Environmental Discourse: Spatiality, Power and Non-Human Concerns in Monique Roffey’s The White Woman on the Green Bicycle and Sun Dog
The relationship between humans and nature has never been more topical than at present with environmental problems being an urgent twenty-first century concern. These concerns have also found their way into literary studies in the form of ecocriticism, which provides a look at the way in which writers engage with environmental problems, nature and place in literary texts. Setting out at elucidating these concerns with nature, culture and spatiality, this paper offers an ecocritical reading of the work of Monique Roffey, a contemporary British-Caribbean writer who turns a delicate eye to nature in all of her noticeably green novels. Roffey’s style tends toward magical realism and concentrates on the Caribbean, her home region and the setting that is most vibrantly present in many of her writings. More precisely, Roffey’s acclaimed novels Sun Dog (2002) and The White Woman on the Green Bicycle (2009) problematize the issue of identity by anchoring it in nature and landscape; that is, identity is problematized insofar as it is entangled with the nonhuman world. While White Woman recounts the migration of a couple from England to Trinidad, Sun Dog explores the protagonist August Chalmin’s search for his father, set against the backdrop of seasonal changes. It is particularly the geographical settings and their imagery that constitute an immediate presence in the novels and lend peculiarity to Roffey’s writings, distinguishing her as an environmentally-oriented author. Instead of focusing on environmental fragility, Roffey draws attention to the power and agency of the nonhuman environment.
The environmental aspect is intensely present in Roffey’s novels. Critics have noted her texts’ strong sense of place; for example, it has been observed in the Australian daily newspaper The Age that “Roffey creates a terrific sense of place: heat and languor, politics and passion, tropical smells and the heady music of the local patois” (Woodhead n.pag.). Although Roffey is usually read and classified within feminist and nationalistic frameworks, this article will instead emphasize her relevance to ecocriticism. As scholarly criticism on Roffey is limited to plot-based book reviews found mostly in newspapers, I intend to fill this gap, broadening the existing scholarly criticism on Roffey and interrogating the currently unexplored but highly significant ecocritical strand in her novels.
In ecocriticism, a pressing concern has become the debate-provoking aspect of nature’s voice and agency, which I am specifically interested in, provoking the question: what counts as speech, and does nature have agency to speak and to act? In the view of Christopher Manes, one of the foremost ecocritics to engage with the notion of nature’s voice, “nature is silent in our culture [as …] the status of being a speaking subject is jealously guarded as an exclusively human prerogative” (15).1 Nature is not a privileged voice then and tends to be regarded as silent, seemingly meaningless and not meant to speak out. Manes rightfully observes that humans have been the centre of communication, leaving nature voiceless and subjectless; located at the very bottom of hierarchies of discourse, nature becomes “a realm of silences, a world of ‘not saids’” (17). The nonhuman world is either marginalized, silenced or incorporated into human language (Oppermann 4). This one-sided communication stems from the fact that humans are considered the only creatures with something legitimate to say; “no one really expects nature to answer” (Manes 22). This could also imply that though humans seek answers from nature, they get none. But to use Kate Soper’s formulation, the majority generally considers humans as the only acceptable thinking and speaking subjects, with nature as an object incapable of thought or speech (42, 74). Similarly, leading Australian ecofeminist Val Plumwood observes that nature tends to be viewed “as passive, as non-agent and non-subject, as the ‘environment,’ or invisible background conditions against which the ‘foreground’ achievements of reason or culture [...] take place” (4). Having engaged with the way hierarchical binaries work and eclipse nature, Plumwood highlights that the privileging of reason, a master category of the human, has facilitated the domination of humans at the expense of nature. Therefore, the view of humans as sole speaking and thinking subjects has become so fossilized that nature is not supposed to speak or act because these exhibitions of agency are inevitably anthropocentric. This assumption of silence and passivity reinforces the nature-culture duality, leaving nature to be viewed as the environment, the space out there. Thus, ecocritics set out re-visioning the silence, proposing ways of engaging with nature without depreciating it.
Rooted in these theoretical concerns, my interest lies particularly in the representation and significance of the environment in Roffey’s texts, and its role in relation to the power positions of humans and nonhumans. I will argue that the portrayed environment suggests particularly (1) a challenge to established understandings of humanism, anthropocentrism, voice and power; (2) the crossing, or, more precisely, blurring, of the boundaries between the human and the nonhuman; and, (3) especially, the possibility of enacting an ecosystem-first discourse, or, a unique biocentric — as opposed to anthropocentric — orientation in literature. In what follows, I will explore the issue of spatiality and power plays in Roffey’s novels, weaving together my own analysis with theoretical references to relevant ecocritical ideas.
From Green Women to Blossoming Bodies: Space and the Nonhuman in Monique Roffey’s Novels
Roffey’s novels exhibit a noteworthy visual and auditory quality that tends to overshadow the narratives. The action of Sun Dog is set in modern-day London, revolving in and around a deli where the protagonist August works, and the mountain hills of Trinidad form a noteworthy element of White Woman. The latter novel, which I will discuss in the first half of this section, recounts the story of a couple, George and Sabine Harwood, who migrate from England to Trinidad in the 1950s. This novel problematizes several conflicts and, particularly, questions of identity and, in so doing, inextricably entangles this problematic with the nonhuman environment. The clashes presented in the novel, such as a claustrophobic marriage, indicate complicated human relationships, problems of identity construction and the issue of belonging or, on the contrary, of not belonging at all.
