Gender and

Nature Criticism



Gendered Romanticism: Wordsworth--more on Wordsworth here.

[Page 19] Wordsworth's rhetorical strategy . . . illustrates a common tendency in masculine Romanticism. These . . . poets' descriptions of the growth of the individual mind frequently posit a split between the subject and the object. So long as the object--nature--is gendered female, that split cannot be resolved into the unity in multeity of which Coleridge dreamed. Therefore these poets often subtly re-gender both the subject and the object as male and in the process erase the female from discourse: she does not speak; she therefore has no existence. As Margaret Homans has persuasively argued, by identifying Nature as female and the female as Nature (or not-human), Wordsworth effectively denied to women the ability to enter what Lacan called the symbolic order. Rarely allowed to speak for themselves, the female figures in Wordsworth's early poems exist only as embodiments of an undifferentiated life cycle that moves inexorably from birth to death. They do not exist as independent, self-conscious human beings with minds as capable as the poet's. . . . Dorothy remains a silenced auditor in Tintern Abbey, a less conscious being whose function is to mirror and thus to guarantee the truth of the poet's development and perceptions, even as the poem itself acknowledges the existence of an unbridgeable gap between the poet's forever-lost past subjectivity and his present self, a gap also troped in the division between his sister's "wild eyes" and his own "eye made quiet by the power/Of harmony."

From Anne K. Mellor, Romanticism & Gender (Routledge 1993).

The Masculine Sublime--see the "sublime" Alps (photos/Shelley quotes) and 19th Century Nature Art.


Albert Bierstadt, "Among the Sierra

Nevada Mountains, California"

[Pages 85] The sublime is associated with an experience of masculine empowerment; its contrasting term, the beautiful, is associated with an experience of feminine nurturance, love and sensuous relaxation. This gender differentiation was implicit in the most famous treatise on the sublime published in the eighteenth entury, Edmund Burke's Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757). Grounding his aesthetic categories on a psychology of pain and pleasure, Burke identified the experience of the sublime with the idea of pain or the annihilation of the self, at a time when one also knows that one's life is not genuinely threatened. . . . [Page 86] Burke then characterized as the height of the sublime in literature those passages in Homer or the Old Testament where man, encountering the divine, the voice in the whirlwind or the commands of Athena, was made painfully aware both of his own mortality and of his chosen election. Thinking of the visual arts, he further specified the qualities of the sublime in a landscape: a greatness of dimension that gives rise to the idea of infinity; obscurity (which blurs the definition of boundaries); profound darkness or intense light, and hence dark or intensely bright colors and sudden, sharp angles. Confronted with such overwhelming natural phenomena as the Alps, huge dark caves, a blinding sunset, or a towering gloomy ruin, the human mind first expereinces terror or fear and then--as our instinct for self-preservation is gradually relaxed--astonishment, admiration, reverence and respect. Thus, Burke concluded, from the contemplation of a sublime landscape, one is led to a sensible impression of the Deity by whose power such magnificent scenes are created. . . .

From Anne K. Mellor, Romanticism & Gender (Routledge 1993).

Feminine Romanticism--see more on the Gothic Female and the feminine sublime.

[Page 90] How did the women writers of the Romantic period respond to this engendering of the sublime as a masculinized experience of empowerment, of the beautiful as a feminized experience of nuturing and sensuous love? . . .[Page 91] One group of [women] writers, those familiar to us as the authors of Gothic fiction, accepts the identification of the sublime with the experience of masculine empowerment. But they explicitly equate this masculine sublime with patriarchal tyranny. . . . The father, whether as patriarch or priest, is unmasked as the author of violence against women, as the perpetrator of sadistic tortures and even incest, and thus as the violator of the very bonds of affection and responsibility that constitute the bourgeois family. His crimes almost always occur among Alpine landscapes or ruined Gothic towers, the loci of the masculine sublime. By moving the exercise of sublime power into the household, the female Gothic domesticates the sublime as paternal transgression--represented as father-daughter incest--that is everywhere most monstrous and most ordinary.

