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The language of waves: transatlantic ecofiction and the legacy of hydrospheric modernism

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posted on 2022-12-20, 00:24 authored by Lauren Alice

Increasing concern about climate change, rising sea levels and dwindling ice sheets has turned the attention of the humanities towards literature's engagement with hydrospheric environments and ecosystems. As an emerging interdisciplinary field that considers the ways that human culture is imbricated with the seas and oceans, the 'blue humanities' has brought overdue recognition to the importance of environmental literature. This has created an opportunity to explore modernism's engagement with bodies of water and the hydrological cycle-a mode I call "hydrospheric modernism"-and to consider its legacy in contemporary, nature-oriented literature. Ecofiction that evokes the agency of the more-than-human world dissolves the boundaries between culture and nature, and reimagines our minds and bodies as saturated by, and immersed in, the many bodies of the hydrosphere. This dissertation surfaces at the vital confluence of literature and the humanities, participating in the creation of formative and affective interdisciplinary dialogue aimed at the improvement and sustainment of the interdependent human and more-than-human worlds. 

By identifying water-oriented modernist and contemporary works of fiction, I consider the ways the materiality of the hydrosphere informs aesthetic practices that transform our understanding of subjectivity and sociality. The first section focuses on establishing a framework for identifying the mode of hydrospheric modernism via a discussion of two high modernist writers, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. In the first chapter, I draw on Edward Casey's ideas about the role of edges-physical and metaphysical-in our understanding of the fluid relationship between the human and more-than-human world to examine Woolfs engagement with the hydrosphere in To the Lighthouse and The Waves. This is followed by an analysis of Joyce's stream of consciousness writing in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, focusing primarily on Stephen Dedalus' aquaphobia and Stacy Alaimo's concept of transcorporeality, which dissolves the separation of human corporeality from the dynamic, material world. By reimagining human identity and culture as immersed in, and permeated by, wider non-human ecosystems, Woolf and Joyce make clear the importance of bodies of water for understanding human experience and culture. 

The second section of this dissertation shifts to focusing on contemporary works of ecofiction that utilise different aspects of the hydrospheric modernist style to engage more directly with environmental discourses. In chapter three, mortality can be seen to play a major role in our resistance to recognising the permeability of our corporeal body as explored in Jim Crace's Being Dead, John Banville's The Sea and Don DeLillo's The Body Artist. Each novel explores the relationship between the hydrosphere, grief and death to propose new ways of 1magmmg continuity and commemoration. Then, chapter four extends the corporeal discussion of the interaction between human bodies and bodies of water towards intersubjectivity in Joshua Cohen's Book of Numbers and Rachel Cusk's Outline Trilogy. Cohen and Cusk share an interest in the role of the author in a transnational context, however, their engagement with the hydrosphere as a model for subjectivity and sociality differs in terms of what I describe as the desertification or hydration of empathy and ethics. Finally, chapter five considers how different hydrospheric arrangements produce different identities and interrelations between people and places by examining Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Paul Auster's In the Country of Last Things, and Briohny Doyle's The Island Will Sink. These novels radically disrupt the hydrological cycle to show that even in worlds in which the hydrosphere is recoded as a source of danger, its reparative and socialising materialities persist. Together these novels affirm the importance of the hydrosphere, not only for sustaining human life, but for all aspects of human culture.  


Table of Contents

Introduction: a drop in the ocean -- Chapter one: tides, time and transcorporeality in the novels of Virginia Woolf -- Chapter two: a portrait of Stephen Dedalus, James Joyce's Aquaphobic Aesthete -- Chapter three: aquatic ecologies of grief and the ripples of recollection -- Chapter four: fluid intersubjectivity and viscous sociality: the desertification and hydration of authorial empathy -- Chapter five: after the disaster, in the wake of the flood -- Conclusion: a world without end -- Works cited


A thesis submitted in fulfilment of requirements for the degree of: Doctor of Philosophy

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


Thesis (PhD), Macquarie University, Department of English, 2020

Department, Centre or School

Department of English

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Alys Moody

Additional Supervisor 1

Louise D'Arcens

Additional Supervisor 2

Paul Sheehan


Copyright: The Author Copyright disclaimer:




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