The human relations and the protagonists’ identity are profoundly shaped by the setting of White Woman: the island of Trinidad. The island is described as boisterously green, self-contained and marching “straight down the steep hills to the sea. No beach or strip of land in between, just the wild green and the black sea” (White 192). Here, the choice of words is likely not accidental but is instead rather significant for the production of an ecosystem-first ethics. Namely, in environmental discourse, a specific way of referring to biocentrism and anthropocentrism has emerged: for Manes, it is the distinction between a “first nature” and a “second nature” (23), or, as suggested by other leading ecocritic Lawrence Buell, the distinction between “ecosystem-first ethics” and “humankind-first ethics” (Writing 227). Unlike the prevalent anthropocentric perspective, ecocritics growingly recognize nonhumans as equally important actors, thereby shifting the perspective to an envirocentric look. Such a look privileges nature over humans, who could also be understood as “second nature” (i.e., second to nature), and implies the prioritizing of nonhumans in the broader scope of the concept of nature (also ‘human nature’). Roffey’s portrayal of nature as an immediate presence pertinently highlights the priority of the green world. It is this opposition between nature and culture — the nonhuman and the human — that ecocriticism takes as its premise, especially the idea that culture is connected to the physical world, affecting it and affected by it (Glotfelty xviii-xix).
The physical world is an important part of Roffey’s novels, highlighting their ecosystem-first approach. For example, in White Woman, nature’s presence is foregrounded by such words as “mighty,” “immense,” and by the act of encircling (195). Nature is imposing — even the sky is said to be staring and hurling rays, so that the protagonist wants to get out of the way (197). Herein, the nonhuman setting appears as a looming presence, which reflects the peculiar green focus specific to this novel. Buell has classified an environmentally-oriented work as a work in which “the nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence” (Environmental 7). And indeed, Roffey’s portrayal is in line with this proposition — the text strikes the eye as powerfully green, and elements of nature are presented as especially meaningful throughout the narrative.
However, apart from the geographical elements serving as the novel’s setting, it is also important to consider the protagonists’ relation to place — that is, an ecocritical reading looks beyond the fixedness of the nonhuman environment as merely the backdrop upon which the plot is set to focus, instead, on the importance of its interactions with the human characters.2 The protagonists of White Woman, George and Sabine, are migrants to Trinidad, and so their presence on the island is embroiled in issues of border-crossing, displacement and belonging. For George, who is immediately attracted by the land, its smells and sounds, Trinidad is a place that starkly contrasts with England. He “preferred these wild emerald hills, the brash forest, the riotous and unpredictable landscape of Trinidad to the prim hazy pastures of his own country, England” (51). Most strikingly, George loves the nature: the hills, the sun, the temperature, the ravishing land, “a place where God came to design the planet earth” (269). England, his former home, becomes now a mere dot on the world map for George. Just as Trinidad is a meaningful place for its dwellers, it also becomes an important place for George — a place thick with attachment. England, on the contrary, develops into an abstract space he no longer cares about and that lacks the former meaningfulness to call it a place.3
Evident to Sabine, George’s fantasies and love-sickness for Trinidad commence in England (192). His relation to Trinidad was already topophilic before he arrived: he had murmured phrases in his sleep, such as “savannah grassland” and “golden tegu lizards, purple honeycreepers” (193). George’s peculiar place-attachment is illustrative of the long-distance caring highlighted by Buell, who contends that “it’s entirely possible to care more about places you’ve never been — the Africa or Israel/Palestine of your imagination — than the ones you know first hand [sic]” (Future 73). Following this logic, one could become attached to places by the power of imagination alone.4 More attractive than the place at hand, such as home — the dearest of places — is the exotic island; George is drawn to an area of which he has no prior immediate experience or memories, only fantasies. Thus, strikingly, an abstracted or imagined space can feel closer than the particular and immediate.
While George equates the environment to paradise, the ideal place to be, Sabine feels completely placeless, stuck in the majestic island with people and beauties she does not understand. For George, it is another world made by Europeans; however, for Sabine, “it doesn’t feel like Europe at all. Nothing makes sense” (251). Though she is physically in the place, mentally she remains outside, the experience of which is akin to what Edward Relph describes as “uncommitted insideness”: a state of being in a place one does not belong to nor care about (143). Sabine has been deprived of place — her meaningful home, her past, her identity were all left back in England — and, therefore, she does not belong. Now positioned as Other in this place, Sabine does not have anything with which to geographically identify herself; as a result, she claims to hate the place (White 238), lashing out with criticisms of “this wretched house” and “this goddamn island” (47-8). Sabine is far from content on the island, complaining that there is “always something big somewhere else” (25). Craving not just her old home but the excitement of life in the city, Sabine cannot feel satiated by the picturesque landscapes of Trinidad since she is already convinced that it has nothing to offer her, nothing to fulfill her desires for “something big.” Her last hopes of seeing double-decker buses and apple blossoms are finally shattered when Sabine misses the ship to England. It is because of this that she develops a topophobic relation to the landscape, or, more precisely, a hate relationship.