[Page 96] The second tradition of the feminine sublime is located in those women writers who grew up in Scotland or Ireland or Wales, surrounded by the mountainous landscapes explicitly celebrated as [Page 97] sublime by numerous English writers and painters. For these writers . . . sublime landscapes are home scenery, the location of blissful childhood memories. Confronting magnificent mountains and lakes, their characters experience a heightened sensibility, not of anxiety, but of love, reverence, and mutual relationship. Often their protagonists respond to a mountainous landscape or a radiant sunset with the same loss of ego or consciousness-of-self . . . identified as characteristic of the masculine "negative" sublime . . . [but these women] represent it as a flowing out, an ecstatic experience of co-participation in a nature they explicitly gender as female. For them, this female nature is not an overwhelming power, not even an all-bountiful mother. Instead nature is a female friend, a sister, with whom they share their most intimate experiences and with whom they cooperate in the daily business of life, to the mutual advantage of each.

From Anne K. Mellor, Romanticism & Gender (Routledge 1993).

Gendered Romanticism: Keats--more on Keats (1) and Keats (2).


Frank Dicksee,

"La Belle Dame Sans Merci"

[Page 184] But Keats remained anxious about his participation in a genre [romance-writing] dominated by women writers . . . . Anxiously trying to develop what might be recognizable as a . . . more virile romance, in La Belle Dame sans Merci, . . . Keats finally allied himself with the male against the female. If we assume that the belle dame is a mortal woman and that she has, however ambivalently and ambiguously, offered the knight or wretched wight the opportunity to experience a reciprocated love, then we must ask why he has lost or refused this love. And if the explanation lies in his dream--"Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;/ They cried--'La belle dame sans merci/ Hath thee in thrall!'"--then we must ask what both the knight and the warriors of his dream have to gain by defining the belle dame as cold, cruel, lacking in compassion--in modern parlance, a "bitch." What the men gain is clear. Even though the knight is left "Alone and paley loitering" in a wasteland where the "sedge has wither'd" and "no birds sing," even though his harsh dream has become his reality and he remains unloved, unloving, even dying, nonetheless he gets to tell the story. The male voice both appropriates and silences the female--we never hear what the belle dame thought or felt. This poem thus becomes, in Swann's memorable phrase, a case of "Harrassing the muse," an unwarranted sexual and verbal assault upon a female whose response is neither listened to nor recorded. This short romance calls our attention to the extreme anxiety Keats felt toward his feminine subject matter, even as he could not turn away from it.

From Anne K. Mellor, Romanticism & Gender (Routledge 1993).

Gender and Modernism: Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon"--more on Picasso.


Pablo Picasso,

"Les Demoiselles d'Avignon"

[Page 186] In Picasso's "Les demoiselles d'Avignon" of 1907, which has acquired an iconic status in our culture as a work of modernist origination and as a general emblem of modernism in the arts, I see another quintessential figuration of the theses of this study. "Les demoiselles" is a painting of nude female bathers, linking (to state the obvious) the feminine and water. Since these bathers are prostitutes, their nudity is explicitly sexualized and that sexuality is marked simultaneously by degradation and by accessibility to the male viewer/voyeur/customer. It is, for 1907, a radically stylized painting, not only in the harsh discord of its treatment of the women (a harshness that still now strikes the viewer powerfully), but in its introduction of the vocabulary of cubism: the overall composition or-[Page 187] ganized by, the contours of the figures broken into, angular geometric shapes, the three-dimensionality of depth-illusion of traditional pictorial representation flattened, the figures radically stylized and distorted so as to seem splayed against the surface of the canvas, and the overtly nonrealistic conventions influenced by African tribal masks in the drawing of three of the five faces.

