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Summer 2023 articles

Making Connections: Reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Works from an Ecofeminist Partnership Ethics Perspective

Abhra Paul and Vidya Sarveswaran


The ecofeminist epistemologies recognize the ecological and social interdependencies in the planetary system. Carolyn Merchant’s (2014) concept of partnership ethics is grounded on the interdependencies between the biotic and abiotic communities: “A partnership ethic holds that the greatest good for the human and nonhuman communities is in their mutual living interdependence” (83). Following this line of thought, this paper studies Barbara Kingsolver’s fiction and nonfiction, namely, High Tide in Tucson (1995), Small Wonder (2003), Prodigal Summer (2000), Flight Behaviour (2012), and Animal Dreams (1990) through the lens of Ecofeminist Partnership Ethics (Carolyn Merchant 2014) and foregrounds the interrelationship between women, women-nature, and human-nature. This paper also analyses the ecofeminist thoughts of Karren Warren, Val Plumwood, and Carolyn Merchant and how Kingsolver’s works repudiate the limitations of dualistic thinking (culture/nature, man/woman) and the subordination of nature and women.

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1. Introduction

1Barbara Kingsolver’s fiction and nonfiction allow a return to nature that is disrupted by human hubris. Her works present a connection between women, women and nature, and human and nature as an essential bond resonating with the ecofeminist thoughts of Karren Warren, Val Plumwood, and Carolyn Merchant. The meaningful communication that these texts engage with is a culmination of the philosophical thoughts of partnership ethics (Merchant 2014), i.e., the interweaving of human culture and nonhuman nature breaking down the patriarchal dualistic framework. This partnership platform recognizes the potential “to begin a new century by renewing our membership in the Animal Kingdom” (Kingsolver 57) to exercise ecological consciousness to actualize the connection.

2The French feminist Francoise d’Eaubonne coined the term “ecofeminism” (eco-féminisme) as an umbrella term to raise awareness about the historical association between women and nature's denigration and subjugation by patriarchal structures and worldviews. Ecofeminism mirrors the resistance to this domination as “a mode of inter-human and human-earth relations” (Eaton 8). Ecofeminists like Susan Griffin, Karren J. Warren, Val Plumwood, and Carolyn Merchant, in their works, have centralized the dualism embedded in ecological realities that influence the social and ecological relationships between man/woman and human/nature. Their thoughts acknowledge the ecological interconnection and interdependencies as well as the women-nature nexus. Their works have been most influential in developing the philosophical perspective of ecofeminism. This study presents the connection between environmentalism and feminist thoughts reflected in these ecofeminists’ philosophical voices. The paper argues for the necessity of rejecting the patriarchal dualistic framework and directing our environmental awareness towards a holistic partnership platform.

3Barbara Kingsolver explores in her works this holistic approach of partnership ethics that engages with a mutually respectful, care-based understanding of our ecological existence and interdependence in producing a more sustainable environment. The present paper maps the women-nature connection represented in her works, namely, High Tide in Tucson (1995), Small Wonder (2003), Prodigal Summer (2000), Flight Behaviour (2012), and Animal Dreams (1990). These works repudiate the limitations of androcentrism and patriarchal notions of subordination of nature and women. They persuasively present the mutually respectful communication of partnership ethics.

2. Ecofeminism and Ecofeminist Partnership Ethics

4Ecofeminism incorporates perspectives from theology, history, ethics, sociology, economics, philosophy, etc. These perspectives help to illuminate the ways in which the subjugation and exploitation of women and nonhuman nature are interconnected. Such various modes of interconnection help address the present environmental problems arising out of the exploitation of nature. According to Merchant, an ecofeminist partnership ethic advocates the equity between human and nonhuman nature that helps expand the possibility of sustainable existence: Nature, traditionally represented as mother, virgin, or witch, is not gendered as female to be managed, controlled, or exploited, but instead is accepted as a partner to humanity. Such cooperation revealed not only in the exhibits but in the resultant landscapes, presents exciting new opportunities for working with nature” (Merchant 69).