Jealousy is another cause for her clash with the environment; George is in love with another woman — neither white nor black, but a green woman. From his first view of Trinidad, George’s allegiance shifts from Sabine to nature: “It had been an immediate, a strong physical attraction. He had fallen […] head over heels with the sounds and smells, with the smiles and shapes, with all the bewitching qualities of another woman called Trinidad” (73). In this initial impression, Roffey refers to Trinidad as a woman, using the Trinidadian hills to imply a womanly shape to nature. Inevitably, the other woman turns out to be “the hill woman” or “the mountain woman” (331). The environmental discourse here is especially significant, as it suggests an analogy between woman and nature. The environment is presented as female, having a human-like body with its curves: “Voluptuous, the undulating hills of a woman. I saw her everywhere, this green woman. Her hips, her breasts, her enticing curves. Shoulders, belly” (261-62). Nature’s shape, sounds, smells and smiles imply her to be a real flesh-and-blood person, a character in the novel. Furthermore, although George could be argued to represent culture, he is closer to nature than he is to his wife. This closeness enhances the feminine dimension of nature.
Sabine, nevertheless, mostly confronts the green woman. She tells the hills: “I hate you. My husband loves you,” making her jealousy plain (262). Defiant, Sabine does not want George close to her bed after “he’s been rolling in her [the hills]” (363). Sabine is angry at nature, for “this island flexed its charms, laughed in her [Sabine’s] face as she [Sabine] withered” (114). The significance of the environment lies, therefore, not only on the level of representation but in its relation to both protagonists, pertaining to the very conflict at the heart of the novel, that between a cheating husband and neglected wife. In addition to her unique portrayal of the nonhuman as human, Roffey uses the environment as a narrative device to bring to the fore a love triangle. It is noteworthy that this triangle is already evident in the setting, as “trinidad” is Spanish for “trinity.” The environment, then, opens the chain of events that causes the disintegration of George and Sabine’s marriage: first, George starts loving the green woman more than his own wife, then his wife — feeling trapped in a locale where she feels herself placeless — withers in the beautiful surroundings and begins writing letters to the Prime Minister of Trinidad, pouring out her personal despair and grief while also critiquing the former Prime Minister. George’s love for the nonhuman surroundings is ironic, since his wife is such a startling beauty that, when riding on her green bicycle around Trinidad, she causes cars behind her to crash.
In Sun Dog, the strong environmental layer of the text similarly contributes to the novel’s overall theme, challenging established understandings of humanism and complicating neat dualisms. Set in modern-day London, the novel recounts the identity quest of August, the protagonist, as he searches to find his real father. The plot is vividly accompanied by seasonal changes that cycle from winter to autumn. Typically classified as magic realism, the novel portrays magical transformations that evolve cyclically on August’s body and the text is set importantly against the backdrop of the atmospheric phenomenon of sun dogs.
A sun dog (also known as parhelion, mock or phantom sun) is a luminous halo on either side of the sun that is formed when ice crystals of cirrus clouds sink vertically through the air, refracting sunlight horizontally.5 This environmental phenomenon of mock sun is central to the novel’s problem, functioning as a symbolic parallel to the protagonist’s false fathers. Like the trick of nature, August has been lied to about the identity of his father and he learns that the man he thought to be his father is, in fact, not (Sun 176). Namely, just as the phantom sun is only a halo of the real thing, the father-figures provided to August turn out to be empty: August feels affinity neither with the picture of Luke, whom he was falsely led to believe was his father, nor with his mother’s ex-lover Cosmo whom he resembles. As with a sun dog, the twin fathers are merely a halo and a true father, a man named Edward, who is deceased, situated in the centre. Roffey uses the natural phenomenon of the triad of suns characteristic of the sun dog to underpin the triad of fathers in the novel, whereby August will ultimately come to occupy the centre. This parallelism between the environmental phenomenon and humans seems to indicate that nature becomes a metaphor for August’s own experience as a false son, but in fact, it is more than that. As August becomes intensely aware of the environment and as his body starts to transform environmentally, this environmental phenomenon starts pushing environmental subjectivity onto August so that nature becomes not so much the metaphor as the experience itself.
The parallels between the human characters and the nonhuman phenomena are even more visibly present in the personality of the protagonist, for August is characterized by ultimate orangeness — and not simply because he is named after the harvest season. With his bodily colors of carrot, pumpkin and marmalade, August looks like an unearthly being. To be precise, the significance of the environment lies not only in its ties to the central theme of the novel, but in its great significance on the level of representation as well. Inversely from the representation in White Woman, and even more provocatively, the human in Sun Dog is portrayed in environmental terms, undergoing a seasonal cycle.
