Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys: An Eco-critical Study
دراسة نقدية بيئية لروايتي كولسون وايتهيد “سكة حديد تحت الأرض” و”أولاد النيكل”
نزيهة محمد شمس الدين Naziha mouhammad Shams Eddine
تاريخ الإرسال:23-12-2023 تاريخ القبول:01-01-2024
Eco-criticism, as a literary theory, helps analyze literary works based on the relationship between humanity and the natural world. Employing an eco-critical perspective, this paper investigates nature’s response to humanity as depicted in Colson Whitehead’s novels The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys. In line with the principles of eco-criticism which suggests that nature can respond to human actions either positively or adversely, the novels are analyzed, focusing on understanding the impact of nature on humanity. The narratives help acknowledge the influence of nature on humanity’s anthropocentric, or human- centered, attitudes toward nature which has resulted in dire consequences. Through an eco-critical praxis, the novels prompt an awareness of environmental consciousness and emphasize that any form of disruption or imbalance between humans and their environment leads to nature’s reactions in order to stop the dichotomy between the two sides.
Keywords: Eco-criticism, natural world, dichotomy, humanity, The Nickel Boys, The Underground Railroad
يساعد النقد البيئي، بوصفه نظرية أدبية، في تحليل الأعمال الأدبية القائمة على العلاقة بين الإنسانية والعالم الطبيعي. من خلال استخدام منظور نقدي بيئي، تدرس هذه الورقة رد فعل الطبيعة تجاه الإنسانية كما صُوِّرت في روايات كولسون وايتهيد، “سكة حديد تحت الأرض” و”أولاد النيكل”. تماشيًا مع مبادئ النقد البيئي التي تشير إلى أنّ الطبيعة يمكن أن تستجيب لأفعال الإنسان إمّا بشكل إيجابي أو سلبي، تحلَّلُ الروايات مع التركيز على فهم تأثير الطبيعة على الإنسانية. تساعد الروايات في الاعتراف بتأثير الطبيعة على مواقف البشرية تجاه الطبيعة، أو التي تتمحور حول الإنسان، والتي أدت إلى عواقب وخيمة. ومن خلال الممارسة النقدية البيئية، تثير الروايات وعيًا بيئيًا وتؤكد على أن أي شكل من أشكال الخلل أو عدم التوازن بين البشر وبيئتهم يؤدي إلى ردود أفعال الطبيعة من أجل وقف الانقسام بين الجانبين.
الكلمات المفاتيح: النقد البيئي، العالم الطبيعي، الانقسام، الإنسانية، أولاد النيكل، السكة الحديد تحت الأرض
Frequently, it is a common practice to attribute obstacles to mismanagement or economic constraint. Nevertheless, adversities and disasters can also be a result of an earth trying to avenge. This form of revenge is intertwined with a discipline called eco-criticism. Eco-criticism is the representation of nature in literature. As a multidisciplinary field of study, it explores the connection between the environment and literary works. An essential objective of this ecological theory involves studying societal behaviors and responses within cultures toward the natural world (Al Fawareh, Dakamsih & Alkouri, 2023). Representations of nature in literature are not only limited to physical entities but they also encompass conceptual implications and interpretations (Kern, 2000). This new revisionist trend has gained prominence in modern literary works as it reflects awareness of ecological concerns. As a term, “eco-criticism” was coined by William Rueckert in 1978 within his essay Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism (Abbasi & Pourkaramali, 2014). Ecology delineates the interrelationship between living creatures on one side and their physical surrounding on the other side. Therefore, from an eco-critical perspective, there is an interdependent bond and a symbiotic relationship and interaction between all living creatures and their environment (Abbasi & Pourkaramali, 2014). An associate professor specializing in literature and the environment, Cheryll Glotfelty, defines eco-criticism in The Ecocriticism Reader as “the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment” (Glotfelty, 1996). Glotfelty underscores the inclination of humanity toward dominance, prosperity and discovery which has resulted in diverse reactions from nature for violating the pre-existing harmony between nature and human existence.
