'Our human boundaries were overrun': coextensive bodies and environments in contemporary American fiction
Kervin, Claire Elise
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This dissertation examines contemporary American novelists whose depictions of how humans relate to the natural world challenge dominant Western cultural assumptions about human autonomy. My analysis centers on Marilynne Robinson, Louise Erdrich, and Richard Powers. Scholarship has largely understood these writers to be undertaking human-centered, social projects related to gender, ethnicity, and technology. However, in my reading, their works demonstrate how the formal elements of fiction—character and plot development, narrative voice and perspective, and recurring imagery—can be used to develop what I call a coextensive vision of the environment, one which shifts emphasis from the autonomous human self to a perception of how embodied individuals are embedded in larger networks and interchanges. In developing this claim, I suggest the environmental potential of the novel, a genre that has received short shrift in ecocriticism. Chapter One considers the novels of Marilynne Robinson, focusing on Housekeeping. Robinson’s nature imagery is highly metaphorical, but I argue that her writing also works on what we might call a material register: it persistently gestures toward an external world that resists enclosure through language, a natural world with which the human body is entangled. Accordingly, I argue, Robinson’s work develops an ecological vision wherein humans are coextensive with the environment. Chapter Two centers on Louise Erdrich’s boundary imagery. I first explore the recurrence of imagery of harmful divisions across Erdrich’s whole body of work. This is, I contend, a pattern that Erdrich uses to critique radical individualism. I further argue that Erdrich draws on the traditional trickster of Anishinaabe storytelling to reinvigorate coextensive connections through pleasure and humor, generating a tribal kincentric ecology emphasizing reciprocity between interrelated beings. Chapter Three closes the project by reading Richard Powers, whose work offers a more frightening vision of what it means to be inseparable from nature compared with Robinson and Erdrich: in Gain, the primary link between humans and environment involves shared toxicity. I explore how Powers’s preferred two-stranded narrative structure develops the reader’s ecological awareness. However, I propose, Gain ultimately problematizes the ethical promise of interconnection, suggesting that knowledge of coextension spurs negative affect and disengagement.