5Karren Warren, in her “Feminism and Ecology: Making Connections” (1987), states the basic need for an ecofeminist is to pay heed to the “environmental issues and ecological interdependencies” (qtd. in Cuomo 1). The nature-women nexus is the most prolific field of study of ecofeminism as the ecofeminists affirm the femininizing of nature and naturalizing of women and the subjugation of both (Ruether, Gaia and God; Reuther, New Woman; Eaton and Lorentzen, editors). The ecofeminists believe that androcentric, dualistic, and patriarchal thinking is the root cause of the impoverishment of women and environmental degradation. This unjust subordination emerges from the “logic of domination” (Warren 24) and hierarchical dualisms and binary opposition (Plumwood 47) between male/female, culture/nature, superior/inferior, order/chaos, mind/emotion, etc. Warren also argues that the connections between nature-women are “historical (typically causal), conceptual, empirical, socioeconomic, linguistic, symbolic and literary, spiritual and religious, epistemological, political and ethical” (Ecofeminist Philosophy 21). Among these, the ‘conceptual framework,’ she states, is oppressive, as it adheres to the patriarchy maintaining a locus of dominance and subordination. Val Plumwood emphasizes that the western rationalistic tradition sanctions dualism and dualism exemplify oppositional terms having a higher value attributed to the left term and an inferior value to the right term. In dualistic construction, as in a hierarchy, the qualities (actual or supposed) related to the culture are constructed as superior. In contrast, the values and the areas of life associated with the dualized other are systematically and pervasively constructed and depicted as inferior (47).

6In her Ecofeminist Philosophy, Karen Warren has outlined the transition from mainstream western ethics to feminist ethics to ecofeminist ethics. She states that ecofeminist ethics must be grounded on care-sensitive ethics. The partnership ethics advocated by Merchant in her seminal works Earthcare: Women and the Environment (2014) and Radical Ecology (2005) concerns her notions of universality and an “ethics of inclusivity” (Warren 99). Partnership ethics is an alternative to the four forms of ethics: egocentric, homocentric, ecocentric, and multicultural environmental ethics.

7Egocentric ethics works on the principle of remaining engaged with the self or in the individual. Based on the Hobbesian approach, egocentric ethics promotes competitive self-interest. Hence, the commons (cf. Hardin) cannot be shared but be fought over. Homocentric ethics, influenced by Bentham and Mill’s utilitarian ethics, is grounded on society and advocates the prioritization of fulfilment of human needs. Homocentric ethics reflects a religious formulation of considering humans as stewards and caretakers of the natural world. Ecocentric ethics considers the whole cosmos, and the environment, including the inanimate and animate beings, and has an intrinsic value. It was formulated by Aldo Leopold in the final chapter, “The Land Ethic,” of his most famous work, A Sand County Almanac (1949). Roderick Nash, an environmental historian, has elaborated on Leopold’s land ethic in his article, “Do Rocks Have Rights?” (1977). He explains the approach that advocates the basic holistic aspect of ecocentric ethics, which is concerned with the good of ecosystems or the planet as a whole. Merchant reflects a similar idea. She believes that one of the assumptions of holism is grounded in the principle of unity between humans and nonhumans. They cohabit as part of the same planetary system. Merchant, thus, contests the nature/culture dualism and embraces this unificatory assumption of holism. Theoretical ecologists often focus their research on natural areas removed from human impact, “human (or political) ecologists study the mutual interactions between society and nonhuman nature” (Merchant 78). The multicultural ethic proposed by Baird Callicott is embedded in partnership promoting mutual interests of both human and nonhuman nature: “Thus the one globally intelligible and acceptable ecological ethic and the many culture-specific ecological ethics may mutually reflect, validate, and correct one another—so they may exist in a reciprocal, fair, equal, and mutually sustaining partnership” (qtd. in Merchant 82). Her concept of partnership ethics is analogous to Karren Warren’s fruit bowl metaphor of ecofeminist ethical principles, creating “a care-sensitive ethic that is both inclusive and non-hierarchical” (Merchant 82). According to Merchant, Warren’s fruit bowl is the various ethical principles of western philosophy, such as self-interest, utility, virtue, duties, and rights. They include both the ability to care and care practices. But they fail to be environmentally sensitive when applied to curb anthropogenic practices that oppress nature and nonhuman species.

