, loses her mother, and worries over her
younger sister. Surrounding her primary place is the next concentric zone, the woods, which she knows only as a dark and
evil place to which Pa took her stolen children to be murdered (Walker 12). The woods, a natural environment often regarded
by Ecocritics as a realm suited for wandering towards self-discovery, are not accessible to Celie because she cannot yet
see them with a mind open to the spirituality of nature.
They remain unexplored and thus offer her no enlightenment.
The next concentric zone is Mr.___'s farm, to which she
is carted off as a wife/maid for Mr.___ with her father's approval (Walker 21). Her movement to this zone is also passive,
dictated by the men who oppress her and aided in no way by nature. Celie remains confused, for her eyes are still closed to
the power of nature. She sees nothing but her oppressors and settles into her place as a victim of the social system. The
first moment that Celie discovers that nature can assist in her survival, if not yet her escape, comes when Mr.___ beats
her: "I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, you a tree" (30). She knows only that wood is a hard material and that
trees are made of it, yet Celie is unconsciously drawing from what Robert Pogue Harrison has defined as a "universal"
human notion of forests and trees as "symbols, analogies, structures of thought, emblems of identity, concepts of continuity,
and notions of system" (8). Her brief acknowledgement of that intuited ideology signals a stirring inside of her that the
forces of nature will eventually tease out in the course of her journey.
The trees speak to Celie, again for just an instant, when her
husband's lover Shug appears on their doorstep: "She look so stylish it like the trees all round the house draw themself up
tall for a better look" (Walker 50). This single moment places Shug at the center of a natural world that acknowledges her.
So while Celie has not yet attracted the attention of nature, nor become aware that she is capable of doing so, Shug
appears as a contrasting example of a woman with a clear sense of Self whose connection to nature is so strong it can be
witnessed by others.
In drawing an accurate model of place for Celie, the town
must compose the next concentric zone, within which it would be fair to include minor places, such as the church, the
store, the jail, and even Harpo's Juke Joint. Such places hold no special influence over her journey across borders and
so can be integrated as fragments of the concentric zone of the town rather than be privileged as separate locales.10
Celie's movement from Mr.___'s farm around the town is not notable; it is her movement beyond the town, which to her
is just the extended place where Mr.___'s farm is located, that marks a true moment of nature's influence over her
development of Self.
During her residence in the places of her father and her
husband, Celie is virtually blind to the nature surrounding her, which is clear from the lack of description in that
portion of the narrative of any natural elements other than the above examples, a buzzing insect, and the nondescript
fields. But when Nettie introduces Celie to Africa through her letters, Celie's eyes are finally opened to an imagined
place overflowing with nature. She imagines "cocoa trees as far as the eye can see. And whole villages built right in
the middle of the fields" (Walker 132). She imagines "the African coast" and "the land for which [their] mothers and
fathers cried" (133). And when she imagines "The ancient, giant mahogany trees, all the trees, the game, everything
of the forest ... destroyed, and the land ... forced to lie flat," her connection to nature is solidified (156). Her
world expands, initially resulting in Celie's mental crossing of the border containing Mr.___'s farm to Nettie's Africa
and ultimately empowering her to cross the border physically to Shug's Memphis.
Experiencing the devastating impact of the destruction of
the Olinkas through Nettie's words offers Celie what Buell describes as a "connectedness to fictive or virtual places"
that are "shaped by rhetorical constructs" (Writing 71-72). There is power nestled within this vision, a created tension
between "the unseen actual and the imagined utopia" (Writing 73) of Nettie's Africa in Celie's mind that opens her eyes
wide to those aspects of her physical world that have until this point remained unseen. Almost immediately, Celie feels
empowered to revisit her primary place, the home of her Pa. She is shocked by the nature that surrounds her when she
The first thing us notice soon as we turn into
the lane is how green everything is ... all along the road there's Easter lilies and jonquils and daffodils and all kinds
of early wildflowers. Then us notice all the birds singing they little cans off, all up and down the hedge, that itself
is putting out little yellow flowers ... even the sun seemed to stand a little longer over our heads. (164-65)
When Shug tells Celie, "You never said how pretty it was
[here]," Celie replies, "It wasn't this pretty" (165). This moment signifies the great change in Celie to which her virtual
experience of the place of Africa gave birth. Suddenly, the dark and depressing primary place of her childhood has been
transformed into a powerful and spiritual place that Celie cannot even recognize as her own.
