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The Ecological Plot: A Brief History of Multispecies Storytelling, from Malthus to Middlemarch

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 February 2020

Abstract

This essay returns to the early nineteenth-century prehistory of ecology to argue that the anthropocentrism of Victorian social novels should be understood as a deliberate, pragmatic response to the ethical dilemmas of ecological entanglement—dilemmas visible by the late eighteenth century. Interspecies entanglement and its discontents provided the cornerstone of Malthus's infamous arguments about overpopulation in the Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). Inspired by Malthus's proto-ecological vision of endless interconnection, Harriet Martineau adopted it as the plot structure of her Illustrations of Political Economy (1832–34), some of the earliest and most influential examples of industrial fiction. Later social novelists borrowed Martineau's narrative technique of disclosing community by tracing material interdependence, but they excluded relations that crossed the species barrier. Those exclusions arose not from arrogance or ignorance of humanity's dependence on other species but from the decision to bracket often unanswerable questions arising from interspecies collectivity to foreground the practical importance of attending to the urgent needs of human beings.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2020

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