August is sensitive toward weather and experiences environmental changes on his very body. In winter, he is covered with a frost that at first resembles a rash until icicles also form on his body, dangling from his armpits and ears and tinkling a little when he moves (Sun 90). Strikingly, when spring arrives on August’s body, he literally blossoms — buds emerge “silently, without pain, in ones and twos, overnight, or sometimes during the day” in all possible bends and folds of his body, behind his ears, and between his toes and fingers (103). “I grew leaves too,” August observes (254). Mimicking the act of rain, water seeps from his body like rain from the sky (104). In summer, August’s skin cracks and lilies bloom on his body: “hundreds of lilies whose deep throats were speckled with maroon and danced with tiny saffron dragon’s heads” (278). And finally in autumn, in the same way that nature casts off its leafy coat, August’s hair, eyelashes and fingernails also fall off (307). These changes are indicative not only of the parallels between the human and the nonhuman but of their interconnectedness, a kind of closeness or, rather, a blending in which culture is transformed beyond recognition. Through such embodied intermingling, August transcends the limits of a normative human being.
As the human and the nonhuman are inextricably mixed in the character of August, the nature-culture dichotomy is radically challenged. August transforms into a zoomorphic creature, and this hybridity is greatly significant for him because of his precarious position on the edge of both culture and nature — he does not know his real father but feels affection toward the new father-figure he has found in nature as it takes hold of him, shaping and molding him into something new. This extraordinary situation could be fleshed out in terms of a “natured culture,” a state proposed by ecofeminist thinker Patrick Murphy. In line with an ecofeminist concern for interconnectedness, Murphy proposes this view of culture as “natured”: a harmonizing nature-culture connection rather than a domination of one over the other (150). And, indeed, August could best be characterized as culture that has been “natured” — transformed by nature and made his own father by nature, illustrating an interconnection of nature and culture that returns harmony to August’s sense of identity and well-being. This affinity with nature provides security for August, despite its defamiliarizing and self-alienating effects. Their relationship also provides an alternative male gendering for nature — usually understood as a feminine womb of creation. Nature is August’s father, just as he is a father to all humans. As a hybrid figure, August destabilizes the nature-culture dichotomy and can thus be characterized as “natured.” As August becomes both human and nature, his body transcends the nature-culture divide, providing a site for unification.
The naturo-cultural inclusivity central to Sun Dog evokes recent theorizing on bioregional ethics, an approach critical of boundaries. The term bioregion is used by Buell and refers to a geographical terrain that is also a “terrain of consciousness” (Future 83); that is, a specific worldview, which instead of accepting restrictive boundaries views its entities as one inclusive community.6 Bioregionalists criticize rigid borders and suggest embracing an ethic of bioregion in lieu of divisions as a method of imaginatively erasing boundaries.7 Contrary to the place-space dialectics in White Woman, Sun Dog highlights yet another geographical concept: that of the bioregional territory. In that nature occupies, influences and directs his body, August is territorialized by nature: “trapped in the ice was himself: his sweat, his own body fluid” (Sun 91). The border-defying protagonist is, in other words, one with the environment. The bioregional inclusion, in turn, suggests a blend of the physical and the imaginative, while the territory where the human and the nonhuman unite is, interestingly, the body. The merging of environmental markers with the human protagonist communicates well the borderless co-presence of humans and their surroundings. Yet, the intersection does not seem to be a homoeostatic balance of the internal with the external because August has no control over the external — twigs, for example, unexpectedly emerge from his ears (104). Thus, nature has control over August, rather than vice versa.
Nevertheless, the environmental changes are a comfort to August. The effect of solace is particularly relevant since it illustrates the bioregional sense of belonging and inclusiveness. Highly symbolic of such a relation is the fact that August regards the bud on his body “with something akin to love, feeling a kinship, an unspeakable alliance. The bud resembled a small, exposed heart” (107). Feeling at home with the buds, and furthermore one with them, is of major significance — August is becoming a father, growing vulnerable buds, “small, exposed heart[s]” in need of care and protection. No longer mocked by the sun dogs, August finds a father in himself, as the buds are both produced by him and a part of him that he loves and identifies with. He does not know his biological father but finds fatherhood in himself, growing not only buds but also flowers — his uncanny, non-normative children, an extension of him. Bearing other beings on his body, August senses a splitting inside him, cells dividing, beginning to grow; “he could feel life inside him, starting” (107). And indeed, new life does start on and from his body — buds, lilies, leaves. This extraordinary fatherhood of nature and because of nature highlights vividly the irrevocable blend of nature and culture.
As a hybrid character, August thus represents an interconnected unification of nature and culture, where the latter is subject to unexpected forces beyond its own control. Growing nature on his body, nature makes a father of August, simultaneously challenging preconceived understandings of nature, culture and gender. While the human in Sun Dog becomes “natured,” overtaken and transformed by nature, in White Woman the female hill suggests a view of “humaned” nature. This inverse representation of the human and the nonhuman with one another’s attributes memorably suggests the relationality of nature with culture. The non-human depiction of not only the person in environmental terms but the environment itself in human terms appears to be representative of nature-culture inclusivity. Not only do nature and culture relate, but they become one, twining together — and inextricably so. Nature, in both novels, insofar as it is portrayed as a person, a living organism and an initiator of events, thus emerges as one of the novels’ main characters around whom or, more precisely, due to whom the events circle. The following section will explore the question of nonhuman agency in Roffey’s White Woman.