"Les demoiselles" fuses the invention of these modernist formal practices with representation of an empowered sexual feminine. The female bathers are degraded within dominant convention (nude prostitutes, by definition lower class), but are transformed here by modernist form, including alliance with racial blackness (through both allusion to African art and literal dark paint on the three Africanized faces), into a powerful force, which, like the modernist texts I discussed earlier and will discuss in this chapter, retains its great strength now. It was in the process of painting (repainting and repainting) these women that Picasso invented (his version of) modernist art. By means of that modernist art, these women become awesome, frightening, magnificant, powerful figures. They are figures of modernist art as the release into new form of the sexual feminine; of the new form as release into representation of the power and terror of the sexual feminine; of the irresolvable ambiguity, the sous-rature (the figures are just as hideous and distorted as they are powerful and riveting) of that feminine. I would argue, further, that the conventionalized cluster of fruit at the bottom of the canvas suggests the vagina and the "fruit of the womb," linking the sexual feminine, again in characteristic modernist fashion, with the empowered maternal.

From Marianne DeKoven, Rich and Strange: Gender, History, Modernism (Princeton UP 1991).

The Pueblo Migration Story: An Interior Journey

[Page 271] The Laguna Pueblo migration stories refer to specific places--mesas, springs, or cottonwood trees--not only locations which can be visited still, but also locations which lie directly on the state highway route linking Paguate village with Laguna village. . . . [Page 272] A journey from Paguate to Laguna down the long incline of Paguate Hill retraces the original journey from the Emergence Place, which is located slightly north of the Paguate village. Thus the landscape between Paguate and Laguna takes on a deeper significance: the landscape resonates the spiritual or mythic dimension of the Pueblo world even today. . . .

Natural springs are crucial sources of water for all life in the high desert plateau country. So the small spring near Paguate village is literally the source and continuance of life for the people in the area. The spring also functions on a spiritual level, recalling the original Emergence Place and linking the people and the spring water to all other people and to that moment when the Pueblo people became aware of themselves as they are even now. The Emergence was an emergence into a precise cultural identity. Thus the Pueblo stories about the Emergence and Migration are not to be taken as literally as the anthropologists might wish. Prominent geographical features and landmarks which are mentioned in the narratives exist for ritual purposes . . . .

[Page 273] The narratives linked with prominent features of the landscape between Paguate and Laguna delineate the complexities of the relationship which human beings must maintain with the surrounding natrual world if they hope to survive in this place. Thus the journey was an interior process of the imagination, a growing awareness that being human is somehow different from all other life--animal, plant, and inanimate. Yet we are all from the same source. The awareness never deteriorated into Cartesian duality, cutting off the human from the natural world.

The people found the opening into the Fifth World too small to allow them or any of the animals to escape. They had sent a fly out through the small hole to tell them if it was the world which the Mother Creator had promised. It was, but there was the problem of getting out. The antelope tried to butt the opening to enlarge it, but the antelope enlarged it only a little. It was necessary for the badger with her long claws to assist the antelope, and at last the opening was enlarged enough so that all the people and animals were able to emerge up into the Fifth World. The human beings could not have emerged without the aid of antelope and badger. The human beings depended upon the aid and charity of the animals. Only through interdependence could the human beings survive. Families belonged to clans, and it was by clan that the human beings joined with the animal and plant world. Life on the high arid plateau became viable when the human beings were able to imagine themselves as sisters and brothers to the badger, antelope, clay, yucca, and sun. Not until they could find a viable relationship to the terrain, the landscape they found themselves in, could they emerge. Only at the moment the requisite balance between human and other was realized could the Pueblo people become a culture, a distinct group whose population and survival remained stable despite the vicissitudes of climate and terrain. . . .

[Page 275] The bare vastness of the Hopi landscape emphasizes the visual impact of every plant, every rock, every arroyo. Nothing is overlooked or taken for granted. Each ant, each lizard, each lark is imbued with great value simply because the creature is there, simply because the creature is alive in a place where any life at all is precious. Stand on the mesa edge at Walpai and look west over the bare distances toward the pale blue outlines of the San Francisco peaks where the ka'tsina spirits reside. So little lies between you and the sky. So little lies between you and the earth. One look and you know that simply to survive is a great triumph, that every possible resource is needed, every possible ally--even the mot humble insect or reptile. You realize you will be speaking with all of them if you intend to last out the year. Thus it is that the Hopi elders are grateful to the landscape for aiding them in their quest as spiritual people.

