Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Nancy K. Miller


Wayne Koestenbaum

Committee Members

Wayne Koestenbaum

Rachel M. Brownstein

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Literature in English, Anglophone outside British Isles and North America | Literature in English, British Isles | Literature in English, North America | Literature in English, North America, Ethnic and Cultural Minority | Women's Studies


ecocriticism, ecofeminism, water, oceans, Woolf, Carson


Starting from two central ecopoetic convictions—the constitutive role of environment in human experience (and vice versa), and text’s ability to connect with the world—this dissertation then moves in a different direction from most ecocritical projects. Instead of looking at the ways literary representation flows back into nature in the forms of attitude, praxis, and policy, this study focuses on the earlier part of the loop: the emergence of text from environment, particularly its aquatic parts, via the faculty of the imagination. In its scrutiny of images that spring directly from matter and its faith in the concept of a personal element that governs the reveries, beliefs, passions, ideals, and philosophies of an entire life, it recalls Water and Dreams, Gaston Bachelard’s 1942 phenomenological study of the “material imagination.”

Only, whereas Bachelard’s main investments are poetry, the masculine point of view, isolated waters (particularly small, smooth, mirror-like bodies of water that call up, through the myth of narcissus, the individual self), and limpid waters that serve the material imagination as a pure matter par excellence, “an example of the kind of natural morality learned through meditation on a fundamental substance,” my own are: prose (the novel in particular); the female (feminist) point of view; waters that are indivisibly, manifestly systemic; and a hydrosphere that is decidedly degraded, a “tragic commons” (à la Garrett Hardin) calling for the very different sort of “natural morality” that is rigorous stewardship. I approach these through the writings of seven 20th-century woman writers who have written so relentlessly and richly about water that they must be called “hydro-logical”: Britons Virginia Woolf and Penelope Fitzgerald; Anglo-Caribbean Jean Rhys; North Americans Rachel Carson and Joan Didion; Native American (Chickasaw) Linda Hogan; and East Indian Arundhati Roy.

While most broadly “hydro-logic” denotes a general thinking-through-water, it entails several specific habits of mind: 1) a privileging of the water element in one’s imaginative landscapes, and an attraction to thalassic and/or riparian settings, as well as the smaller or more hidden parts of the hydrosphere (springs, ponds, groundwater, etc.); 2) a particular susceptibility to the metaphoric/symbolic potential of planetary waters, and an especial faculty for transubstantiating conventional associations (e.g. river = flow; sea = masculine adventure) into more private equivalences (the river = androgyny, moral imagination, oral tradition; groundwater = untold stories); and 3) a deep allegiance to the intuited fact that the hydrologic cycle is a cycle, and one whose central dynamic is also that of creative and particularly literary endeavor (with the inflow of reading and the outflow or writing), human relationship (give and take), and ecology itself, with its “endless cyclic transfer of materials from life to life” (Carson, Silent Spring).

These authors’ appreciation of water’s universal seaward movement and its ultimate indivisibility manifests socially and spiritually as a longing for the state of mind Freud called “oceanic”—“a feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole”—and literarily as a tact for Unanimism (from the French Unanimisme), with its emphasis on group consciousness, collective emotion, and the writer’s need to merge with the larger cycles of life, nature, and art. This essentially ethical view of life explains the natural instinct that all my authors, even those working before or outside of mainstream environmentalism (Woolf, Rhys, and Fitzgerald) have for conservation. How, they ask, can we ravage the element that makes up over two-thirds of our very selves? How does environmental despoliation affect the stories we tell? And if, as Joan Didion has famously asserted, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live,” can we not tell stories in order to protect the life that began, in our planet’s waters, over 3 billion years ago?