An example of such violation is studied in Colson Whitehead’s novels, The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys. A comprehensive interpretation of nature and an eco-critical study of these literary works provide insights into humanity’s relation to the natural world. The Underground Railroad is a novel that traces the ill-fated journeys of an enslaved African, called Cora. Cora’s relation and bond to nature saved her from several obstacles that she encountered throughout her journeys and quest for freedom. In an era that favors the white population and marked by institutionalization of enslavement, Cora and many other enslaved Africans sought protection within nature and natural landscape during their escape from slave catchers and masters. Furthermore, the narrative presents the wrath of nature when it is mistreated, showing nature’s avenge towards those who disrespect the dichotomy between humanity and the natural world.
Analogously, The Nickel Boys is an exemplum of an earth trying to uncover a disaster caused by human hands that has been hidden for numerous decades. Within the narrative, a truth concealed for 111 years is uncovered. It is an environmental revenge against man’s actions on supposedly idyllic campus of the Nickel Academy, a school that “claims” to be rehabilitating boys for their reintegration into the society upon their graduation. The study thus aims to analyze the selected novel from an eco-critical perspective as it seeks to intricate the kind of relationship between humanity and the natural world within the narratives.
Eco-criticism, as a literary theory, has found application in numerous literary works and enriched the novels’ interpretations. These analyses often focus on exploring the type of relationship between man and his environment. Within this context, three distinct studies have been presented here that analyze the harmony between humanity and the natural world and present the consequences of disturbing the ecological equilibrium. By the Name of Nature but Against Nature: An Ecocritical Study of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is an article published in the Asian Journal of Humanities and Social Studies that undertakes an eco-critical examination of Joseph Conrad’s novella, The Heart of Darkness. The study’s primarily objective is to illustrate the transformation in the relationship and harmony between man and nature, transitioning from the Romantic era to a cruel and heartless period prevalent in the capitalist and industrial modern time. The study aims to present such alteration of the relationship between man and his nature. Analyses start by stating that Conrad’s writing reflects his experiences as a sailor and his views were commanded by his disillusionment of the late Victorian worldview. His perspective was profoundly shaped by the prevalent late 19th-century attitudes toward Africa, depicting indigenous Africans as primitive savages devoid of nobility, thereby requiring enlightenment. In the novella, Africa was depicted as a dark, mysterious continent that needs to be opened up by the Europeans who proclaimed the exploration of the country for their civilizing mission. However, their endeavors led to the exploitation and misuse of the land, the river, the animals and the overall environment. Indeed, the primary objective was the acquisition of ivory which was obscured beneath their claimed civilization mission in Africa. Europeans were exemplified by Kurtz and other agents in the novella. Their insatiable pursuit of ivory stands as an emblem of animal exploitation as it poses a significant threat to the environment though it was profitable and has an impressive economic return. Though Europeans gained profits from ivory, their great loss of the humankind has a more catastrophic outcome. The quest for ivory serves as a metaphor for the exploitation inherent in the imperialistic agenda, revealing the underlying greed and disregard for the indigenous environment and its inhabitants. Therefore, in this environmental work, an ecological disaster is highlighted in the Congo, connecting imperialism to the ecological disaster and causing a material transformation of the world. European domination of natural resources including exploitation of slaves was their ultimate objective. The rapid growth of industrialization bolstered imperialism too, profoundly impacting nature through extermination and the subjugation of indigenous cultures. Humans’ loss of conscious and their greediness for natural resources catalyzed the conflict between humanity and nature and resulted in human destruction. The haunting words uttered by Kurtz in his dying moments, “The horror! The horror” are a mere reflection of the profound darkness at the end of his life and epitomize the depth of despair and degradation witnessed in the narrative. Consequently the study critiques the hypocrisy of European civilization while shedding light on their attempts to exploit nature for imperialistic pursuits (Hojjat & Daronkolae, 2013).
