The Concept of Nature and Connectedness in Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls – Stephanie Dabrowski
The term “Nature” has famously been described by Raymond Williams as “one of the most complex words in the English language” (in “Post-Secular” 287). This is an observation enforced by Lorraine Datson and Fernando Vidal’s assertion that “nothing even approximating a full-dress account of the multiple meanings and histories of the word ‘nature’ and its cognates (or lack thereof) [is to be found] in other languages”, emphasising instead the significance of the term’s “varied and complex meanings” (5). The value of this term lies precisely in this complexity as it becomes emulative of the character of humankind’s relationship with the natural world it occupies, a relationship more than ever in need of interrogation since the onset of modernity and particularly in consequence of the current ecocrisis. Significantly, the word ‘environment’ which has come to supersede ‘nature’ as the term of choice since the onset of this crisis obscures much of the meaning that was once inherent in the conception of the natural world. Various literary critics have focused on the significance of the loss of the word nature, citing in particular its coincidence with the disenchantment of the natural and the consequent exploitative practices that have led to the plight of the environment (see Marx). Within this context literature emerges as an important tool not only for drawing attention to specific environmental concerns and powerful imaginings of the future consequences of such practices but, moreover, as a forum for reconnecting with some of the lost meaning previously intrinsically connected to the concept of nature. One such literary example is Patrick Ness’s young adult novel A Monster Calls which, although not primarily concerned with environmental issues, evokes interesting thoughts on nature by embodying it as an ancient, shape-shifting monster which comes walking in the modern day world in the form of a yew tree. The monster, which comes to help an isolated thirteen-year-old boy, Conor O’Mally, confront his feelings about losing his mother from cancer in the absence of any other familial or social support, can be argued to represent a return to older mythic relations with nature as well as highlighting the disconnectedness which pervades modern society, a disconnectedness from nature which extends to a lack of connection between people.
Charles Squire, in Celtic Myth and Legend, describes the ancient inhabitants of Europe and the Middle East, comprising various branches all descended from a “hypothetical people” known as “Indo-European”, as sharing “similar ideas and expressions” within their various religions, “pointing to an original source of mythological conceptions” (31-2). This linking “mythological groundwork” resides in the way that in all these ancient cultures “the powers of nature [were] personified and endowed with human form and attributes”, a practice not limited to this region but which exists within the various cultures that have historically lived in closer relation to the natural world (32). Within such mythologies the unpredictable and inexplicable patterns of nature were made more comprehensible through human form, signalling a time when nature had deep symbolic meaning and, moreover, was considered to have agency over the lives of humanity. This is a relationship which has shifted over time just as the term nature has gradually been supplanted by the designation of ‘the environment’ as humanity has become increasingly alienated from the natural world with the onset of modernity and the related processes of industrialisation and urbanisation.
The way in which conceptions of nature and humankind’s relationship to it have changed over time is explored by Leo Marx in “The Idea of Nature in America” where he examines this change specifically in relation to American thought “in view of the crucial role played by the idea [of nature] over the course of American history”, though mindful that this is a process which is not peculiar to the American context, having occurred throughout the western world (9). Early ideas of nature held by the European settlers of America centred on its “geographical” characteristics as “a landscape” apparently “untouched by civilisation, a cultural void populated by godless savages” (10). This opposition established between nature and ‘civilisation’ is one of the earliest proponents in a line of thought that placed humanity beyond and above nature and led us to seek mastery over it. The teachings of Christianity further propagated this idea by portraying nature as “fallen” and therefore as “Satan’s domain”, ultimately serving as a useful justification for colonialist expansion in the name of bringing enlightenment to the ‘barbaric’ cultures of the ‘wilderness’ (10). With the development of various scientific theories nature became secularised and the dividing gulf between it and humanity reduced; most notably through Darwin’s theory of evolution which effectively rendered the “belief in nature’s separateness scientifically untenable once and for all” (13). In spite of this Marx argues that “in ordinary usage the word [nature still] rarely conveys a sense of humanity’s ties with other living things” and it consequently remains “an almost wholly independent entity ‘out there’” (13). Moreover, the idea of ‘the survival of the fittest’, a concept derived from the theory of natural selection Darwin put forward, was used to develop the idea of Social Darwinism which became “a full-fledged rational […] for the ruthless practices of free-market capitalism’”, an ideology linked to a “belief in ‘progress’” often enacted at the expense of nature (14). Marx encapsulates the way nature has come to be viewed in consequence of this, claiming:
On this view, nature has a critical role in the unfolding of material progress – but a role largely defined by human purposes. Because it is an indispensible source of our knowledge and our raw materials, nature is most productively conceived as wholly Other – an unequivocally independent, separate, hence exploitable entity.
