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What is Ecocriticism?

In the simplest possible terms, ecocriticism is the study of the relationship between literature and
the physical environment.’ It was proposed by the pioneer or the father of this theory in the USA,
Cheryll Glotfelty. The study of nature as presented in the pieces of literature is what that has been
the playground of the people concerned with this rather new movement in literary theories. As per
the term ecocriticism, it only came into the major play after the attempts of Cheryll Glotfelty, right
since the 1989 Western Literature Association conference. Glotfelty urged the scholars to use this
term to refer to the belt of studies which was previously popular as the study of green writing. It
was her effort in the USA that ecocriticism became popular as a theory with this name. Scholars
also trace it back to 1978 William Rueckert’s essay and also Karl Kroeber’s back in 1974.
However, the lion’s share, no doubt, rests with Cheryll.

The easiest way to understand this trend in literary theories would be to learn what these people
do. As we must be aware that traditional theories in literature put emphasis either on linguistics or
on the cultural and social background, the ecocritics put all the weight on the ‘nature’ and believe
that nature exists as a force which affects our evolution directly as a society. For the intellectuals
involved in the development of ‘green studies’ the world is not made of language and social
‘elements’. They tend to bring out the part which nature plays either in writings or in general
purview. It’s a fact that the major foci of green studies intellectuals are the regional literature of
different places as we know it contains a lot of fusion of nature. Nevertheless, the well-known
authors, poets and literary figures always remain the central source which feeds the thoughts and
findings of these studies.

When we look at the theory of ecocriticism in literature it would be an eye opener for most of us
due to it’s different perspective of literary works. The best way to describe ecocriticism is through
examples so let’s take a squirrel and acorn as an example. Have we ever wondered what goes
through the mind of a squirrel as it eats an acorn? Or how about what goes through the mind of an
acorn as it's being eaten by a squirrel? Thinking from the perspective of the acorn and the squirrel
is what ecocriticism is all about. When we look or read a scene of any literary work, we try to
symbolize it to ourselves. Let us take the story of the squirrel and acorn as an example. If you
analyze this narrative using more established modes of literary theory, you probably won't think
much about what a squirrel actually is. And why it loves to eat acorns so much. Instead, your
analysis will probably sound something like this: "The acorn in this story is a symbol for a woman's
broken heart. The squirrel is a stand-in for a cheating husband chewing up the love of his wife and
spitting it out onto the cold, hard ground."

When we engage with stories about nature where it involves animals or acorns or trees, we have
this tendency to think they're all about us. We try to relate everything to us. Looking at a bird being
captured and locked in a cage we tend to think that is how our childhood was where we were
lacking the freedom to fly. We look at nature and symbolize it mostly to ourselves and soon arrive
at a literary analysis that's totally centered on our human thoughts, actions, desires, and
motivations. But what happens to the thought of these nature, for an example, have you ever
thought about the perspective of the squirrel? The point here is that humans can be very self-
centered. If you use ecocriticism to analyze a text, you'll discover just how much nature is looking
back at you while you read.

“If I were to be an ecocritic, what should I do?” This is an important question that should be
answered to further understand ecocriticism. Based on the readings done there are few things that
can be done or is being done by ecocritics. First of all, when a literary work should be read or re-
read with a viewfinder to trace the natural representation in the writing. We should also give
importance to the writings with an ecocentric perspective, such as, travel memoirs, essays about
places, and intellectual writings containing visual landscape in text. Last but not least, an ecocritic
should not conform to the traditional notions of literary theory that suggests linguistic or the social
build and thus walking through the classic lane of ‘world beyond ourselves’.