Sensual Aesthetics: Nature’s Burden of Power and Discourse in White Woman
Roffey’s novels display a strong auditory and visual quality, abounding in sensual imagery. Significantly, however, nature functions in more important ways as well. To understand the narrative agency of the character Nature in White Woman, I will consider Nature as a presence, that is, a narrative force that influences other characters and has the power to affect material change within the novel. This section will explore the manifestation of Nature as a presence through Roffey’s use of physical violence and voice. This analysis will illustrate the complex ambivalence of Roffey’s characterization of Nature as a presence that is both empowered and burdened by its mastery over humans. An example of Nature’s immediate powerful presence may be seen here:
Midnight. A clamorous hour in the house beneath the hip of the green woman. The temperature had dropped causing the cicadas to make a sound like constantly shaking maracas. Tiny tree frogs croaked, brassy. Crickets shouted, trying to compete. The house groaned shifting with the coolness of the night’s shade. (43)
The number of sounds at this “clamorous hour” compellingly conveys the novel’s auditory quality and enhances the ecological layering of the text. Sounds are complemented by colors, “vermilion, saffron, ochre, scarlet,” as well as flora and fauna, such as blooms, ginger lilies, or coconut trees, and their inhabitants, like iguanas (113). All these sensual qualities are portrayed in defiance of Sabine: “this island flexed its charms, laughed in her face as she withered” (114). In this antagonism of laughing in Sabine’s face, the environment is not being hostile but just being. Sabine’s subjectivity meets the environment with contempt, projecting a condition of enmity onto the island, this place that she has identified as a hate object (238). When arriving in Trinidad and seeing the low-lying green vegetation, she anticipates an unwelcoming “deep muddy bog” (195). Strikingly, the extraordinarily beautiful and lush setting pushes Sabine away rather than draws her in — the female space becomes her competition, hierarchically more powerful than her human presence.
The idiosyncratically portrayed environment thus forms not just a noticeable sensory presence but an active and subjective presence that is superior to humans.9 Indeed, the seaside in White Woman seems to want to take the characters into its grip: “the sea fell more silent and a blanket of white cloud pinned us down. A brown dried-up coconut floated past. Grizzled pelicans perched on the marker buoys, regarding our entrance with indifference” (196; emphasis added). Nature is in a power position, pinning the characters down and making them insignificant through shared environmental indifference. The superiority of the environment relative to humans is even more fully conveyed through Roffey’s image of the mountain as woman: “She [the mountain] encircled us. She laughed at us when it rained, shaking her hair. Birds stopped their chatter. The roar was deafening. The rain, when it came like this, was a lashing, a bombing” (262). Nature is portrayed as immense, self-contained, loud and hazardous, illustrating that Nature’s active subjectivity has direct and material consequences on the other subjects in the narrative. Interestingly, on the one hand, Nature overwhelms humanity, intimidating the human characters with punitive and aggressive rain, yet on the other, Nature is herself overwhelmed. The birds also fear the roar, indicating an internal weakness or conflict that destabilizes Nature’s power. Through such contradictions, Roffey complicates Nature as a character. The birds’ meekness undermines Nature’s position of dominance — Nature gives the appearance of seeming harmonious but is, in actuality, full of contradictions.
Thus, Roffey’s representation of Nature as powerful is highly problematic in that it is underpinned by ambivalence. Filled with fury, Nature seems to attack her human occupants, yet she also seems to be burdened by her strength and indiscriminate with her targets. Nature dominates the protagonists as well as herself, as in the following passage:
Pink grapefruits so heavy they exploded on the branch, smashing heavily to the ground[. ... Avocados] bombed the grass for weeks[. ...] The lime trees spat yellow globes. The coconut palms were tall, lustrous, occasionally playing up, hurling a green nut at the dogs. The hibiscus hedge, a row of red trumpets heralding the sun. I [Sabine] wasn’t leaving, I was retreating. Beaten by it all. (430)
Nature is an immediate strong presence, hurling her fruits and making all else cower. Significantly, Roffey complicates and problematizes the enactment of Nature’s power. That Nature attacks her fellow nonhumans as well — the dogs, man’s supposed best-friend —indicates a partial hostility felt towards those elements of nature who have accepted the mastery of humans. Hence, Nature participates in a conflict from dualistic perspectives, attacking the willing subordinates as well as their oppressors. That these subordinates are elements of herself no doubt fuels her rage. The strong militant language of “bombing,” “heralding,” and “retreating” indicates Nature’s aggressive power, as if engaged in a war with her colonizers.10 Moreover, with the fruits “so heavy” that they explode while still on the branch, Nature’s power is complicated in that she seems to be unable to control her own strength, anger and violent outbursts. Similarly, Roffey’s description of air that is “heavy with itself” suggests a self-reflective anxiety of Nature toward herself (223). These nuances of power indicate the complexity to Nature as a character granted depth and agency through Roffey’s representation.
Importantly, Roffey does not limit Nature’s power to the physical; she grants her the ability to speak. Voice is, indeed, a significant aspect of environmental discourse in this novel and functions to further complicate the representation of Nature as a character. As an English-speaking character, Nature is able to interact with Sabine in meaningful and important ways. Yet, imbued with agency, Nature refuses to be defined by human perception:
You, Sabine addressed the hill. All you do is watch. That’s all you’ve ever done.