8Merchant’s concept of partnership ethics is grounded on relations among the biotic and abiotic communities: “A partnership ethic holds that the greatest good for the human and nonhuman communities is in their mutual living interdependence” (Merchant 83). The aim is to restrain human hubris toward both humanity and nature and emphasize fulfilling the needs of both human and nature communities. The partnership ensures the sustainability of “our common home” (Waldau 294). In her interview with J. Scott Bryson, Merchant advocates that this mutual and sustainable relation or interconnectedness is the very essence of partnership ethics as she says:

If you talk about relation, you can talk about similarities and differences, not just identity or identity politics, where you think only of the similarities. Partnership ethics encompasses both similarities and differences. In any partnership based on a relationship, there's a dialogue, there’s a give-and-take, there's a mutual responsibility, a mutual sharing, a holding back for the benefit of the other partner. (Bryson and Merchant 127)

9Merchant refers to Val Plumwood’s concept of “relational self” (Plumwood 154) which is analogous to the basic precepts of partnership ethics. Plumwood explains that the relational self moves beyond the oppositional self/other or nature/culture dualism and embraces “the general structure of a relationship of respect, friendship, or care for the other” (155).

3. The Partnership Platform: Small Wonder (2003) and High Tide in Tucson (1995)

10The essay Small Wonder narrates the story of the nomads of the Lori tribe in Western Iran. A husband and wife have lost their only sixteen-month-old child and later find the child in a bear’s cave with the sow protecting the child. Kingsolver recounts the story stating her firm belief in the “eternal feminine” and she-bear that cares and protects. She states that nature is replete with such miracles. The bear is found curled around him, protecting him from the fierce-smelling intruders in her cave. Kingsolver does not narrate the end of the story. But she reflects that the rescuers have probably spared the bear and simply reached out to the child. They have quietly taken him up and praised God (Allah) for this strange mother who has worked His will. Kingsolver tries to follow the story with the firm faith that the human “intruders” have not harmed the nonhuman “protector.” She uses the expression “strange mother” for the she-bear exposing us to the non-violent power of nature, the experience of Gaia, where the bear is nursing the child. She questions the inevitable: “What does it mean? How is it possible that a huge, hungry bear would take a pitifully small, delicate human child to her breast rather than rip him into food? But she was a mammal, a mother” (4).

11Ecofeminists define women as ecologically conscious of this bond that exists among all the species. This interconnection that exists between the human and nonhuman communities is retold in this little narrative. Kingsolver further continues to contextualize it with the bombing in Afghanistan and the killing of the humanitarian-aid workers. She reflects that these wells of kindness are becoming dry, as humanity has lost faith in the connectedness of all species. The life-changing truth presented by the parable states that “We are all beasts in this kingdom, we have killed and been killed” (6). Domination exists as an institution, whether it is nature or women, or human. She explores another side of the story that humanity has started taking over the domain of nature, othering the nonhuman, “a careless way of sauntering across the earth and breaking open its treasures, a terrible dependency on sucking out the world’s best juices for ourselves” (9). This has wiped out all the treasures of the earth. This narrative is from the mountains of Iran, where Kingsolver points out the sad predicament of the large predators like the bear and the wolf that are already on the verge of extinction in the forests of Europe and North America. They only exist as archenemies in fairy tales, thus, preparing the future generation not to regret their non-existence. Kingsolver states that perhaps salvation lies in the very truth of the parable, i.e., telling a new tale about co-existence: “Some days you have to work hard to save the bear. Some days the bear will save you” (10).

12The essay A Forest’s Last Stand (2003) narrates Kingsolver’s visit to the Mexican village, Nueva Vida, or “New Life.” Her exchanges with Carmen Salgado, her host, add another facet to her ecofeminist way of thinking. She talks about the Chol, Tzeltal, and other groups fleeing from Guatemalan repression and settling down in these Mexican villages. These refugees are passionate about retaining their connection with the land and nonhuman nature. According to them, this connection is more important than achieving a formal educational degree. These refugees undergo a transformation in their perspective on the Calakmul forest. Instead of using the forest as an instrument and a resource, they deeply engage with the forest for its intrinsic value and promote conservation. Salgado intimates to Kingsolver how the women of her group have voted against the felling of trees for lumber and clearing of twenty-five hectares of land for a cornfield as it provides flowers for beekeeping as well as for an apothecary. Though refugees are pressed to fight for their lives, Salgado and her group reinforce and maintain the spirit of partnership: the interconnectedness among all species.

