Trees in/as trauma
Is Version Of
Although it is often overlooked, the tree is an essential element in works of literature from the Old English era to the present day. With an ecocritical rooting, I argue that when a tree experiences trauma in a text—through felling, lightning strike, or incorporation in human violence—its physical appearance maintains that trauma while simultaneously serving as symbol and reminder. Drawing on the idea of pain developed by Elaine Scarry, this thesis argues that trees are subjected to, and become physical representations of, trauma—that is, of physical or psychological injury, whether individual, collective, or environmental. In three works of English and American literature, I show how this trauma is compounded, encompassing the suffering of both humans and nature due to violence, scientific progress, and environmental depletion. I begin with an analysis of the tree in The Dream of the Rood, an Old English poem exploring the experience of the cross on which Christ was crucified, a rare first-person point of view that establishes a non-human voice through personification. This tree urges readers of the poem to listen not only to its story about Christ, but also to its testimony of the trauma it experienced and continues to experience at the hands of man who are responsible not only for the death of Christ, but the continued subjugation of peoples and the environment. The reader’s experience of non-human nature having sentience and the ability to express human sins against the natural world creates a sense of horror, which challenges traditional ideas of humankind and forces humans to acknowledge the violence committed against the environment. For these reasons, this text can and should be categorized as ecohorror.
From there, I examine Mary Shelley’s famous Romantic novel, Frankenstein. Although the corruption of nature is often discussed in this work, I focus specifically on the image of the blasted stump. The stump renders pictorially the experiences of Victor Frankenstein while also highlighting the severe and continuous trauma of nature at the hands of humankind, specifically through scientific progress. I conclude with a contemporary American piece, Toni Morrison’s Beloved. In this novel, the tree echoes the trauma of the protagonist, Sethe, of the African American population, and of the environment. In illustrating how the tree is utilized in literature in similar ways across time and space, these works show the deeply intertwined suffering of humans and nature that manifests in a compounded trauma.