There are a few real life example of ecocritics but the one universally known in Malaysia would
be Wordsworth for his poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”. Wordsworth always subscribed to
the notion that nature is the best teacher. His seminal work, prelude, is full of the illustrious role
of nature in human upbringing. Ecocritics work to trace those examples and present it to the
common readers. The point of ecocriticism is that It wishes readers to think from the perspective
of nature which enables them to appreciate nature more. Ecocritics read and reread a literary work
from nature point of view so that they can picture and understand how beautiful nature is or how
nature is being abused in that particular literary work and by doing this they are able to appreciate
nature more. Instead of thinking about us all the time, ecocriticism enables us to be in the shoes of
nature and feel what they feel.
There's really just one debate in Ecocriticism today. It centers around this question: What is nature?
Looking through the lenses of ecocriticism this single question can produce two different answers.
First one would be nature is equivalent to God and the second answer would be nature is the victim.
We capitalize certain nouns because we want to emphasize them. To make them seem more
important than just any old, not "proper noun". So, when some ecocritics want to write nature with
a capital N, in many ways, they're equating the Natural world with Godliness. There is also another
answer which states that nature is the victim. It is weird because at one point we compare nature
to god and at another point humans are way more powerful than nature itself and nature Is being
abused by human. I wouldn’t disagree that ecocriticism is all over the place and understanding it
is no easy task but when we actually understand ecocriticism, it is a beautiful theory which would
bring the realization of the importance of nature to us. When asked “what is nature?”, two answers
were given above and both answers are right in my opinion. Nature is godlike but at the same time
that supreme power is being abused by us humans. Who is much more powerful here is a different
debate entirely, but we hold the power to fix what we broke and that is the purpose of ecocriticism.
It wants us to look at things from nature’s perspective and feel what nature feels and at the end of
the day realize its importance to humankind. This realization is not only going to save the nature,
but it would be beneficial to humans as well and nature is part of our evolution.

Ecocriticism aims to bring a transformation of literary studies by linking literary criticism and
theory with the ecological issues at large. To define it Cheryll Glotfelty (1996) writes,
“ecocriticism is the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment”.
Ecocriticism launches a call to literature to connect to the issues of today’s environmental crisis.
In other words, ecocriticism is directly concerned with both nature and the environment.

Ecocriticism In Rope of Ash

To look at Rope of Ash from ecocriticism point of view we should first look at a synopsis of the
story and understand what this story is all about. The Rope of Ash depicts the social relations of
the people in Banggul Derdap. Ahmad cleverly presents two conflicting sides within their
community and towards the end of the novel, identifies the real injustice that was happening, and
the irony of it all. The main characters Pak Senik, Jusoh, Dogol, Lebai Dasa, and Semaun represent
the type of people living in Banggul Derdap. The novel begins by presenting the main problem
which is convincing Semaun's family to cooperate with the rest of the villagers in planting crops
twice a year. But this poses a problem as Semaun and his father, Pak Kasa, is deemed violent,
uncooperative and difficult by the rest of the villagers. Semaun and Pak Kasa are very traditional
men, “We can't trample on the customs of our ancestors, even if it would make us four times as
rich as before (30)”, and Ahmad poses this behavior into his characters to stress the value of
tradition. While the novel focuses on the community problems of a rural village, resistance to a
colonial power is reflected in Semaun's words: “ They were ignorant. They weren't interested in
what anyone else had to say. Their day has passed. So has the day of the white man. We're an
independent nation now, we're self-governing. And we have to be self-supporting as well (37). In
this manner, Semaun is presented as a man who just wants to honor his ancestors' ways and to not
give in to anything new. This is problematic for a modern reader, because change is essential for
progress. But Semaun's second sentence in the previous example tells us something more:
compromise. It could be that somewhere along the argument, Semaun is willing to compromise as
long as certain conditions of his are also met. His relationship with his sister Semek illustrates his
good nature, athough some distance is still maintained because “people would have disapproved
had they seen her behaving so familiar with Semaun, even though they were brother and sister
(23). Clearly society has a firm grip on their actions but this isn't the only case.