13Called Out (2003) begins with the description of the desert hills and abandoned cotton fields, “the flat salinized ground long since left for dead” (89), blooming with flowers in the Sonoran Desert. Kingsolver stresses the ruins of human extraction are replenished with a wealth of nature. This image is interwoven with the Chol, Tzeltal, and other refugees’ former tradition of slash-and-burn farming, consuming the land and then abandoning it as dead before they are ideologically transformed to stand up for the Calakmul forest. The miracle of cataloguing a whole new species of wildflowers in the Sonoran Desert is a special event for Kingsolver. For a species, the bloom is just the means to an end. The wildflower show is really about making seeds, and the object of the game is persistence through the tough and resilient weather conditions of the desert. Making seeds ensure the beginning of another creation story, and it is so significant to continue and sustain the ecosystem: “If a little seed begins to grow at the first promise of rain, and that promise gets broken, that right there is the end of its little life. If the same thing happened to every seed in the bank, it would mean the end of the species” (90). Here, Kingsolver mentions the Navajo myth of female rain of winter affecting spring flowering, as opposed to male rains of late summer that are rowdy thunderstorms. She also elaborates on the gendered rain context in her essay Creation Stories (1995):

‘Female rain,’ it’s called in Navajo: the gentle, furtive rains that fall from overcast skies between November and March. That was weather to drink and to grow on…. In June there is no vital sign, not so much as a humid breath against a pane of glass, till the summer storms arrive. What we’re waiting for now is male rain. Big, booming wait-till-your-father-gets-home cloudbursts[.] (18)

14Earlier in the essay High Tide in Tucson, Kingsolver has referred to these gendered rains from Navajo tradition: “Female rain,” it’s called in Navajo: the gentle, furtive rains that fall from overcast skies between November and March” (90). The gentle female rain sustains the seed’s life. This metaphor of nurturing rain with the immediate surroundings is comforting and nourishing. This idea of feminine interconnection speaks up for her “felt experiences” (Warren 30) about nature that Kingsolver has expressed in her writings. Gerald Hausman, in his seminal work Meditations with the Navajo: Prayers, Songs, and Stories of Healing and Harmony (2001), elaborates on the concept of gendered rain: “For Navajos, the natural world is divided into genders. There are male rains—heavy and violent thunderstorms—and there are female rains—soft, gentle showers” (3). Hausman associates the concept of the fertility of the Earth and the Changing Woman, one of the principal Holy People of Navajo myth who is often referred to as the Earth Woman or the White Shell Woman. She symbolizes female rains and the psyche of lakes, rivers, and mountains. Kingsolver’s reference to the male and female rains reinforces this woman-nature connection and fertility. But, at the same time, her writings highlight the man-nature connection that exists in the traditional and native ways of understanding the environment that repudiates the dualistic notion of the man/woman binary. Thus, in these essays, Kingsolver’s voice comes from a belief that is radically different from and resistant to the limitations of dualisms like reason/emotion, culture/nature, mind/body, and man/woman. By making such human-nature liaisons, Kingsolver does not refute the basic subordination and exploitation theory of ecofeminism but attempts to present a more inclusive and universal position. This reflects what Karen Warren has stated as “collage or mosaic, a tapestry of voices springing from the plurality of female ‘felt experiences” (Warren 30).

4. The Partnership Platform: Prodigal Summer (2000), Animal Dreams (1990), and Flight Behaviour (2012)

15Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer presents three parallel strands in the novel, namely, “Predators,” “Moth Love” and “Old Chestnuts.” Seemingly different from each other, the three strands converge to evolve into an interconnected ecological tapestry towards the end. Kingsolver’s women characters in the novel present the essence of women-nature liaison in representing environmental interrelatedness and “our embeddedness in nature” (Plumwood 97). “Moth Love” is the story of Lusa Maluf Landowski, a scientist studying moths. She marries the farm owner Cole Widener and moves to the Appalachian farming community with him. Cole’s death in an accident leaves Lusa adjusting to his five sisters’ families and the dying Widener farm. The moth love is a metaphor for her intense love for Cole and her connection with the species that she is a specialist in. Her contact with the moths physically and in her dreams shows her deep connection with this species. In her dreams, her dead husband Cole takes the form of a giant Luna moth. She herself is transformed into a moth as she makes love with the giant Luna: “He was covered in fur, not a man at all but a mountain with the silky, pale-green extremities and maroon shoulders of a luna moth. He wrapped her in his softness, touched her face with what seemed to be the movement of trees” (Kingsolver 79). Lusa’s metamorphoses into a moth are hinted at by Kingsolver in the following lines where she becomes aware of her dream and arises out of the dream metamorphoses: “She woke in a sweat, her back arched with simultaneous desire and release. She touched her body quickly—her breasts, her face—reassuring herself of her own shape. It seemed impossible, but here she was after everything that had happened, still herself, Lusa” (79).