Sit back and observe the disaster going on.
[The hill:] It’s my privilege. (70)
Nature corrects the voice of culture (Sabine), who attempts to limit her to a silent observer. Nature does so by talking back and demonstrating her ability to engage with the material world, ironically claiming the very thing — the “privilege” of bearing witness — that she defies through her use of speech. In this way, Nature claims both personas: the witness and the orator. This voiced portrayal of Nature reflects Roffey’s approach to nature-as-subject, present in all her novels in different manifestations. For Roffey, Nature is not a silent inferior but a powerful subject. Here, Roffey’s use of voice, together with a female bodily presentation, defamiliarizes Nature so that she is both seen and heard.
In addition to being a visual and auditory presence, Nature is also able to provoke physical and emotional consequences for the protagonists. In one instance, an earthquake with menacing sounds and movements is described as “the green woman thrashing her hips” (173). Nature is personified and eroticized in her sensual earthquake-dance, an image that emphasizes her as a living being with far-reaching power and influence. In another case, Nature engages in conversation with Sabine, discussing their mutual beauty and George’s attraction to Nature:
[Sabine:] You’re beautiful, you know that.
[The hill:] So are you.
I hate you. My husband loves you.
They all love me. (262)
Strikingly, this is more than a conversation between two women; it is one between culture and nature — or, more specifically, an increasingly cultured nature. The reader is faced not only with an unbelievable situation — unbelievable from an anthropocentric stance — but with a radical re-visioning of the nature-culture binary where Nature emerges as “a self-articulating subject” (Oppermann 4). That is, Nature’s speech is organic and self-originating, thereby challenging the anthropocentric foundation of the concept of speech. Moreover, the nature-culture conversation exclusively occurs between women since the hill only addresses Sabine. Roffey privileges womanhood, attributing the aspects of voice and power to the feminine, qualities not traditionally associated with women. Conversely, George talks only to a mango tree (gender not specified) and does so much less frequently than his wife talks to the hill (21). The fact that humans articulate their relational tribulations to Nature rather than discussing these problems between themselves indicates humans’ problematic mutual communication. George and Sabine are not able to discuss their problems; in fact, most of their conversations end before they even begin: “‘How was work, dear?’ Sabine asks — ‘Silence. George’s head was deep in the book’” (331). The complications of her human relationship make Sabine turn to Nature for a confidante, as in the above conversation with the hill.
Moreover, this conversation provokes an emotional consequence for Sabine, who says that she hates Nature since George loves the hill. However, Nature answers that “they all love me,” thereby alleviating some of Sabine’s anxiety — George is not the only one enticed by the green woman (262; emphasis added). Crucially, Nature is able to ease Sabine only through language, assuring Sabine that she is also beautiful. Nature appears to be invested in Sabine’s well-being. “‘Relax,’ she [Nature] soothed,” is the hill’s response to Sabine’s complaint of being on edge (262). The interaction with Nature thus has the effect of comforting Sabine. In her final conversation with the hill before intending to return to England with George, Sabine remarks that George will miss the hill; Nature replies: “Don’t worry about that. Look, you see, you won in the end” (409). Nature is again reassuring and consoling Sabine, emphasizing that George has chosen Sabine; he is leaving with her instead of staying with Nature. Moreover, Sabine admits that she will also miss the hill — a sense of reconciliation and affinity finally develops between Sabine and the green woman, implicative of Roffey’s privileging of womanhood.
Nature as a character is, thus, quite complex in White Woman. Nature emerges as a presence that is able to affect change and provoke emotional consequences for humans. Nature is, moreover, voiced and imbued with agency, being both empowered and burdened by her own enactments of power. The emotional relationship between the human and the nonhuman, exemplified by that of Sabine and Nature, reflects this same quality of ambivalence. Sabine and Nature compete for George’s love, yet Nature provides comfort and consolation to Sabine, even in the face of defeat. Roffey seems to be invested in the emotional interactions and reconciliatory manifestations of nature. The next section will return to the nature-culture interactions in Sun Dog.
Finding Fatherhood in Sun Dog
Engaging with nature-culture relationality and the idea of fatherhood, Sun Dog vividly illustrates how nature fills August’s emotional gap through mutual integration. The human becomes naturalized, growing Nature on his body and changing with the seasons. Environmental subjectivity, in particular, takes centre stage in the character of the trees with which August forms an important bond. Roffey depicts a connection between the trees and August, and the trees function in juxtaposition to the human world. For example, when trees begin to grow buds, August’s body also responds so that he senses small movements and a rupture inside him — “he began to feel more alive, as though waking from a deep slumber” (106). August and the trees share an awareness of each other and display mutual influence throughout the novel. Roffey imbues August with a borderless oneness with his surroundings, foregrounding his bond with nature and his ability to transcend the nature-culture divide.