Holding her previous perception of her place in
comparison to her new perception opens psychological doors that allow entrance of the spirituality of nature. When
Shug shares with Celie her method of appreciating God, which she accomplishes by appreciating God's creations in nature,
Celie looks deeper with her new eyes and breathes in the power she observes there. Her concept of God changes: "My first
step ... was the trees. Then air. Then birds ... It come to me: that feeling of being a part of everything, not separate
at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed" (178). Once she is able to see nature and allow it to empower her,
she can find the inner power to move to the next place in her journey for Self.
In her confrontation with Mr.___, nature empowers her so
forcefully that she feels it enter her mind as a force giving her voice:
I give it to him straight, just like it come to me.
And it seem to come to me from the trees. ... Then I say, You better stop talking because all I'm telling you ain't coming
just from me. Look like when I open my mouth the air rush in and shape words. ... A dust devil flew up on the porch between
us, fill my mouth with dirt. The dirt say, Anything you do to me, already done to you. ... Then I feel Shug shake me.
Celie, she say. And I come back to myself. I'm pore, I'm black, I may be ugly and can't cook, a voice say to everything
listening. But I'm here. (187)
The "air," the "trees," and the "dirt" combine with what
Celie hears but cannot classify as anything more specific than "a voice." The voice she does not recognize is her voice.
It is her voice that nature has helped her unleash, a voice that rings louder and truer because of its connection with
nature, while still belonging to Celie. It is so foreign to her that Celie can only tentatively claim it. Yet with this
spiritual empowerment, Celie embarks on her journey of self-discovery, across the boundaries of her oppressors, and into
a new realm of possibility in Memphis with Shug where she can claim her voice forever.
Upon her eventual return to her primary yet transformed place,
Celie arrives at the end of her quest for Self back at the beginning. Her voice is strong, her connection to nature
constant, and her spiritual empowerment fulfilled. She addresses the letter explaining her reunion with her sister Nettie
as follows: "Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God" (249). Celie's spiritual
transformation speaks of the connectedness in her world, not only of place, but of nature, creation, existence, and a new
understanding of God.
The journey that Janie follows on her personal quest for
Self is somewhat easier to visualize than Celie's, although the process and results are equally exciting. At the center,
Janie's primary place is defined by the home of Nanny and the boundaries of the Washburn's property. Central to this place
template, however, is the pear tree that represents the memory to which she compares her future experiences of place and
self-discovery. Her initial knowledge of the tree as powerful comes when she bears witness to "the love embrace and the
ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight" (Hurston 11).
The image of this meeting of the bee with the bloom is nature's way of instructing Janie about love, marriage, and passion,
providing her with an idealized model to which she will constantly return when her life journey produces less than ideal
examples. She holds onto this idealized image from nature even as Nanny forces Logan Killicks on her, a marriage that Janie
knows intuitively will not be satisfying. Before crossing to this next concentric zone of place, "Janie asked inside of
herself and out. She was back and forth to the pear tree continuously wondering and thinking" (20). Although this time she
allows herself to be deluded, Janie starts along the path to empowerment by knowing where to look for her answers and power,
even if she is not yet skilled in the art of receiving the right messages. The knowledge she gains from her visits to the
tree in search of enlightenment are hindered in this case by the system of oppression in which Nanny has situated her.
Once located in her next zone of place, Janie is dissatisfied.
To sustain herself spiritually, she rests her faith on the words of "falling seeds" and by turning her gaze "up the road
towards way off" in hopes of seeing a better horizon to which she might someday journey (24). In Janie's quest for Self,
the crossing to new horizons is synonymous with crossing what have been labeled as boundaries within the model of
concentric zones of place. Janie's preoccupation with what she imagines to be over the next horizon is alluded to
in the opening lines of the novel and echoes with each movement between place that she accomplishes. This factor in her
journey accounts for why she leaves Logan for Joe, for even though Joe "did not represent sun-up and pollen and blooming
trees ... he spoke for far horizon" (28).
Her arrival in the next zone of place, which eventually
becomes a perfect example of second nature, or constructed environment, is at first bedecked with the hopes inspired by
"her old thoughts" of her primary place beneath the pear tree, complete with "flower dust" and "a bee for her bloom" (31).