16Lusa’s transformation into a moth in the embrace of a giant Luna moth in her “dream” is so real that she finds it impossible to realize her human shape. Lusa’s environmentally sensitive self and her primal love take the form of a moth, transforming her lover as well as herself into a Luna. So, symbolically it signifies the ecological feminine in her identifying with the exquisite species. Identification with a nonhuman species coincides with an individual’s awareness of nature, transforming and expanding the everyday direct experiences (here Lusa’s). Lusa’s self-identification with the moths uncovers her own sense of belonging to nature and her experience of what it means to be connected with all life forms. Every time, Lusa has her own intimate or invisible moments with herself, her transformation to a moth is indicated by Kingsolver as something very natural and feminine. Connecting with the moths and her primal love for Cole seem deeply feminine to her. In another situation, when Rickie, her nephew, questions her decision to stay back on Cole’s failing farm, she says she is like those moths that she has studied all her life. Apart from the transformation in her dreams, Lusa always identifies herself with moths:

She sighed, crossing her arms across her chest and rubbing her elbows. ‘If there’s any reason or rhyme to what I’m doing, I wish I knew it. I’m like a moth, Rickie, flying in spirals. You see how they do?’ She nodded up at the lightbulb, where hordes of small, frantic wings glinted through the arc of brightness in circular paths through the air. They were everywhere once you bothered to notice them: like visible molecules, Lusa thought, entirely filling up space with their looping trajectories (163).

17The “Predator” engages the readers with the reclusive wildlife ranger Deanna’s effort to save and protect the coyote family from Eddie’s and other farmers’ acrimonious attitude. The conflict between Deanna as a protector and Eddie as an enemy is expressed by Kingsolver in this novel as a metaphor for male characters’ apathy and women’s empathy with nature and the nonhuman species. Kingsolver’s characters are connected with the ecosystem they live in, acting both as a predator and prey. The ideological differences but the physical closeness between Deanna and Eddie are confusing. Deanna is absorbed in the irony of Eddie’s life as a bounty hunter: “Shoot every coyote, screw every woman, see the world, she thought: the strategy of prolonged adolescence” (180). Eddie’s crusade to exterminate the coyotes, and Deanna’s efforts to save them, are interwoven in the plot to depict the linkage between the oppression of both nature and women. The woman saves the coyotes, while a man is paid to kill them. Kingsolver has very subtly portrayed the kinship and solidarity of a woman with animals against the predatory ecological role of a man. It is the oppositional bifurcated hierarchy that is emphasized by the wildlife ranger: “Were male and female from different worlds…Was she nothing but mud-colored female on the inside? She who’d always been sure she was living her life bright blue?” (175).

18Deanna knows that there are only female coyotes and cubs in the forest. She equates herself with the female coyotes not howling at the moon but snarling quietly in the language of mothers speaking to children. The eternal mother-child relation between humans and nonhumans is paralleled here by Kingsolver. Coyote cubs are born empty-headed like human infants, needing to learn every skill they’d need for life. The coyote women teach the cubs the skills that they need to survive: “it wasn’t men talking” (200). After three months of courtship, Eddie disappears from Deanna’s life, leaving her pregnant with a child. Deanna decides to raise her child like the female coyotes, alone without Eddie:

‘DAMN YOU, EDDIE BONDO!’.… Truly, she had needed for him to go before the air got any denser between them. Her secret was getting hard to keep, and keep it she must, there had never been any question about that. Better for this child, better for everybody, that he not know what he’d left behind—and so he never would. She would tell people in Egg Fork, because they sure would ask, that the father of her child was a coyote. (432)

19Kingsolver in Prodigal Summer presents voices springing from the plurality of female ‘felt experiences” (Warren 30). Both Deanna and Lusa are connected with nature as members of the subordinated groups presenting certain aspects of ecofeminism. Kingsolver’s women interact with the environment, and present oppositional or contrasting views with the male characters, who often get converted ideologically like Eddie Bondo, Garnett Walker, Lowell, or Rickie. Kingsolver’s vision with respect to ecofeminism is a complementary and inclusive one beyond oppositional dualistic thinking. Thus, Prodigal Summer emerges with the principles of partnership ethics.