August’s encounter with one particular tree illustrates this special connection between August and the tree characters. He is especially aware of a plane tree that rises from the pavement outside the deli where he works:
[The tree was] leaning into the road, above the traffic with its ten arms stretched out above it as if to dance a salsa. One arm was shorter and stumpy. August decided it was its head, mossy Afro, thrown back in a laugh. The laugh rustled high above them, rattling him, making him feel suddenly, unaccountably watched. (17)
The personified image of the trees as alive and engaging in a dance suggests Nature to be an active subject who immediately catches the eye of both the reader and August. August ponders the tree, and his interest is not one-sided — the tree is watching August, and he senses “a presence behind him, an instinct to look up the street” (41). Moreover, the tree’s gaze is particularly strong, “rattling” August and evoking a change in him. This mutual engagement occurs throughout the novel; a similarly strong influence of the trees is evident in the instance where “the trees in the copse would watch him watching, quietly discerning” (246). Here, the trees are evaluating and discussing August, suggesting their interest in and awareness of August.
August is also intensely aware of the trees’ gaze, but in this novel it is not implicative of power or an intimidating force. Instead, this mutual gazing and interest indicates a collegial connection between August and the trees. As already established, August is himself becoming a tree — growing leaves, then casting his green coat off, his arms covered with frost as the seasons change. The environment makes a father of August, so that he is raising Nature on his body. As the leaves are both him and of him, August feels close to the trees he encounters elsewhere. There is an intimate link: August says that he knows how the plane tree feels (147) and touches it for good luck (326). Furthermore, not only does this tree appear to dance, rustling with its “mossy Afro” leaves (17), but August also enjoys dancing for hours in the deli (99). August and the trees mirror each other, indicating their connection and interdependence.
August is an embodiment of nature and experiences his transformation in positive ways that, on the one hand, reinforce his own humanity and self-worth and, on the other, emphasize the benefits of being “natured.” August enjoys his bodily transformations, noting that he feels good in his skin (98). He feels particularly glad for and proud of the “flowers on flesh. Pink on pink”; they are a blessing, as he says (184). Significantly, the nonhuman blossoms and human flesh come inclusively together, melting into each other with their pink hue. This symbiotic manifestation is intertwined with all the environmental changes on August — he becomes an organic part of Nature, and the environmental subjectivity becomes part of him.
These organic ties are even more significant, as the trees are ultimately symbolic since they also grow by the grave of his real father Edward. Coming upon the copse with his father’s grave, August feels all around him “a fullness, as if the world had a swollen lip” (384). There is a sense of energy and liveliness to the earth — “It pulsed” (387). The earth is extraordinarily vibrant but especially significant is August’s feeling of fullness, having found the resting place of his true father by the trees:
His father was the last person to touch this earth, August realized. Be this close. He spread his hands and planted them squarely on the ground, touching the last of his father, where he’d touched. Mingling his flesh with his father’s dim traces. He breathed in distant chains of atoms of his father’s breath. He picked up handfuls of earth and wiped it across his face. He shoved earth into his pockets, rubbed it all over the back of his neck. (387)
The scene illustrates the intimate encounter of August with his father. Touching the earth, breathing it in and mingling with it, August and his father achieve a moment of coming together. August is getting closer to his father, who has become the earth — even more so, since August’s body itself could also be conceived as another earth from which life sprouts. He becomes organically linked with his father — they become rooted, twined together. Indeed, August “spread his hands” like roots and “planted them squarely on the ground.” He is the tree that is sprouting by his father’s grave, his father’s spawn. Growing both physically and metaphorically from his father’s grave, August’s unique positioning highlights the significance of trees as a key to fatherhood.
Moreover, August learns that his father was a gardener. This adds further nuances to the presence of trees as a subject. In this light, August is one of the seeds his father has sown and which has sprung to life, growing into an extraordinarily multifaceted tree. “His father, in death, had released spores of himself. They’d carried on the wind. He’d inhaled them,” as August notes (362). This connection explains also the intimacy and interest that August and the trees feel for each other. For example, when August enters the copse, the trees start swapping impressions of him; “the trees were discussing him” (385). In doing so and in rustling their leaves with a greeting, the trees welcome August into their fold of fellow brothers (385). Moreover, the trees are actively invested in August’s discovery of his father’s gravestone; they alert August when he is close by shaking their leaves, emphasizing the importance of his presence in this space: “The trees shook their leaves hard, the noise like thousands of seed pods cracking against a hollow tube […] The trees heaved their branches, the sound was like panic in the air. Louder, wilder” (386). Finding his father’s gift — a spade — August smiles and the trees nod with approval (388). The mutual interest between August and the trees finds confirmation, as the human protagonist — the gardener’s son — has always been an organic part of Nature.
The organic bond highlights the mutuality of nature and culture, which influence one another and suggest cyclicity. This is finally manifested when August finds his true father’s final resting place and the changes on his body stop (389). Also, he realizes that the changes had started when his father died (373) — nature makes him his own father, until he finds the true connection. This organic cyclicity foregrounds the togetherness of nature and culture, and suggests that new life — both nonhuman and human — constantly sprouts from the earth. Blending into this is also identity, so that Roffey’s novels are diametrically opposed to each other in terms of their treatment of the ecocritical ideal. Where Sabine is deprived of her identity, August arrives at greater self-understanding through his encounter with the environment. As his reconciliation with himself occurs through nature rather than society, his understanding of himself is uniquely environmental.