Another eco-critical study entitled Eco-critical Analysis of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea analyses the novella from an eco-critical perspective. The study investigates the novel starting from its setting which is in the wilderness of the sea, focusing on the elements of nature and their harmony with one another. The study then explores the story of the fisherman, Santiago, who struggles to capture a fish for continuous 84 days. His apprentice departs him as he gets hopeless to catch anything and eventually joins another fisherman. On the 85th day, Santiago engages in a three-day struggle to catch a huge marline, an endangered species. After his triumph over the fish, Santiago secures it to the boat because it was larger than the vessel itself. However, its blood attracted a group of sharks, leading to its consumption,Top of Form and the fisherman returns to the harbor with a carcass of the fish. The study accentuates the thematic struggle between man and nature. It underscores that imperative of respecting nature because any attempt to conquer it may lead to dire consequences. Nature is symbolized by the big fish, and Santiago’s courage to defeat that natural element causes his defeat by other natural entities, personified by the sharks. Analyzing emotional connections of characters to their environment is an essential element in the study too. Santiago has sympathy toward the sea creatures. He allows small birds coming from the north to rest on his skiff. He also engages with them as though they were his companions. In fact, he displays kindness to all marine creatures especially turtles. He perceives a similarity between his heart and that of a turtle, which continues to beat for hours despite being blustered by fishermen, thus fostering his compassion toward these animals. He also considers the moon and the stars as his companions. He is united to the nature; birds serve as his guide, leading him to fishing locations, while the stars provide direction during night. Despite his profound bond with the environment, Santiago violates the bond with nature when he struggles with the fish. During his fight with marline, he struggles with himself too. At one point, he has compassion for it, and at other point, he is determined to kill it. He is a fisherman after all who is reliant on catching fish for survival. Therefore, though he feels sorry for the fish, his determination to kill it is never relaxed until it is captured. His action is driven not by a love of killing, but by the necessities of his profession as a fisherman. The analysis demonstrates that there is a positive association between Santiago and the environment; however, he lacks eco-critical consciousness. Though he has a close relationship with his environment, he is unaware of the consequence of hunting an endangered species, resulting in the breakdown and disorganization of the ecological framework. His return to the shore empty-handed serves as a proof of man’s helplessness in front of nature when the ecological equilibrium is disturbed (Harode, 2013).
In an article entitled The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: An Ecocritical Approach, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is analyzed from an eco-critical lens. The article analyzes man’s aspiration for dominance and prosperity in direct interaction with Nature. It explores the responses of Nature consequent to man’s venture into the Pacific realm and the consequence of killing of an albatross that belongs to Nature. Furthermore, the article examines the aftermath of transatlantic voyages within an eco-critical framework. The article starts by mentioning Coleridge’s personal perspective of nature. He considered Nature as a refuge and a haven that allowed him to stay away from the turmoil of his time. He perceived Nature as an influential force that guides and inspires the moral and spiritual aspects of human existence. He regarded Nature as the language of God, with its elements revealing His conserving and creative presence. Therefore, he looked at Nature as a divine agent. Coleridge explicitly condemned the exploration of unknown lands need to be discovered, colonization endeavors and the enslavement of indigenous populations as violations against Nature, advocating for repercussions for such transgressions. In The Ancient Mariner, the voyage begins cheerfully until the ship progresses towards the Pacific and the Mariner shoots an albatross- an action considered a betrayal of Nature as the bird signifies God and belongs to Nature. Man’s desire to kill, control, dominate and possess native lands disrupts the symbiotic relationship between man and Nature. Interrupting foreign lands, imposing authority and exploitation of enslaved populations give rise to cultural mixture and identity negotiations. Consequently, Nature avenges by obstructing the most needed element for the movement of the ship, the wind. The mariners are also deprived of rain and the sky is turned into a hot and copper one with bloody sun. The reaction of the natural environment puts the mariners in doubt and despair, and their state of “static mechanism” is a result of the violation of the “dynamic organicism,” the union between the mariners and Nature. The article highlights what has happened to the mariners as a manifestation of God’s anger for betraying divinity and being violators of Nature. The Mariner tries to pray but cannot. He feels that his heart is as dry as dust, and he loses faith in the benevolence of Nature. This can be interrupted as punishment from Nature’s rebellion against the mariner’s hellish actions. The Mariner is transformed to an outcast and a ruined man. All alone, after his companions die one after the other, he is changed and dehumanized. Nature restores the balance as the ship redirects towards England instead of heading to virgin lands. The article ends by stating that The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a means of seeing life without any isolated being, considering elements of nature as important as a human being and highlighting the universal equality of all creatures. An eco-critical reading of this literary work underscores Nature’s revenge and punishment against human actions that disrupt the harmony between man and Nature, leading to profound consequences (Abbasi & Pourkaramali, 2014).