From Leslie Marmon Silko, "Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination" , pp. 264-275

in The Ecocriticism Reader, eds. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm (U Georgia P, 1996).

Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us--more on Mayumi Oda.


Mayumi Oda, "Bliss of Sea"

[Page 336] The Sea Around Us opens with grand vistas of nature--the geologic events leading to the creation of earth and ocean. The coda for the section "Mother Sea" looks to origins: "Fish, amphibian, and repitile, warm-blooded bird and mammals--each of us carries in our veins a salty stream in which the elements sodium, potassium, and calcium are combined in almost the same proportions as sea water." The core of our being is determined by the ocean for each generation comes from the sea again: "Each of us begins his individual life in a miniature ocean within his mother's womb, and in the stages of his embryonic development repeats the stages by which his race evolved, from gill-breathing inhabitants of a water world to creatures able to live on land."

For Carson, adaptation--change caused by pressures in the environment--is interactive and ecological. As [Mary] Austin notes the pressures desert terrain puts on plant life, so Carson notes similar demands on sea life. But Carson extends the work of earlier naturalists like Austin by a new sense of the value of all aspects of natrue. While [Isabella] Bird marvels only at "glorious" vistas and thundering wildlife and Austin gives the scavengers and snakes of the world a certain charm, Carson, benefitting from advances in research, offers a whole new pantheon of heroic creature--"Hordes of small carnivores" in plankton the human eye has difficulty seeing at all. Their worth stems not only from their importance in the food chain; they are described so as to give a sense of their strength. Carson gives plankton a value beyond its use as a food source for other creatures; plankton contains in itself those beautiful adaptations and interactions that are appreciated among larger species. . . .

[Page 337] In the early 1950s, when Carson finished The Sea Around Us, she was optimistic about the use science could make of nature while still respecting the final priority of natural processes over human manipulation. . . . Ten years later, at work on Silent Spring, Carson was no longer [Page 338] as sanguine about the ability of the environment to protect itself from human interference. . . . Growth in science and technology led to the use of the ocean as a dump for radioactive wastes. The choice of the ocean as dump was based on the belief that it was "inviolate, beyond man's ability to despoil." Carson now realized that radioactive waste can have disastrous impacts both on ocean life and life on land. . . .

Where Mary Austin took solace in a mystery that seemed to protect the world, an unexplainable organic rhythm that made human works look small and gave the wild environment priority, Rachel Carson, living in the atomic age, had no such solace.

From Vera L. Norwood, "Heroines of Nature" pp. 323-350 in The Ecocriticism

Reader, eds. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm (U Georgia P, 1996).

Ecofeminism--see also Gloria Orenstein's Reflowering of the Goddess.

[Page 15] If ecofeminism as a movement has indeed come into its own in the United states in the 1990s, ecofeminist historians have most often given credit for its intellectual and theoretical spadework to a Frenchwoman writing in the early 1970s [Francoise d'Eaubonne]. . . . I would nevertheless like to reemphasize the often repeated fact that ecofeminism involves activism as well as ideology and that both of these aspects of ecofeminism arose simultaneously worldwide. As d'Eaubonne was publishing her books, women in the United States were protesting the atrocities at Love Canal and analyzing the shock waves of the nuclear leak at Three Mile Island as women in northern India were initiating the Chipko movement, hugging trees to save them from felling. . . .

[Page 18] The pressing problems raised by inattention to women's and the earth's well-being demand a revolution in Western thought. According to d'Eaubonne, "since 1974, that is when I started to write, the events that have followed one another in the field of ecological struggle--as well as women's struggle--have confirmed--more than I thought--the emergency of the double problem". . . ."The aim," she states about the necessity for an ecofeminist revolution, "is not that of 'building a better and a fairer society.' It is that of living, of allowing history to continue, rather than our disappearing like some of the ante-diluvian animals did, or like certain species of birds, whose spermatozoic capacity went on decreasing because of overpopulation". . . .