Following from the above, Roffey’s depiction of the environment in both White Woman and Sun Dog corresponds with Buell’s proposition that the significance of the geographical setting lies not in its use as a framing backdrop but in its looming presence. This is evident, first, via the two novels’ distinctive aesthetic, visual and auditory quality; second, via the functioning of the environment as a juxtaposition to the human events; and, third — and most provocatively — via the extraordinary representation of nature in human terms, emerging as a bodily character of its own. The latter nonhuman perspective is of even higher relevance in Sun Dog where the human emerges as a nature-culture hybrid, becoming his own father and demonstrating an alternative bioregional ethic. In both texts, however, the significance of the environment goes beyond the level of representation to that of the novels’ problem: Sabine’s failing relationship with her husband, and August’s lost connection with his real father. In White Woman, the setting functions very much as an initiator of events, causing the disintegration of George and Sabine’s marriage — an important consequence of migration — suggesting in turn the shifting place-space border. The trees and environmental transformation in Sun Dog, on the other hand, are intimately twined with the protagonist’s quest to find his true father, indicating nature-culture relationality and circular continuation of life.
What contributes to each novel’s powerful environmental rhetoric beyond the discourses of place, space, bioregionalism, colours and nature imagery is the aspect of voice and agency, manifested in White Woman and having the effect of revealing Nature’s power and simultaneous lack of power. Furthermore, the idiosyncrasy of the environment in both novels lies in the portrayal of Nature as an active empowered subject, resulting in re-visioning of the power positions of humans and nonhumans. Yet this representation is not entirely unproblematic; this nonhuman power is nuanced, partly because Nature is not always secure with her own dominance. The fact that Nature’s voice is incorporated into human language further suggests the complexity of Nature as a character, and, as illustrated in the case of the gazing trees, Nature’s looming presence might not always suggest power but instead an intimate connection with humans. This strong intertwining of the human and the nonhuman as well as the reconsideration of Nature as an active subject highlights Roffey’s unique approach to environmental discourse. Roffey’s use of Nature challenges established understandings of anthropocentrism, voice and power, blurs the nature-culture divide, and calls for a more envirocentric approach to literature.
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After MA studies in Comparative Literature and Cultural Semiotics at Tallinn University (Estonia) and further education at Uppsala University (Sweden), Maris Sõrmus is a Cultural Studies doctoral student at Tallinn University. Her ecocritical dissertation focuses on the aspect of nature and place in contemporary British and Swedish women’s writing: Anita Desai, Monique Roffey, and Kerstin Ekman. She is a member of Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) and her research interests include ecocriticism, especially material ecocriticism, as well as contemporary British and Swedish literature.
1. Here, Manes is likely to refer to American culture, not human culture in general.
2. A relevant parallel to the nature-culture relationality may be found in the term “ecocriticism” itself. Namely, it is of importance that the prefix “eco” is favoured over “enviro,” for the latter is anthropocentric, viewing humans as the centre and the environment as a mere background; “eco,” instead, implies that humans and the environment are constituent parts of a whole, dependent on each other (Glotfelty xx). Ecocriticism suggests an ethics of participation or the mutual co-presence of humans and their environment. A basis for environmentalist thinking lies in the persistence of place, nature, culture’s co-existence with nature and recognition of the voice of the marginalized.
3. See Buell’s The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination (2005) and Agnew’s article “Space and Place” in The SAGE Handbook of Geographical Knowledge (2011) on place/space in environmental discourse.
4. For further reference see C.S. Lewis’ The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933) for the idea of sehnsucht, inconsolable longing for an unnamable something.
5. See the web page Atmospheric Optics: http://www.atoptics.co.uk/halo/parhelia.htm.
6. Compare this inclusive imaginative terrain with the physical ecosystem — “a discrete unit that consists of living and non-living parts, interacting to form a stable system” (Allaby 146), e.g., ecosystem of a forest that is part of a larger ecosystem, constituting together the global ecosystem, ecosphere (Kerridge 535).
7. See also Greg Garrard’s Ecocriticism (2012) on this.
8. In capitalizing nature, I am delineating between nature as a character (Nature) from other ways of conceiving of nature in this article.
9. Several ecocritical approaches such as, for example, deep ecology and the currently emerging material ecocriticism, recognize nature as a Subject, considering the fact that there is more to the environment than the human species. However, not all approaches and theorists take this view, for example, the title of Timothy Morton’s book, Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (2007), is indicative of this. With the phrase “ecology without nature” Morton refers to nature as a cultural construction. Pure nature as such becomes an increasingly rare site: “the very idea of ‘nature’ which so many hold dear will have to wither away in an ‘ecological’ state of human society” (Morton 1). The growing nature-skepticism of the field has been also pointed out by leading ecocritic Greg Garrard as a crisis point in ecocriticism (497).
10. Application of postcolonial theory would be fruitful for future research. In fact, magic realism is usually approached through a postcolonial lens. Although this analysis takes an ecocritical focus, this does not negate the value of further postcolonial reading. For an exploration of nature in postcolonial theory, see Graham Huggan and Helen Tiffin’s Postcolonial Ecocriticism: Literature, Animals, Environment (Routledge, 2010).