The two main conflicting sides in the novel is first, Semaun's, and second, Dogol's. Now, this
character is not as complex as Semaun's. Towards the end we learn of his selfish motives as
exemplified by his previous wrongdoings against Semaun: depriving Semaun his cow because he
was a nuisance to the community. The last chapter, “The Tiger” is like describing Dogol himself.
Simply put, Dogol is the tiger. While the tiger feasted on the pregnant cows, so has Dogol feasted
on Semaun's violent reputation for his own good, but, there is a third contibutory factor which
completely shaped Semaun's behavior: the villagers as reflected by Jusoh and Lebai Dasa.
The mob mentality can either make or break a person's behavior. In this case, Semaun just reacted
on the villagers' actions towards him, same as his father, “Pak Kasa hadn't sinned the way people
said he had. His wildness had not been motivated by malice. Society had forced him to go on a
rampage.” (55) The main reason for his and his father's violence was because people were
prejudiced and biased and just followed the “pack leader” in their community, in this case, Dogol.
Pak Senik, because he is the headsman, maintains neutral ground and is faintly amused by the
villagers' behavior: “Pak Senik was still surprised at how quickly the mood of the village had
changed. The villagers' attitude to Dogol was now completely different. It was amazing the ease
with which the two men had changed their mind. (94) Pak Senik's character is the peacemaker, the
person who wants the villagers to live in peace and harmony with each other, and in my opinion,
he is the only one who actually cares about all of the villagers' welfare, making him the perfect
person to be headsman. The villagers' indifference towards Pak Kasa's death, “Now and then the
drumming gave way to the loud laughter of the young men, who seemed to have no concern for
the terrible thing that had happened. Pak Senik tried not to listen to the drumming. No one had a
grain of respect for Pak Kasa's body (55), and Dogol's death “The crowd shouted for joy, as though
unaware that a man had been killed that night (105), depicts how inconsistent and how easily they
could forget certain events. Their relationship with each other is that of a rope made of ash, on the
outside they seem unified, strong, just like a rope, but a quick change of behavior burns that rope,
turning everything to ash.

The ironic thing about it, is that with Dogol gone, Semaun's detractors symbolically put him in
charge of the “pack.” This is evident when he lead the group at the last page of the novel.

How can this story be seen in ecocriticism point of view? Well the answer is rather simpla and to
make things clear two examples can be taken out of the story to explain ecocriticism in detail.
While reading the synopsis, there are two things that would have been important which is planting
twice a year and also the tiger. Lets look at plating twice a year first, this is done to improve
productivity and at the same time increase income of the villagers. That is why everyone was
agreeing to it but except Semaun. Nature over here in the paddy field, the plot of land. Ecocriticism
requires us to look from the point of view of the land. When we talk about planting twice a year,
ecocriticism wants us to look at it as a torture to the land. We humans can plant as much as we
want but wouldn’t that be a torture to the land and at the end of the day spoil the land altogether?
By looking at it this way, we would appreciate mother nature and think twice before we do
anything harmful to nature. Another example that we should be talking about is the tiger. In the
synopsis that way written, I talked about how similar the tiger is to Dogol. Well that is us being all
about ourselves. All we think is us or how similar nature is to someone we know. But did we ever
think from the tiger’s point of view. Why would the tiger risk it’s life and come to the village to
get food when it knows there might be death waiting. Do you think the tiger was doing it for fun
or to prove that it is the mightiest creature in the jungle? When we think from the tiger point of
view we come to a realization that the tiger is coming out to the village because we have destroyed
it’s habitat and their source of food is decreasing due to our exploitation of their jungle. To sustain
it’s life the tiger had to step out of the jungle to find for source of food. The village happen to be a
pot of gold for it. This is how ecocriticism works. Thinking from that perspective we got to see
how we are destroying nature. Ecocriticism just wants us to realize the impact of our actions
towards nature and want us humans to appreciate nature more than what we are doing right now.
Humans are capable of breaking, fixing and preserving nature and ecocriticism wants us to stop
breaking, start fixing what we broke and preserve the beauty that is already there.

These are few examples of how ecocriticism works and how it can be seen in the story Rope of
Ash. Ecocriticism is a beautiful theory that should be looked at in a serious note. The reason it is
not everywhere or talked about widely is because people couldn’t understand the function of it and
often say ecocriticism is all over the place. The beauty of ecocriticism can only be found if we
truly understand it’s objective and look at literary works from ecocriticism point of view.

Glotfelty, Cheryll and Fromm, Harold (1996) The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary
Ecology, Athens, Georgia and London: The University of Georgia Press.