But as her "imagined utopia" of this next horizon fades, Janie turns to nature and her pear tree just as she did when the
illusion wore off of her marriage to Logan. Watching as no more than a "shadow of herself [went] about tending store and
prostrating itself before Jody," Janie awakens to her dissatisfaction, awakens to the way in which her Self is being
crushed by Joe's and the town's oppression (Hurston 73). She attempts to extricate herself from this reality of place by
creating a virtual place filled with visions of herself "under a shady tree with the wind blowing through her hair" (73).
She sustains herself in these ways, worshipping nature's
creations with the rise and fall of the sun, until Joe's death frees her to reevaluate her concept of "the biggest thing
God ever made, the horizon" (85). She takes that trampled image back from Nanny, Logan, Joe, and the town of Eatonville,
and rejuvenates her movement to and from the idealistic pear tree of her youth by seeking the idealized horizon to which
she has always gazed. Janie's quest for Self will end not in the crossing of an ultimate horizon, since there always lies
another horizon in the distance. But the spiritual rewards of her quest will manifest in the continuous and endless
journey towards the next horizon, beyond Eatonville, and beyond the Muck. The entrance of Tea Cake Woods into Janie's
life signifies the moment when her concept of horizons solidifies into real possibilities.
Tea Cake's name cannot pass unnoted, for his last name,
Woods, blatantly signifies the forest. In Ecocritical theory, the forest is a place of "savagery," temporal distortion,
and "spiritual solitude" (Harrison 13). But it is also a place of answers and connections to nature that assist in the
empowerment of Self. When a protagonist wanders through a forest, he or she finds before his or her eyes "an indispensable
resource of symbolization in the cultural evolution of humankind" (8). For Janie, Tea Cake Woods provides the
entrance into her metaphorical forest quest. It is in her journey with Tea Cake that she ascends to the next level of
self-discovery, not only crossing horizons but revisiting her "pear tree blossom in the spring," soaking in "the amber fluid"
of "the moon rise" (Hurston 101, 95).
With her eye on the wilderness of the love of her life
and the horizons of which he speaks, Janie crosses the border out of Eatonville into her next concentric zone of place,
the Muck. She is overwhelmed by the newness and immensity of this new environment: "Big Lake Okechobee, big beans, big cane, big weeds, big everything" (123). For what may be the first time in Janie's life, she is confronted with a place that does not confine and oppress her. The power of nature is spread out around her for her to explore with her eyes and arms wide open to the divine spirituality of nature that she has always sought. The moment that nature appears to fail her is actually the moment that she fails nature. With her eyes open, Janie should notice the signs around her that signify danger: "dead day was creeping from bush to bush watching man. Some rabbits scurried through the quarters going east. Some possums slunk by and their route was definite ... the procession was constant. Going east and east" (147). Janie sees this warning and her natural spirituality should emphasize the implications of the exodus. But she is blinded by her love for Tea Cake and keeps her voice inside. She would rather be by his side than run without him. In fact, when danger is revealed, her calm reaction is to insist that having
experienced love, she does not fear death: "If you kin see de light at daybreak, you don't keer if you die at dusk" (151).
After Tea Cake's death, the place that has caused her so
much happiness is suddenly, without Tea Cake, "just a great expanse of black mud" (182). The beauty of nature is no
longer accessible to her in this place of memory, so she must return to a place where she can connect with nature again.
The storm, a fury of natural force inflicted upon humans and non-humans alike, acts as a catalyst for her movement back
to Eatonville by taking away her husband. While this part of her journey, compared to the others, is full of sadness,
it is not a sadness of reluctance and compliance like all the rest. The journey back is made by an empowered woman,
bolstered by her connection to God and nature that she found by experiencing the natural, and spiritual, love her pear
tree had once promised her. Even though Tea Cake was taken from her, the journey through his "wilderness" imparted lessons
to her that will follow her in her pursuit of the next horizon, wherever that might be:
The kiss of his memory made pictures of love
and light against the wall. Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the
waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.
The final paragraph of the novel implies
that not only did her experience with Tea Cake help her evolve and establish a stronger link to nature, but
that perhaps Janie will be able to continue her journeys of self-discovery by calling nature and the world's
experiences to her soul, by bringing the horizon to her rather than needing to physically quest in order to experience
the things of new places and far-off horizons.
Both Celie and Janie travel outward from their primary
places, crossing boundaries into new places with the help of nature, and ultimately achieving an empowered Self through
their quests for natural spirituality. Ernesto also moves between zones of place with his eyes open to the spiritual power
of nature. But his beginnings are somewhat more difficult to map out visually due to the strange place template that
constant journeying with his father constructs in Ernesto's youth.11 Ernesto connects with nature much earlier in life
than do Celie and Janie because his reality is based on traveling through nature with his father and being raised by Indians.