20Animal Dreams recounts Codi or Cosima’s sense of alienation from her surroundings and her feeling of otherness as she returns to the “country of her origin” (211), a small rural town, Grace County. Codi suffers estrangement with the place and people of Grace County, as a kind of imbalance because of her own traumatic memories that are associated with the environment and natural surroundings of Grace County. She has her erratic, traumatic visions signifying her own loss of self-identity, “eyeball dreams” that haunt “just like a sound, like popping glass, and then I’m blind. It’s a very short dream” (197). Codi’s eyeball dreams are symbolic of her past losses and sense of alienation from everything that surrounds her—nature, people, and her own inner being. Sheryl Stevenson elaborates in “Trauma and memory in Animal Dreams” that Codi’s present crisis elicits memories of unresolved losses in the past—the death of Codi’s mother when she was three and that of a child, she secretly miscarried when she was fifteen, a daughter she frequently dreams about (89). Codi’s trauma of losing her child and her hiding this loss from her Pueblo boyfriend Lyod, the father of the still-born, and others are kind of maternal guilt that makes Codi think herself sterile and infertile: “I’d come close to having a baby of my own once, but I thought of it now so rarely that the notion of myself as a mother always caught me off guard” (53). She easily identifies herself with the poisoned grounds of Grace County which is also turning infertile because of copper mine pollution. Codi’s trauma-driven past memory blocks and faulty self-image concentrate on her own failure to connect with the abundant and bountiful landscape. Thus, Kingsolver weaves neatly Codi’s loss, miscarriage, maternal guilt, separation from nature and the landscape, and her infertility as symbols of the loss of her feminine interconnections with nature. A woman has lost both her mother and her still-born daughter, and these traumatic experiences have eclipsed the possibility to relate to her natural surroundings. The woman fails to enter a graceful relationship with nature, unable to continue the creation story. She is as poisoned as the poisoned land of Grace County. The woman-nature interconnection is poisoned and sterile.

21Theda Wrede, in her seminal work “Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams: Ecofeminist Subversion of Western Myth,” has stressed the importance of an existing connection between land and women, an extension of the women-nature liaison that Codi lacks with the Grace County: “To the women, the land is what provides food to feed the living; it takes the dead who through flowers and care continue to live on in spirit and memories. In short, the land is the source of the circularity of life. Lacking the connection to both the land and her ancestors, Codi, however, feels excluded from their rites” (51). It is the fertile, living, and celebrated landscape that increases Codi’s sense of estrangement and loss of identity. Whereas, she, at once, empathizes with the poisoned grounds that are polluted with the chemical extracts, sulfuric acid, from the copper mine, Black Mountain Mine. The trauma of the dying land and the trauma of a dying feminine self becomes one for Codi. Starting a movement to save the polluted land and the river becomes a means for Codi to get reconnected with nature. She starts to heal herself, her past wounds, and the toxic nature of Grace County.

22Codi’s revival of her romantic association with Lyod is another facet of her reconnection with nature, and his return to her life reintegrates Codi with Grace County. Lyod’s condemnation of commodifying and destroying the land and his Native American or indigenous knowledge of the natural world helps Codi to “recover her sense of self” (Wrede 50), her perception of the land, and her fertility, which ultimately culminates in human integration with nature. Lyod’s deep sense of belonging to nature and his knowledge about Pueblo, Apache, and Navajo traditions that he shares with Codi works as a nature-healing for Codi and her secret loss. Her trip with Lyod to the Navajo tribal land, Santa Rosalina, serves as a new way of living with the land and her past traumas gracefully. Sheryl Stevenson (2010) explains that the “mode of healing can be seen when Loyd takes Codi to Kinishba, an eight-hundred-year-old Pueblo structure with “more than two hundred rooms—a village under one roof” that provides a vision of interconnected life” (100).

