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Ecocriticism emphasizes how our bodily and ecological boundaries are just as porous, inter-penetrable, and open as are our cultural and linguistic realms. As individual bodies and communities, we are fully immersed in our material environment and participating in constant exchanges of matter and energy. In this essay, I nevertheless advocate for a cautious approach to the ecocritical question of contested boundaries. After all, some boundaries and membranes are necessary to maintain living organisms. Regarding Timothy Morton’s assertion that we are “radically open,” I note the need for stable and healthy membranes to sustain life, such as our porous yet enclosed intestines. I propose a multi-pronged perspective using the literary model of Goethe’s famously sentimental Werther, who longs to merge with nature and become an insect, in juxtaposition with his deeply ironic Triumph of Sentimentality, which satirizes the Werther-like figure, Prince Oronaro, who wants to keep nature safely in a box. From the relationship of these two texts emerges an “ironic Werther,” a model for ecocriticism. Werther’s and Morton’s “openness” are juxtaposed with Oronaro’s boxes, allowing for an open/closed perspective that resonates with “unbalanced nature” more broadly. Ecologically speaking, all boundaries fade in the long-term, cosmic view; yet short-term boundaries allow a steady-state existence far from equilibrium, that is, they allow life to exist. Nature’s long term unbalance brings change and evolution, even as short-term bodies live, reproduce, die, and continue the process. This essay rejects the notion of harmonious nature and proposes instead a dynamic, multi-pronged view both ironic and serious, both literary and scientific, both open and closed; above all, it suggests that thinking “nature in a box” might remind us that we, too, are nature and need some limits as we hubristically alter our world.


Universidad de Alcalá

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