Humanities at Large

Narrative Fiction and the Wilderness

Submitted by Sonja Johnston on April 16 2020.

Olive Scott is an Undergraduate Research Fellow at the JHI this year, and holds the Zoltan Simo Award. She is currently in third year at the University of Toronto studying Classical Civilizations with a double minor in Creative Expression & Society and Art History. The text for this post was provided by Olive.

Recently, Olive presented her research (via the Fellows’ Slack channel) on drawing a comparison between ancient Greek and contemporary Canadian fiction. Olive has specifically been studying the works of Greek playwright Euripides (born circa 480 BCE) and Margaret Atwood’s short stories with the aim of looking at how each author addresses nature and the environment in their work, and seeing if there are any major similarities or differences. Not only did she select these two authors because she enjoys reading them, but also because she believes they are important representations of their time periods. Euripides is considered to be one of the three greatest playwrights of Athenian tragedy and Atwood is one of Canada’s most renowned living authors.

Olive initiated her presentation by using Atwood’s short story Death By Landscape to illustrate how she has been reading both the modern and ancient sources; stating that what stood out the most for her was how Atwood and Euripides both employed nature in their narratives. Both authors use nature settings to depict their female characters having, what Olive refers to, an epiphany moment or a coming of age ceremony. Atwood frequently uses isolated cottages, whereas Euripides incorporates temples into the setting. Olive argued that while nature (as in the wilderness) was not necessarily essential for individual narratives, both Atwood and Euripides successfully use the natural world as a plot device.

Olive also explored:

  1. How Euripides’ and Atwood’s works incorporate a retelling of the Artemis myth (goddess of the wilderness and fertility).
  2. How nature as a setting reflects the overall atmosphere of a narrative.
  3. The use of nature as metaphor, calling women ‘storms’ or ‘lions’.
  4. Nature symbolism, and what it means to bring nature indoors in the form of art and decorative objects: landscape paintings and flowers in jars.

The significant difference between the short stories of Atwood and the plays of Euripides, in terms of their use of nature, is evidently the time period that they are writing in. Atwood offers insight on her standpoint regarding the climate crisis and hence comments on the state of the environment in both straightforward and subtle ways, while Euripides lived centuries before the term ‘global warming’ was even coined.

Ultimately, this research poses the question: how is fiction writing relevant to the climate crisis and environmental humanities?

Olive ended her presentation with the statement that she hopes her research culminates with reasoning that fiction plays an important role in how humans view the wilderness and their place within it. Not only is fiction a reflection of society, but also a representation of ideas in flux.