For this reason, Ernesto's wandering quest through the forest begins in his early youth and for him represents comfort
because it was the way in which he bonded with his father. As this provides a primary place constructed of an
archipelago-like grouping of multiple places, his central zone of place is based more on a journey with his father
than on a specific geographic location.
Furthermore, his background of travel with his father
coupled with the time he spent with the Indians who raised him produce for him an image of nature as full of terrifying
power as of nurturing strength:
En esa quebrada viví abandonado durante varios
meses; lloraba a gritos en las noches; deseaba irme, pero temía al camino, a la sombra de los trechos horadados en la roca,
y a esa angosta senda, apenas dibujada en la tierra amarilla que, en la oscuridad nocturna, parecía guardar una luz opaca,
blanda y cegadora. (230)
In that gorge I lived, abandoned, for several months; I wept aloud at night; I wanted to leave but feared the road, with
its dark stretches tunneled through the living rock, and the narrow trail, a mere trace in the yellow clay which, in the
blackness of night, seemed aglow with a soft, hazy, blinding light. (61)12
It creates for Ernesto a second zone of place that
contains "los peces de los remansos" ["fish in the pools"], "el gran sol que cruzaba rapidamente el cielo"
["the great sun that sped across the sky"], "ese río hosco y despoblado" ["gloomy, uninhabited riverbed"],
and a road as a boundary that he feared crossing which separates him from the "pampas de maizales maternales e
iluminadas" (230) ["level valleys bright with maternal fields of maize" (61)] in which he had first lived. He finds courage in the gorge despite his fears. This early connection to the gorge and the
river creates a place template to which he can return, including the memory of never losing his belief in the power
of nature despite the fact that it caused fear as well as inspiration. This memory gives Ernesto courage and motivates
his quests back into nature. He says the experiences "despejaban mi alma, la inundaban de fortaleza y de heroicos sueños.
Se borraban de mi mente todas las imágenes plañideras, las dudas y los malos recuerdos" (62-63) ["cleansed my soul,
flooding it with courage and heroic dreams. All of the mournful images, doubts, and evil memories were erased from my
Such journeys into nature, as Janie experienced in
a way consistent with her life and landscape, allow Ernesto to embrace the school and the town of Abancay as his third
and fourth concentric zones of place. It is not that he enjoys the constructed environments of the boarding school or of
the town, but that he has a place memory so strong, similar to Janie's pear tree, that he is able, in essence, to drape
the spiritual power of his river and gorge over his shoulders whenever the despondency of the oppressive school weighs down
on him too heavily.
The wilderness into which he often journeys is in a
different part of the country, with the Pachachaca River running nearby rather than the Apurímac, a name which aptly
means "Dios que habla" (403) ["God-who-speaks" (189)]. This unexplored wilderness becomes Ernesto's fifth concentric
zone of place. For Ernesto, the boundaries define his sense of place, and the River itself should be considered a boundary
that actually assists him in his movement between his fluctuating zones of place due to his already strong connection with
nature. It is only the place from which his father disappeared from Ernesto's sight after leaving him in Abancay that
defines a clear boundary into the next, unexplored, and highly desired concentric zone of place that Ernesto dreams of
for his future. On "el otro lado de la quebrada, atravesando el Pachachaca" ["the other side of the valley, crossing the
Pachachaca"], Ernesto imagines his father "sería invisible para mí" ["he'd be invisible to me"] after "subiría la cordillera"
["climbing the mountain range"] and disappearing "de alguna cumbre azul" (191) ["from some blue summit" (34)]. What pains Ernesto is that this is the one horizon he was not able to explore with his father, and thus
he could not share "su alegría y sus sombras iban de él hacia mí" (191) ["its joy and its shadows [that] passed from him
to me" (35)] like when they had journeyed together. The place beyond the summit becomes Ernesto's imagined utopia, much
like Celie's Africa or Janie's imagined horizons, but because he is unable to venture that far until later, Ernesto resigns
himself to exploring "palmo a palmo el gran valle y el pueblo" ["the great valley and the town inch by inch"] and
confronting "grandes ríos que cantan con la música más hermosa al chocar contra las piedras y las islas" (196)
["great rivers that sing the most beautiful of all music as they break upon the stones and the islands" (38)]. He finds natural spirituality in the simplicity of his gaze upon the mountains,
the valley, and the Pachachaca River: "el resplandor atraviesa los elementos; el hombre domina el horizonte;
sus ojos beben la luz y en ella el universo" (298) ["The sun's rays traverse the elements; man dominates the
horizon; his eyes drink in the light, and with it the universe" (111)].