Eco-criticism’s methodology revolves around the relationship between man and nature. Within its framework, it focuses on individuals’ behaviors and reactions in relation to ecological aspects, proving that such behaviors and reactions impact human society. Thereby, it forms an inter-relational connection between nature and the cultural phenomenon. The literary theory also focuses on the fundamental premise that human culture affects and is affected by the physical surrounding. In the context of environmental discourse, eco-criticism studies experiences of sorrows, joys, ambitions, fears and disasters in literary works. When analyzing works of literature from an eco-critical lens, a set of questions arises such as, “What is the environment? What is the nature? Would a shift toward an ecological perception of nature change the humans’ lives on Earth? Do authors present any values when they present nature?” (Jeetendrasingh, 2012). Addressing these inquiries enables readers to become aware of the significance of human environment and the interconnectedness between humanity and the natural world.
An important point shared among most eco-critics is their rejection of the notion that everything is solely socially constructed. Eco-criticism challenges such notions, believing that concepts can also be constructed from an eco-critical standpoint. Nature as an entity can affect humanity in a fatal way if mistreated or invoked carelessly. God-given nature can have negative side effects in case of its invocation. Eco-criticism investigates how man uses nature as the nonhuman to validate humanity. Viewing nature in an anthropocentric or human-centered fashion, where everything exists for the benefit of humans, is a point that deep ecology resists. Anthropocentric attitudes can be traced back to Western cultural traditions as Protagoras, the early Greek philosopher, considers “Man is the measure of all things” and Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Vitruvian Man” drawing which considers human body’s proportions as the most essential geometrical shapes by its figure of a naked man set within a circle “with arms outstretched both horizontally, and diagonally above the head” (Barry, 1995). Furthermore, Alexander Pope’s proclamation in An Essay on Man, “The proper study of mankind is Man” adds to the human-centered attitudes. Such anthropocentric rather than eco-centric issues lead to anthropocentric problems that affect the wilderness and result in environmental calamities. Projecting a cruel human attitude onto the natural world may yield dire consequences as the powers of nature to recover might not be limited and its ability to inflict fatal damages might not be handled. Eco-criticism scrutinizes environmental repercussions that stem from human dominion over nature, suggesting that these consequences might have no limits. As a result, eco-critics turn away from social constructivism and linguistic determinism and focus instead on eco-centric values and ethical responsibilities (Barry, 1995). Therefore, an eco-critical interpretation of a literary work incorporates a consideration of the kind of relationship of humans and their nature. Works of literature thus aim to build up the eco-consciousness among readers that meet with today’s environmental crisis. Authors of such works base their beliefs on the notion that nature exists beyond human influence, and it is capable of affecting humanity fatally and creating imbalance if not treated with consideration. Based on the praxis of eco-criticism, which suggests that nature avenges, Whitehead’s novels, The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys will undergo an eco-critical analysis that delves into the portrayal of the relationship between humanity and the natural world.