Even the value currently being placed on nature as a result of the ecological crisis is because of the “threat to the human habitat” rather than reflecting a value of nature in itself (16). Although the global crisis of the environment points to the interdependence between man and nature and establishes them as components of a single system, nature remains a commodity for human use and it is the question of human survival which is uppermost in concerns around this issue; nature is thus to be conserved as part of the same system which led to its exploitation.
The lack of connection with and respect for nature is additionally a component of a general state of disconnection which pervades contemporary society, ironic considering the advances which have been made in communication technology. Georg Simmel in the essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life” comments, for instance, that the mental state of the city subject, developed in response to the “disruption with which the fluctuation and discontinuities of the external milieu threaten it”, is one characterised by reason and rationality, “the most adaptable of our inner forces”, above emotion (Simmel 325-6). This attitude in turn leads to an emptying out of the meaning in human encounters as, in much the same way that money prompts a reduction of items to their exchange value, purely intellectual engagement produces a “matter-of-fact attitude in the treatment of persons and things” (326-7). The dual condition of humanity’s estrangement from nature and the related estrangement between individuals points to the significance of finding new ways to conceive of humankind’s place in the world and the need to reinsert meaning into such relations. To this end Patrick Curry has argued for the value of pluralist relations between humankind and the natural world as opposed to those framed by dualism.
Curry in “Nature Post-Nature” makes an argument against “essentialist and […] monist” modes of thinking which “pursu[e] and propagate[e] a presumptively exhaustive explanation of all significant phenomena” (51). In contrast to this, Curry advocates what he refers to as “relational pluralism”, “entail[ing] an intellectual practice, with ethical and political dimensions, which rejects the goal of universal true knowledge, in the realist sense of ‘true’, and accepts contingency – but not thereby arbitrariness or mere subjectiveness – including its own” (52-3). What this view allows is for various partial conceptions of truth to operate concurrently, adding dynamic meaning which does not cut off any single perspective. This is valuable in relation to prevalent modern conceptions of nature which as a rule “locate[ ] all agency and value in humanity alone, leaving the rest of nature – whether as the product of ultimately nonanimate items and forces (‘natural’) or of cultural and political constraints and imperatives (‘social’) – without agency, subjectivity or independent value or integrity”, allowing the natural world to be appropriated for human use “without any qualms” (53). The more pluralist notion of ecocentrism “locates value and/or agency within nature as such, including (but not limited to) humanity”, thus creating a conception termed by David Abram as a “more-than-human world” (in “Nature” 54). In establishing ecocriticism as inherently pluralist, Curry lays the foundation for his use of the term “ecopluralism” as one which encompasses this dynamic vision with respect to nature and by necessity “includes a post-secular sacrality” of nature (“Post-Secular” 286).
The notion of recuperating a sacred view of nature becomes important not only because it restores meaning and inherent value, moving beyond strict use value, but also because it provides it with agency. It is noteworthy that a pluralist view allows humanity to be considered a part of nature on one hand and separate from it on the other as this separation permits nature’s own inherent value apart from humanity to be recognised in addition to its value as part of a connected system which includes humanity. Moreover, plurality precludes the possibility of complete and final knowledge, lending itself to an enchanted world which, according to Alkis Kontos, is characterised by “mystery and the plurality of spirits”, in its turn eliciting a response of wonder (in “Post-Secular” 291-2). The significance of wonder is noted by Ronald Hepburn who argues that wonder is “notably and essentially other-acknowledging”, with “a close affinity between the attitude of wonder itself—non-exploitative, non-utilitarian—and attitudes that seek to affirm and respect other-being” (in “Post-Secular” 292). It is thus through such plural, and therefore partial, vision that a re-enchantment of nature, instilling in it a sense of wonder and meaning which has become lost, that the term ‘nature’ as well as the complex entity it describes can begin to be valued in contemporary society.