Ernesto is able to endure the place of Abancay through these
spiritually uplifting journeys into the wilderness, but also through a connection he forges to nature, the supernatural,
and the river by praying with his Winko zumbayllu. The soft voice of his spinning top first brings nature into the
courtyard of the school (265). But when Ernesto learns that he can pray by sending his voice through nature
to his father, the connection he has already established with nature makes this concept seem completely natural to him.
In the practice spin that leads him to send his message, he imagines his words "volando sobre el río" (305) ["flying over the
river" (117)] and "sube al cielo ... con el sol se va a mezclar" (305) ["going up to the sky ... to merge with the sun" (117)]. Later he sends more prayers with Romero, using the Pachachaca and the gorge as
natural conduits for the spiritual message played on a harmonica. He longs to be reunited with his father, and he
attempts to bridge the gap between them by using the only force he can depend on: nature.
At the end of the novel, Ernesto has not yet reconciled
with his father. He accepts the reality of himself as "una criatura del Pachachaca" (427) ["child of the Pachachaca" (208)]
as readily as he accepts the Rector's prayer for him: "Que tu espíritu encuentre la paz, en la tierra disigual, cuyas
sombras tú percibes demasiado" (457) ["May your spirit find peace on this broken ground whose shadows you perceive only
too well" (231)]. Although not explicit, this prayer speaks of Ernesto's connection to a natural spirituality that even the
Catholic priest can acknowledge. Ernesto embraces the sentiment "como si yo fuera un remanso del Pachachaca" (457)
["as if I were a still pool on the Pachachaca" (231)]. The peace he receives in this moment before departing to his
next zone of place, perhaps beyond the Pachachaca to the horizon of his father, is drenched with natural power,
a spirituality that encourages him to continue on a thus far successful journey to his empowered Self.
Unlike Celie, he has not achieved a space of empowerment
that can praise nature, creation, and God in the same breath. She has achieved spiritual empowerment within the place to
which she has returned and calls home, desiring nothing more than to continue experiencing what she sees around her.
Because of this, Celie's journey to Self is the closest to completion of the three protagonists. Ernesto understands
at the starting point of his final textual border crossing, what Janie discovers upon returning back to Eatonville:
that the quest for Self, whether pursued in one place or by traveling through many, is continuous. Yet Ernesto has much
farther to travel in his quest than both women. Although his vision of nature is pure and full of truth, his quest must
continue to the next zone of place because he has not given up the pursuit of that far-off horizon, nor can he until he
is able to reunite with his father and draw the next horizon around both of their shoulders.
this essay I will use “Self” to refer to the same internal being as
denoted by the terms “empowered self” and “inner self” and “spiritual
self”—there can be distinctions made between these terms in some cases,
times which further explication will be present in the text. However,
if unmarked, all above terms should be considered references to the
entity within a person/protagonist that is defined by his/her
perception of reality and whose personal power is constantly evolving
as it is sought or discovered. |
||Michael Awkward, Stuart Burrows, Deborah Clarke, and Barbara Johnson are only a few of the many critics who have attended to this topic. An all-inclusive summary is next to impossible. However, the discussion to this point has moved from the importance of spoken words in defining voice to the now argued greater importance of vision in defining voice. Clarke and Burrows believe that Janie successfully claims her own voice by the end of the novel because of her ability to bear witness and incorporate her vision into her sense of self. They are not refuting earlier work, such as Johnson's, which focuses on metaphor and on "self-division" as a characteristic of African-American women that is supported by a narrative voice that "shifts between first and third person, standard English and dialect" (218). Henry Louis Gates, Jr. launched the idea of a divided self and the boundary between inner and outer self, voice and discourse, being present in the narrative divisions between character and narrator. Michael Awkward offers a naturalist reading, focusing on the "pre-linguistic relationship between voice and action" which I would argue matches nicely with an ecocritical perspective (61).|
||Lawrence Buell provides a general overview of the Transcendentalist movement as well as Unitarianism in the Introduction to his book, Literary Transcendentalism (1-20).|
||In the often quoted nineteenth-century novel, The Octopus, by Frank Norris, Norris blended "old and new concepts about nature," depicting "Nature [as] an immense and uncontrollable force," which was, "when properly understood and responded to, a benevolent force, and man had the capacity to intuit this truth about nature and to order his life in accord with this insight" (Poirier 4). Norris is considered by many Naturalist theorists to have provided, through his fictional literary creation, an extraordinary modern example of what Poirier labeled as "the post-Darwinian condition."|