23In Animal Dreams, Kingsolver portrays her women characters who share an ultimate understanding of the women-nature connection, highlighting the ecological conscience that is associated with the women of Grace County. She adds another level of complexity in addressing Codi’s trauma-driven sense of motherhood and her infertility, as well as the land and river poisoned by human-driven industrialization. The end of the novel shows the shutting down of the mines and cleaning of the river and healed Codi pregnant with Lyod’s child. The novel highlights deep personal engagements with the natural world for Codi and the women of Grace County as healers, nurturers, and care for nonhuman nature. Lyod’s indigenous connection enables the readers to cross the barrier of culture/nature dualism and perceive a different vantage point to create more inclusive and integrated forms of co-existence among all species that resonate with the spirit of partnership ethics.

24Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour is centred on the life-altering experience of a woman, Dellarobia Turnbow, the frustrated, placid housewife from a small town in southern Appalachia. Her momentary romantic escapade makes her face the unfamiliar territory of planetary transformation in the form of a huge monarch butterfly migration, a forest on fire: “Every bough glowed with an orange blaze…. Trees turned to fire, a burning bush…. The flame now appeared to lift from individual treetops in showers of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it’s poked” (13). Dellarobia’s ideological transformation is the most significant part which demonstrates the central component of Kingsolver’s ecofeminist thoughts. Dellarobia undergoes successive transformations facing a contradiction, limitations of human vision, and finally, change. Her initial belief in seeing the butterflies as “God’s grace” changes as she confronts Ovid Byron, the scientist. Kingsolver deliberately includes various viewpoints (religious, scientific, political, etc.) regarding the migration of monarchs or King Billies as the locals call them to present the essential culture/nature dualism, and it encourages the reader to erase the distinctions. Dellarobia’s father-in-law, Bear, represents the man/nature disconnections, determined to clear the forest area where the monarchs have taken refuge. Her husband Cub’s silent consent to the felling of the forest for monetary benefits reflects their loss of ecological integrity. Kingsolver intentionally represents such gendered value categories of eco-consciousness to focus on the ecofeminist view of feminine ways of caring for and sustaining the natural world and the need to move away from ecological abuses.

25Ovid Byron, the scientist, initiates Dellarobia’s transformation of conscience as she starts working with him. Her interaction with Byon makes her realize the intertwining of scientific knowledge and ecological values of life that is essential to nurturing nonhuman nature. Her concern for the survival of a whole species is more than the cold, detached scientist to whom a species is an object of studying the strange phenomenon. Kingsolver’s exclusive ecofeminist focus is on Dellarobia’s connection with the nonhuman world. Dellarobia learns to accept the power of human agency that has continuously abused nature. Dellarobia’s conversion demonstrates the triumph of feminine values negating the patriarchal masculine impositions. Her decision to continue her college studies and to divorce Cub shows her essential survival from a placid and unconcerned life. It equates her to the Monarchs that too survive the sudden change in the climate. Antonia Mehnert in Climate Change Fictions: Representations of Global Warming in American Literature (2016) comments that Kingsolver’s writing here illustrates the experience of the creative and self-directed power of nature, which allows for new sensibilities and an awareness of what Debora Bird Rose and Thom Van Dooren have described as “situated connectivities that bind us into multi-species communities” (qtd. in Mehnert 87). Dellarobia’s connection with the monarchs and the land takes an ecofeminist turn as she sees that larger stand. Culture and nature, human and nonhuman, man and woman, reason and emotion—all of these cannot exist as dualistic forms. Rather these are interconnected as complementary halves in a planetary ecosystem where “Everything is connected to everything else” (cf. Commoner).

5. The Partnership Ethics in Dialogue: Kingsolver’s Works

26Merchant (Radical Ecology; Earthcare) stresses that partnership ethics is essential for the future well-being of the planet and to counter the all-encompassing ecological crises. The partnership between humans and nature emphasizes not only thinking about the similarities but accepting the differences created by dualistic thinking. Such propositions open up new avenues of conversation or dialogue to represent various contesting points of view to create a design based on equity between nature and humans. Kingsolver’s works are new narratives overriding the differences (human/nature, culture/nature, and man/woman). She suggests the differences as she writes about the gendered rains or the women characters closer to nature: the women of Nueva Vida restoring the Calakmul forest, the reclusive forest ranger saving coyotes from bounty hunters, or the women from the polluted mining town saving the river and the fruit orchards and Lyod’s close association with nature representing the indigenous culture and knowledge. These instances show that it is difficult to eliminate dualistic thinking completely. Her narratives do not escape the trap of sentimentalizing or essentializing human/nature relations and exoticizing indigenous characters. However, representing the nonhumans in the ecosystem (for example, the coyotes, bears, the bioregions, the forest, and the river) is a process to overcome differences. Kingsolver makes the precepts of partnership ethics manifest beyond the limitations of dualism. Hence, we find that the bounty hunter leaves Deanna and the coyotes alone to survive. The local mining community of Grace County forces the big corporation/industry to rethink human needs together with the environment’s needs. The placid housewife starts protecting the butterflies with the help of a man of science. Native deserts and cotton fields, fertile with female rains and male rains, show the beginning of a new creation story. Kingsolver attempts to substitute dualistic thoughts and attitudes of domination stemming from it with alternative narratives to create possibilities of a mutually sustainable partnership between humans and nature.