In A Monster Calls this process of re-enchantment of nature is enacted to some extent through its personification as a yew tree which comes walking in monstrous form. The monster is characterised as “the wild earth” itself, comprising “everything wild and untameable”, embodying both the landscape -“being the spine that the mountains hang upon[,] […] the tears that the rivers cry [and] […] the lungs that breath the wind”- and animal life in myriad forms from the large and stately “wolf” and “stag” to the modest “spider” and “fly”, including predator and prey alike (44). This imagery of the monster, and by extension nature, comprises both a sense of its agency, power and ‘character’ as well as the idea of an interconnected network and system.
Not only does the monster give nature an embodied and recognisable ‘identity’ within the text, but, furthermore, it constitutes a return to more archaic relations between humanity and nature, signalled by its claim to have been known by “as many names as there are years to time itself” and its identification of itself as “Herne the Hunter”, “Cernnunos” and “the eternal Green Man”, all references to legends, ancient deities and religious symbols strongly tied to nature (44). As the original concept of the novel was developed by Siobhan Dowd, a London-born young adult writer and human rights activist of Irish descent, prevented from completing the work by her death from breast cancer, there is a strong engagement and incorporation of mythology and symbolism stemming from ancient Celtic beliefs. Celtic priests were known as Druids, “a word derived from a root DR which signifies a tree […] in several […] languages” that developed from the Indo European language known as “Aryan” (Squire 33). This suggests, though it is not accepted by all scholars of this period, that among these cultures “especial veneration” was paid to “the king of trees” (33). The specific tree which features in the novel as the monster, the yew, grows in the cemetery behind Conor’s house, which is significant because churchyards were locations where the yew “was commonly found” due to its strong associations with death and constituting places where the trees chiefly continue to survive in Ireland today (Hartzell 7). According to Hal Hartzell Jr., in The Yew Tree: A Thousand Whispers, this was an association held among various ancient civilisations in the northern hemisphere, stemming from the physical properties of the tree since its wood was particularly suited to making “weapons of war” while “juice or oil extracted from crushed leaves, bark or seeds made a deadly poison” (15). Interestingly, and seemingly paradoxically, the yew was also valued as a medicinal plant by many cultures despite this toxicity, a quality which, along with its longevity and evergreen leaves, additionally led to a link with resurrection and the afterlife (20). The symbolic link with death and the afterlife precipitated the development of several beliefs in relation to planting the tree in churchyards: the Celts, for instance, believed the yew embodied “the ghost of the person buried beneath it” and that, “by sending its roots into the throats of the buried dead”, it could retrieve “their untold secrets and transform[ ] them into whispers to be blown loose from the foliage in the wind” (114-16, 19, xv). These various properties and connotations made the trees extremely significant as is evident in the Irish “legend of Eochardh Airemhz” which “attests to the fact that the yew was the most powerful tree sacred to Ireland” (23).
Having established these links to an ancient system of spirituality and symbolism once ascribed to the natural world, it is interesting to look at the way this characterisation of nature functions in the contemporary setting of A Monster Calls. Significantly, although when Conor first encounters the monster he hears it calling his name, the monster claims that he “called” it, albeit not consciously (Ness 46). This is suggestive of a need not being met by the society Conor inhabits, necessitating a return to or seeking of connectivity with nature, specifically an enchanted nature. This is a notion enforced by the ambiguous space between fantasy and reality occupied by the monster as, although physical traces of its presence such as leaves or berries on the floor suggest that it is real, it is not made clear in the text whether or not the monster is reality or fantasy as only Conor sees it. Rosemary Jackson in Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion describes fantasy as a genre which “characteristically attempts to compensate for a lack resulting from cultural constraints” which, by seeking out what is “experienced as absence” or “loss”, interrogates such absences (3-4). Considered alongside this conception of the fantastic the presence of nature in this spiritual and symbolic form points to an absence in the world Conor inhabits, a world which leaves him supremely isolated.