The Underground Railroad from an Eco-critical Lens
From an eco-critical reading of Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, the interconnection between human beings and nature is studied. The novel presents a reconstruction of Antebellum America and Middle Passage, during which millions of enslaved Africans were forced to be transported to America as part of the triangular slave trade. Antebellum refers, also known as the Plantation era, “traditionally covers the economic growth of the South based on plantation farming and driven by slave labor” (Antebellum, n.d.). Such imperialistic voyages of transmission of the Western culture to Oriental lands for economic growth and expansion to such lands can be seen as threats imposed on the environment, including animals, plants and inhabitants (Abbasi & Pourkaramali, 2014). Antebellum period, its voyages and the enslavement of indigenous people can be seen as violations of nature, as exemplified in The Underground Railroad where Ajarry, the protagonist’s grandmother, and numerous other slaves were brought on a slave ship from Africa to the United States of America. Ajarry arrived in Charleston abroad “Nanny” across the Atlantic where she was sold multiple times before she ended up at the Randall plantation. Her story echoes the plight of many slaves who were being sold as they stood naked in auctions. From an eco-critical reading of the white’s actions, such actions are perceived as violations of nature that disrupt the harmony between humanity and the natural world. For the white capitalists, the land was their mean to satisfy their greediness for cotton as a natural resource. Their lack of eco-critical consciousness enabled them to exploit enslaved Africans for labor in cotton fields. Contrarily, enslaved Africans, such as the protagonist Cora, consider nature a source of inspiration and protection. Abandoned by her mother at a young age, Cora appealed to the land to protect her from several dangers. Though she was too young, she fought to protect a small plot of land that she inherited from her grandmother, Ajarry, and then passed on to her mother. Cora was constantly threatened by other slaves who sought to claim her garden, yet she clung to the connection with the land amid adversity. Though forsaken, she did not deny her circumstances but created a new reality of an abandoned girl who was ready to be the longest surviving resident of the hob. She did not give up and needed the land as much as the land needed her. When she felt unsecured and in danger because of a slave, Blake, and his friends, she relied on nature as a shield and hid behind a tree to protect herself. She appealed to nature to save her from corrupted slaves who wanted to abuse her physically. She had always felt that nature is her refuge especially when white men passed by as she “prayed the plants were tall enough to hide her” (Whitehead, The Underground Railroad, 2016, p. 43). To Cora, nature was a place where she could seek refuge from all kinds of turmoil.
Nature does respond, either in cruel or benevolent ways. To Cora, nature was benevolent and a form of refuge as she was part of the land. She grew up with stalks as “the stalks were up to Cora’s shoulders now, bending and tottering, sprouting leaves and squares that were bigger every morning” (Whitehead, The Underground Railroad, 2016, p. 43). Another example of nature’s benevolence is its embrace to an underground railroad. The railroad is built by abolitionists in order to help escapees in their quest for freedom to flee the violence inflicted by their masters. The locomotive is built beneath, in the heart of nature, amidst the natural world. It severs as a metaphorical shield that protects the black from their white oppressors. It also functions as a refuge in which colored individuals can resort to when they need to escape the dangers and constraints of white man’s world.
Therefore, nature can be human’s refuge, but it can also be the opposite if threatened by human interference with the environment. Humans’ actions of blustering cultures and native lands, seen through their colonization, slave trade and other deeds disrupt the harmony between the natural environment and human beings. Consequently, nature avenges. Due to the white’s racial discrimination and their participation in the slave trade, nature showed its benign and hostile side. In the novel, nature avenges in its own way, spreading a pandemic disease. According to Whitehead (2016):
Tennessee was cursed. Initially she assigned the devastation of Tennessee-the blaze and the disease-to justice. The whites got what they deserved. For enslaving her people, for massacring another race, for stealing the very land itself. Let them burn by flame or fever, let the destruction started here rove acre by acre until death have been avenged (p.215).
Nature’s vengeance is a response to a history of injustices and “human beings’ meddling with affairs of the environment would certainly be followed by the environment’s responses” (Abbasi & Pourkaramali, 2014). Therefore, Tennessee was cursed for enslaving its people and Nature responded by a yellow fever outbreak transforming it into a wasteland.