||Modern Ecocriticism can have the potential to elevate not only the consciousness of human beings of their dependence on the environment, but perhaps influence advocacy and action in the political environmental movement by this increased awareness of the importance of environment for human survival and spirituality (Buell, Writing 267). This is an idealistic hope, one that he acknowledges may have been more relevant at the time when he published his first book on the subject (1995), for at that time most people studying environmental literature were doing so out of love for the environment, but serves to highlight the potential importance of this theoretical inquiry outside of the literary realm.|
||David Mazel discusses Scott Slovic's argument contrasting the "boundaries of self" with the "separate realm" of nature in his book, American Literary Environment (27). The themes of journey/quest and self-discovery abound throughout Ecocriticism, yet Slovic's spin on the importance of these ideas in nature writing as a process of perception and psychological discovery explains this theory very well in terms of American authors.|
||This theory is described on pages 55-83 of Buell's Writing for an Endangered World.|
||Buell's definition of place covers pages 59-63. As it is a slippery and morphing term with many facets of distinction, the full explication he provides is worth reading.|
||I must note here that both models function as distinct and important dimensions of Buell's theory and may be used together to describe the complex overlapping of place that occurs when working with multiple theoretical aspects that do not all operate on the same planes of spatial existence. In the interest of my focus in this essay on the crossing of major boundaries between places of second nature, I will footnote commentary relating to archipelago places and focus rather on the concentric zones of place as they relate to my central argument. |
||This is the type of detail inclusion Buell alludes to in his explanation of the limitations inherent in the concentric zone model that could be integrated using the archipelago model. As each model is a valid dimension of the theory, it is possible to incorporate both types of visualization in the same map. In this case, with the focus being on major boundary crossings toward self-discovery, it seems to create unnecessary complication, but to be fair, the church, the store, and the jail, etc. could be included as either concentric zones parallel to the town, or archipelagos within the town's concentric circle. Harpo's Juke Joint is only once in its own marginal zone, because there is a boundary imposed by Mr.___ the first time Shug performs there. However, Celie had been there countless times before when it was a house and after it was a bar, and so the momentary restriction placed on Celie is not sufficient in this case to negate its inclusion within the zone of Mr.'s___ farm, of which it was originally a fragment when Celie came to that place. The morphing of these zones, as they change according to time and character perception, and the implications of crossing those changing boundaries by Celie, are topics worth pursuing yet tangential to the focus of this essay. |
||Again, archipelagos of place could be mapped within the major concentric zones of place for Ernesto, especially in the early years of wandering with his father, yet also during his adolescent years for places within the forest, gorge, river areas, and the boarding school's town. I have chosen to identify these zones of his adolescence as concentric based on their importance to his border crossings and spiritual journey even if they overlap in the physical plane.|
||Regarding Arguedas quotes: I have taken the Spanish quotations are taken from the Catedra edition of Los Ríos Profundos and the English quotations are from Frances Horning Barraclough's translation of Deep Rivers.|
Arguedas, José María. Deep Rivers.
Trans. Frances Horning Barraclough. Long
Grove: Waveland Press, 1978.
---. Los Ríos Profundos. Ed. Ricardo González Vigil. Madrid: Catedra, 1998.
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Their Eyes Were Watching God." Black Feminist Criticism and Critical Theory. Ed.
Joe Weixlmann and Houston A. Baker, Jr. Greenwood, FL: Penkevill, 1988.
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---. Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and Environment in the U.S.
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de Weever, Jacqueline. Mythmaking and Metaphor in Black Women's Fiction. New
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Harrison, Robert Pogue. Forests: The Shadow of Civilization. Chicago: U of
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Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper, 1937.
Johnson, Barbara. "Metaphor, metonymy and voice in Their Eyes Were Watching
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Mazel, David. American Literary Environmentalism. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2000.
Poirier, Richard. "Self and Environment." Theories of American Literature. Eds.
Donald M. Kartiganer and Malcolm A. Griffith. New York: Macmillan
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Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Washington Square Press, 1982.
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