Every facet of Conor’s life is portrayed as being overshadowed by his mother’s struggle with cancer and his own deeply conflicted, and therefore repressed, feelings towards the thought of losing her. As his parents are divorced, with his father having begun a new family overseas in America, the ‘natural’ family unit is shown to be broken down and dysfunctional since even when his father visits it is clear that he is preoccupied with his new family and has “no room” for him (102). Conor and his mother are moreover socially isolated as the only person who comes to the house to offer support to either of them is his grandmother, described as “not like other grandmas” because her lifestyle is clearly preoccupied with remaining young, a resistance to the ‘natural’ process of aging, through her concern with her appearance, her refusal to retire and proficiency with new technological trends as she e-mails birthday cards (48-9). The only other space for social engagement is Conor’s school where the students, excepting a bully Harry who begins to target him, avoid him because of the awkward and troubling reality he represents as the son of a dying parent. Even the teacher’s form part of a social structure which fails to provide Conor with support in confronting his complex emotions as they allow him to ‘disappear’ by not expecting him to do his work or participate in school, only serving to further remove him from any normal activities of daily life. The social structure presented in the novel is thus one which through a lack of open confrontation with difficult emotional material produces a sense of isolation and alienation, failing to provide a teenage boy with any aid in a highly traumatic situation. Even Conor’s mother, in her own inability to directly confront the reality that she is dying, neglects to talk to him about her death, leaving him burdened with a sense of betrayal for recognising that she is dying in contrast to her determinedly optimistic outlook. Any form of religion, an institution generally sought for comfort in relation to loss and dying, is also noticeably absent in the novel. It is in relation to this lack of open communication or the sharing of emotions, as well as the absence of a space in which to release the force of these feelings, that the monstrous incarnation of nature is sought as a means of filling these gaps and enabling healing.
As the yew tree is renowned for its healing abilities, referenced in the novel where it is described as “the most powerful of all the healing trees” for “its berries, its bark, its leaves, its sap, its pulp, its wood […] all thrum and burn and twist with life” which “can cure almost any ailment man suffers from”, it is primarily as a source of healing that nature is evoked in the novel (Ness 114). However, it is interestingly on a symbolic level, and not through the physical properties of the yew, that this healing is produced. This becomes clear when the last medicine Conor’s mother can try, which is “made [italics removed] from the yew tree”, fails to help her (140). Instead the properties of resurrection which the yew tree symbolises apply to Conor as through his interaction with the monster he is able to face a life after his mother’s death. The healing provided in the novel is achieved through the use of storytelling, another convention characteristic of an older pattern of human interaction, to facilitate confrontation with difficult truths and allow Conor to release his repressed anger, his own form of socially constrained wildness.
The stories the monster tells all make use of the established tropes of the fairy tale genre but subvert it by unsettling plot conventions that trouble the easy identification of right and wrong, arguably engendering a kind of pluralism. In each of the tales the monster comes walking in order to intervene in a situation of injustice, albeit an injustice born out of many complexities with no absolute right or wrong. The functionality of these tales additionally hinges on a bargain which the monster establishes with Conor, that at the end of the three tales it has come to share with him he must reciprocate with his own truth by telling the monster the content of a recurring nightmare in which his repressed emotions about his mother manifest. In elucidating the complexities of human character the monster is able to show Conor that he is not culpable for his conflicting emotions, in which part of him longs for his mother’s suffering and his own resultant isolation to come to an end, consequently enabling him to confront the truth and acknowledge these aspects in himself. The tales correspond to moments of extreme anger and crisis in Conor’s life, feelings for which there is no space in a disconnected and socially constrained modern society. At these moments he and the monster merge into one and it is thus through the monster and within the world of the tale that Conor is able to unleash his wild emotions, the force of which are only fully evident once he sees the destruction he has caused after the protective layer of the fantasy world dissipates. In this way, nature allows an access to deeper truths and provides Conor with a greater insight into himself and his own humanity, constituting a powerful claim for the importance of this relationship.