Another illustration depicting nature’s response to human’s actions is seen in the final moments of the slave catcher, Ridgeway. Ridgeway was obsessed by his failure to catch Cora and his mother, Mabel, before her. His deep-rooted attachment to the American imperative, that grants every white person the right and the duty to catch colored runaways and return them to their masters, was so evident in his dying words. His last words revealed his obsession with the imperative as he said, “The imperative is… no, no. That’s not it. The American imperative is a splendid thing… a beacon … a shining beacon… Born of necessity and virtue, between the hammer… and the anvil… (Whitehead, The Underground Railroad, 2016, p. 303). As death approached him, he was about to question that imperative that ultimately led to his death in a dark empty tunnel. However, when he felt that he was doubting the imperative, he reaffirmed his commitment to it saying, “Let me start again…” (p.303) and reinforced his ideas about America. In fact, Ridgeway’s words in his dying moments reveal that he was still haunted by his inability to find “more niggers to hunt” (p.303). His death is a result of God’s anger for betraying divinity and violating laws of nature that are against enslavement.
The Nickel Boys from an Eco-critical Lens
The Nickel Boys is a 2019 fictional novel that is based on a factual story of a school that operated in Florida for 111 years. It was claimed that the institution was a reform school that helps rehabilitate boys and prepares them for their future integration into the society. However, an eco-critical reading of the literary work reveals the whole reality: nature spoke out and revealed a truth that was concealed for decades. According to Abbasi & Pourkaramali (2014), nature “avenges when human beings go against God’s will and cause violence.” And, in the novel, nature revealed its secret graveyard “on the north side of the Nickel campus, in a patchy acre of wild grass between the old work barn and the school dump” (Whitehead, The Nickel Boys, 2019). Earlier, upon suspicions of the presence of numerous buried bodies on the campus, there was reluctance to open an investigation due to the passage of time. As a result, abuse narratives were suppressed and erased from history. However, nature was not silent; it showed itself again to Jody, an archeology student from the University of South Florida, to expose the truth to the rest of the world. When questioned about how she spotted the graves, Jody remarked, “The dirt looked wrong. The sunken earth, the scrabbly weeds” (Whitehead, The Nickel Boys, 2019, p. 2). This suggests that the earth was calling archaeology students to investigate the place. Nature spitted out all the scattered bones, belt buckles and soda bottles and it laid them bare for discovery. It also exposed white’s true intentions that were distant from the purported goal of rehabilitating any colored boy. Nature’s vengeance manifested in the form of a scandal that befell the white owners of the Nickel Academy. The white population thus represents violators of nature who disrupted the harmony between humanity and the environment and disregarded the sacredness of nature. Their hypocritical ideology aimed to get rid of a perceived “lesser race” as they considered the black population as an inferior entity in contrast to their claimed superiority. Top of FormHence, when on one dared to unveil the truth, earth avenges and revealed it after a lapse of 111 years.
The eco-critical study of Whitehead’s novels, The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys serve as an exploration of the interconnectedness between human beings and nature. They help promote a consciousness that rejects the perception of isolated existence. The divinely bond between man his environment suggests then that any kind of violation or betrayal of that alliance will elicit a response. The response can either be hostile or benign based on man’s actions towards it. In The Underground Railroad, enslaved Africans sought refuge and formed a connection with nature, whereas the white’s violation of nature, through enslavement and forced labor on cotton plantations, had resulted in their plague. In The Nickel Boys, nature emerged as a voice and revealed the deliberately hidden secret of humanity’s discrimination and crimes, revealing justice for the inferiors. From this perspective, eco-criticism emerges as a facilitating tool to raise eco-critical consciousness and remind humanity that when the ecological balance is disturbed, humanity becomes helpless. Therefore, nature avenges to restore the shaken harmony between it and human beings and underscore the imperative of respecting nature.
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 – Department of English Language and Literature, Faculty of Human Sciences, Beirut Arab University
كلية العلوم الإنسانية قسم اللغة الإنجليزية وآدابها – – طالبة دكتوراه في جامعة بيروت العربية