[Page 20] . . .[T]he global nature of 1990s ecofeminism has made some of d'Eaubonn'e 1970s ideas seem culturally confined.. . .Reminding us that "development" has been a patriarchal project. Vandana Shiva has subsequently shown how women have suffered as a result of what she calls "maldevelopment". . . .[S]hiva sees how [women's agricultural] work in the Third World continues to be supplanted by systems that both split the family and impoverish the land. In Shiva's words: "The ideology of development is in large part based on a vision of bringing all natural resources into the market economy for commodity production. When these resources are already being used by nature to maintain her production of renewable resources and by [Third World] women for sustenance and livelihood, the diversion of resources to the market economy generates ecological instability and creates new forms of poverty for women". . . .

[Ideas ecofeminists have in common] include the necessity for social transformation by moving beyond power politics and an equivalent necessity for less "management" of the land--both central ideas in d'Eaubonne's work. They also include an appreciation of the intrinsic value of everything in nature--a biocentric rather than an anthropocentric viewpoint; an end to dualism like male/female, thought/action, and spiritual/natural; and a trust in process, not just product. . . .

From Barbara T. Gates, "A Root of Ecofeminism: Ecofeminisme" pp. 15-22
in Ecofeminist Literary Criticism: Theory,Interpretation, Pedagogy,
eds. Greta Gaard and Patrick D. Murphy (U of Illinois P, 1998).

Susan Griffin's "The Hunt"--see related painting: Biliverti's Daphne [pursued by Apollo].


Giovanni Biliverti, "Daphne"

[Page 105] She has captured his heart. She has overcome him. He cannot tear his eyes away. He is burning with passion. He cannot live without her. He pursues her. She makes him pursue her. The faster she runs, the stronger his desire. He will overtake her. He will make her his own. He will have her. (The boy chases the doe and her yearling for nearly two hours. She keeps running despite her wounds. He pursues her through pastures, over fences, groves of trees, crossing the road, up hills, volleys of rifle shots sounding, until perhaps twenty bullets are embedded in her body.) She has no mercy. She has dressed to excite his desire. She has no scruples. She has painted herself for him. She makes supple movements to entice him. She is without a soul. Beneath her painted face is flesh, are bones. She reveals only part of herself to him. She is wild. She flees whenever he approaches. She is teasing him. (Finally, she is defeated and falls and he sees that half of her head has been blown off, that one leg is gone, her abdomen split from her tail to her head, and her organs hang outside her body. Then four men encircle the fawn and harvest her too.) He is an easy target, he says. He says he is pierced. Love has [Page 106] shot him through, he says. He is a familiar mark. Riddled. Stripped to the bone. He is conquered, he says. (The boys, fond of hunting hare, search in particular for pregnant females.) He is fighting for his life. He faces annihilation in her, he says. He is losing himself to her, he says. Now, he must conquer her wildness, he says, he must tame her before she drives him wild, he says. (Once catching their prey, they step on her back, breaking it, and they call this "dancing on the hare.") Thus he goes on his knees to her. Thus he wins her over, he tells her he wants her. He makes her his own. He encloses her. He encircles her. He puts her under lock and key. He protects her. (Approaching the great mammals, the hunters make little sounds which they know will make the elephants form a defensive circle.) And once she is his, he prizes his delight. He feasts his eyes on her. He adorns her luxuriantly. He gives her ivory. He gives her perfume. (The older matriarchs stand to the outside of the circle to protect the calves and younger mothers.) He covers her with the skins of mink, beaver, muskrat, seal, raccoon, otter, ermine, fox, the feathers of ostriches, osprey, egret, ibis. (The hunters then encircle that circle and fire first into the bodies of the matriarchs. When these older elephants fall, the younger panic, yet unwilling to leave the bodies of their dead mothers, they make easy targets.) And thus he makes her soft. He makes her calm. He makes her grateful to him. He has tamed her, he says. She is content to be his, he says. (In the winter, if a single wolf has leaped over the walls of the city and terrorized the streets, the hunters go out in a band to rid the forest of the whole pack.) Her voice is now soothing to him. Her eyes no longer blaze, but look on him serenely. When he calls to her, she gives herself to him. Her ferocity lies under him. (The body of the great whale is strapped with explosives.) Now nothing of the old beast remains in her. (Eastern Bison, extinct 1825; Spectacled Cormorant, extinct 1852; Cape Lion, extinct 1865; Bonin Night Heron, extinct 1889; Barbary Lion, extinct 1922; Great Auk, extinct 1944.) And he can trust her wholly with himself. So he is blazing when he enters her, and she is consumed. (Florida Key Deer, vanishing; Wild Indian Buffalo, vanishing; Great Sable Antelope, vanishing.) Because she is his, she offers no resistance. She is a place of rest for him. a place of his making. And when his flesh begins to yield and his skin melts into her, he becomes soft, and he is without fear; he does not lose himself; though something in him gives way, he is not lost in her, because she is his now: he has captured her.