The shifting relations between humanity and the natural world are to some degree traced within these tales although the interactions between human characters generally form the main emphasis. In the first tale, most akin to the folk fairy tale in its content, the monster describes a time when the world was “younger” and “the barrier between things was thinner, easier to pass through”, in stark contrast to the conditions of the second tale which features the emergence of heavy industry and the rise of cities (66, 109). The monster characterises this shift as people beginning “to live on the earth rather than within it”, alluding to the separation between man and nature that developed along with the pursuit of ‘progress’ (109). This tale features an apothecary whose trade in creating powerful natural remedies comes under threat in consequence of the destruction of the environment and the preaching of an influential parson seeking to lead his community away from old superstitions, mirroring the influence of Christianity on the archaic forms of spiritualism (114-6). Within the tail the Apothecary asks the parson for the yew tree which stood on the parsonage grounds, the same one behind Conor’s house, in order to use it to make powerful remedies for almost any illness. Having initially refused the apothecary’s request, the parson is later compelled to “beg [his] forgiveness” and ask for his help when his two daughters fall fatally ill and all other remedies have proved ineffective. The parson is willing to renounce his teachings and “give up everything he believe[s] in” as well as grant the apothecary the yew tree in exchange for the cure (116-7). After the apothecary refuses his help the daughters die but, significantly, it is the pastor whom the monster punishes, saying the apothecary should have been given the yew when he first asked and that the daughters could not be cured because “belief is half of all healing” (119). The critique embedded in this tale is thus not one against making use of natural resources but rather an emphasis on the importance of belief, akin to the spiritual relationship with nature which has been lost, as responsible use of natural resources proceeds from the proper respect and value of nature. By the third tail nature no longer features as the narrative is located within the contemporary world and focuses specifically on social isolation, telling of an “invisible man […] who had grown tired of being unseen”, and thus speaks to the condition of life which has emerged in the city context, cut-off from nature (156).
A Monster Calls is thus a literary work which closely engages with the absence of a relationship with nature as a component of modern living and links this to the state of isolation experienced in the city context. The novel is by no means fundamentally aimed at addressing issues of environmental mismanagement, evident in the way it fails to discuss the impact that the discovery of the compound taxol as a potential cancer remedy, extracted from the bark of the Pacific yew, has had on the yew tree population. However, in spite of this, Ness’s novel enacts a recuperation of the spiritual and mythical value of nature which was once an intrinsic element of the meaning the natural world held for humankind. The fact that it is to an embodiment of nature that a teenage-boy turns in order to find some form of connection and understanding offers profound commentary on the condition of modern society in which we are alienated from each other as well as from the world we inhabit, foregrounding the importance of nature as a symbolic entity instead of purely as a resource or commodity. This message of the novel resonates with Curry’s emphasis on ecopluralism and the need for a post-secular sacridity of nature, moving the need to preserve the natural world beyond the requirements of habitat to those of the human soul. This notion is alluded to in the novel when Conor’s mother comments on how “wondrous” the “green things of this world” are, “we work so hard to get rid of them when sometimes they are the very thing that saves us” (Ness 140). While perhaps this is a message that remains largely humanist in its preoccupations, the novel nonetheless successfully draws attention to depth of symbolic significance of nature and gives it a strong presence and agency which commands respect and reveals that in finding new ways to conceive of nature humankind must acknowledge the need for its assistance instead of arrogantly assuming it is only nature which is in need of aid.
 Hartzell explains that as it takes on average “two grams” of taxol “to treat one patient” while a large yew of about “200 years” of age is able to produce only about “six pounds of dried bark”, yielding “approximately one-fifth gram of taxol”, it “would require the bark of ten large trees to produce enough taxol to treat one patient”, an alarming figure when considering that in 1990 the National Cancer Institute in the United States wanted “a million or more pounds of bark […] on an annual basis”(183).
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Hartzell Jr., Hal. The Yew Tree: A Thousand Whispers. Eugene: Hulogosi, 1991.
Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. London: Methuen, 1981.
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Ness, Patrick. A Monster Calls. Illus. Jim Kay. London: Walker Books, 2011.
Simmel, Georg. “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” In On Individuality and Social Forms: Selected Writings. Ed. Donald N. Levine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971. 324-39.
Squire, Charles. Celtic Myth and Legend: Poetry and Romance. London: Gresham, 1910.