6. Conclusion

27Chris Cuomo claims in “On Ecofeminist Philosophy” that Karen Warren’s key insight into ecofeminist philosophy is captured precisely in the phrase “it’s all connected” (1). In fact, the major ecofeminists call for paying attention to the ecological as well as social interdependencies that exist in the planetary system. Roger J.H. King also points out in his work “Caring about Nature: Feminist Ethics and the Environment,” that the ideological commonality exists between essentialist and conceptualist ecofeminism. These two strands presuppose that environmental ethics will benefit from creating theoretical space for human relations to nature, personal lived experience, and vocabulary of caring, nurturing, and maintaining connection (76). Merchant in her Reinventing Eden: The Fate of Nature in Western Culture claims that partnership ethics stresses this very interconnection. She emphasizes that this cooperative discourse does not claim that women have special knowledge of nature or a special ability to care for nature. It is not a case where “some” women are speaking for “all” women or for “other” women who are incapable of speaking for themselves. Here women and minorities participate in the process and nature, speaking in a different voice, is also heard at the table (250). Therefore, the partnership creates a platform that entails creating a new narrative or set of narratives about the human place in history and nature (255). Kingsolver’s nonfiction and fiction are these new sets of recovery narratives that resonate strongly with the partnership principles. The liaison between Kingsolver’s fictional characters, her acquaintances, and friends in her essays and environment represents the broader precepts of ecofeminist thoughts postulated by philosophers like Carolyn Merchant, Karen Warren, Val Plumwood, and Ynestra King in their works. Kingsolver’s works depart from the various dual oppression of the patriarchal domination model and unjust cultural hierarchies and provide the key to understanding ecological realities. These sets of narratives can be designated as “Recovery Narratives” (Merchant 256) presenting what Plumwood voices as “a new relationship with nature” affirming “continuity and kinship for earth-others as well as their subjecthood… and agency. It will be… open to the play of more-than-human forces and attentive to the ancestral voices of place and earth” (qtd. in Merchant 256).

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Electronic reference

Abhra Paul and Vidya Sarveswaran, Making Connections: Reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Works from an Ecofeminist Partnership Ethics PerspectiveEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 18-2 | 2023, Online since 03 July 2023, connection on 13 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Abhra Paul

Abhra Paul is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Institute of Science Education and Research (NISER), Bhubaneswar, an OCC of Homi Bhabha National Institute, India. She completed her Ph.D. at the Indian Institute of Technology, Jodhpur, in 2021. Her research areas are English Literature, American Literature, South Asian Literature, Culture Studies, Blue Humanities, the Anthropocene, and Environmental Humanities.

Vidya Sarveswaran

Vidya Sarveswaran is an Associate Professor of English in the SLA at the Indian Institute of Technology, Jodhpur, India. She was a Fulbright Fellow from the University of Nevada, Reno (2009) and a Rachel Carson fellow from the Rachel Carson Centre for Environment and Society at Munich (2016). Her research and teaching focus on Literary Studies, Environmental Humanities, Blue Humanities, Cultural Histories of Disasters, and The Anthropocene to name a few. Vidya has co-edited four books: Ecoambiguity, Community, and Development: Toward a Politicized Ecocriticism (Lexington Books, 2014), Ecocriticism of the Global South (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), Ecocriticism and Environmental Communication (Routledge, 2019), and A Bloomsbury Handbook of Medical Environmental Humanities (Bloomsbury, 2022). Vidya is passionate about eco-documentary film making and her debut film Under Another Sky was released in 2020.

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