From Susan Griffin, "The Hunt" from Woman and Nature: The

Roaring Inside Her (Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1978).

Nora Naranjo-Morse's "Mud Woman" Poems and Sculptures--see her poetry and art.


Nora Naranjo

"Mud Woman"

[Page 42] Naranjo-Morse's Mud Woman: Poems from the Clay opens with a preface that intertwines environment, culture, and art. The environment, "veins of colored earth sun along the hillsides of New Mexico," gives rise to a history of integration with that place: "For hundreds of years Pueblo people have treasured their powerful relationship with clay." Without the clay there would be no pueblos. As Naranjo-Morse notes, "subtle lessons from Clay Mother awaken my appreciation for daily rituals, connecting me to the Pueblo worldview." The clay is neither a possession for proprietary claim nor located in a secret place so that it may be hoarded. Rather, it is part of the community, and community is reaffirmed through a relationship with it: "Even today, when a vein is located and uncovered, a prayer is offered to Nan chu Kweejo (Clay Mother), acknowledging her generous gifts to us. . . . This prayer continually renews our relationship to the earth, her gifts, and Towa [people]". . . .

Mud Woman is organized into four sections: "Mud Woman," "Wandering Pueblo Woman," "Pearlene and Friends," and "Home." In the first section the author establishes herself as an artist, which means becoming "Mud woman" [Page 43] as a result of her immersion in the earth that inspires her creativity . . . . But by the fifth poem, the world of art has become complicated by the marketplace. Even so, at the end of the day in front of the museum wall, what counts is not the tally of the sales made but the relationships established between Mud Woman and the scultptors, jewelers, and artists from other pueblos and peoples. Such relationships help sustain her through the next few poems as the sculptor runs the gamut of the white-dominated art marketplace and loses her "innocence". . . .

The "Pearlene and Her Friends" section addresses the generation gap, if you will, in the Santa Clara Pueblo between more traditional "Tewa matriarchs" and modern young women. Here Naranjo-Morse, with poems about Pearlene, Moonlight, and Coyote, suggests that the temptations of modernity and dominant popular culture are trickster manifestations, to be countered by the artist as trickster and tribal matriarchs as tradition bearers. . . .

The volume ends with this beauty being realized in a new work of art, a fired bowl, created within the tradition but also rendered fortuitously as a variation of it. The bowl becomes proof that the ancient art remains alive, nourishing and replenishing, rather than being a dead or sterile imitation of a lost past. This "old, new medicine bowl," like Mud Woman, inhabits the present even as, and as a representation of, the Pueblo worldview inhabits the present in a particular place and with a specific balance and continuity that needs to be artfully realized.

From Patrick D. Murphy, "'The Women Are Speaking': Contemporary Literature as

Theoretical Critique" pp. 23-48in Ecofeminist Literary Criticism: Theory, Interpretation,

Pedagogy, eds. Greta Gaada and Patrick D. Murphy (U of Illinois P, 1998).

The Female Quest of Remedios Varo--see Varo paintings/commentary.


Remedios Varo,

"Creation of the Birds"

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