Imagining the ocean

Sep 9th, 2014

Janet Harron

Imagining the ocean

For centuries, the world’s oceans have been described by writers and artists in words and pictures. Now, a faculty member in the Department of English is embarking on a new project that will trace the various ways the ocean has been imagined in Atlantic-Canadian fiction.

“I’m interested in how the way we imagine and represent the ocean affects how we treat it,” said Dr. Caitlin Charman, who has just completed her first full year teaching at Memorial. “I will be looking at how our perception of the ocean has changed or hasn’t over time.”

Dr. Charman will focus on the work of authors from the late 19th century to the present day, a group which includes contemporary Newfoundland writers Kenneth J. Harvey and Lisa Moore alongside authors such as writer and sailor Joshua Slocum who disappeared in 1909 while aboard his boat The Spray.

The rhetoric and language in oceans-related environmental policy will also be examined.

“I’ll be thinking through the way that the myths and metaphors we use about the ocean are reflected in the way we manage or deal with the ocean from a policy perspective,” explained Dr. Charman, citing the Royal Commission on the Ocean Ranger Marine Disaster as such an example.

“It’s very eloquently written for a government report – there are long passages about the sea being an adversary and only being able to be overcome by drilling – in essence the report suggests that the ocean can only be conquered by science.”

One excerpt reads: Man and the sea are age-old adversaries; man covets the riches of the ocean but the oceans are jealous guardians of their wealth. For centuries the Northwest Atlantic has been harvested for its live bounty; now man seeks a newer treasure – hydrocarbons – the fossilized remains of the ocean’s ancient life.

As Dr. Charman explains it, depending on the author, the ocean has been described as both a place of connection and fluidity and also as a void, an empty place of vast nothingness. Historically, the Western world has tended to view the ocean as a space to transport goods across and not necessarily as a place. Dr. Charman says that geographers like Philip E. Steinberg have shown that this metaphor has found its way into longstanding legal concepts such as the Freedom of the Seas law, a principal in international law stating that all nations should be free to use the oceans for international trade.

Among the questions she is asking are, do we conceive of the ocean as public property and if so, should we enclose it; and how does the government’s perception of the ocean differ from how people who work on the ocean every day interpret it?

Dr. Charman cites Managed Annihilation, a 2010 text that examines the cod collapse in which Memorial geographer and author Dr. Dean Bavington discusses the history of management rhetoric. When the fisheries were modernized, government began to view fishermen as harvesters and to speak of the fisheries using industrial and technical language.

“Along with this change in language goes a certain conception of a place we can dominate and control and manage,” said Dr. Charman.

Although American literary scholars have looked at the significance of sea stories in the history of American literature, Dr. Charmin says her study is the first to focus on Atlantic-Canadian fiction.

According to American scholar Dr. Bert Bender, after Charles Darwin published the Origin of the Species in 1859, the ocean began to be portrayed in American stories as a place of scientific discovery, as opposed to a mysterious place full of dragons, monsters and mermaids. Dr. Charman is interested in exploring whether Atlantic-Canadian fiction was similarly influenced by Darwin’s work.

The idea for the research sprang from her PhD dissertation on loss and environment in Newfoundland literature.

“It struck me how little had been written about ocean stories and about how we relate to them,” she said. “Even in a place where the ocean is all around, we haven’t really studied it in stories. We have a hard time getting out of our land-based focus.”

There is a tendency to conceive of oceans as a separate entity and to transpose land-based thinking to the ocean environment is, according to Dr. Charmin, endemic of a wider problem.

“It’s a failure to think in a different way. People think that literature is just words and has no impact. But in fact a lot of examples show that the way we think about the stories we tell can actually have a material consequence – in how we deal with companies, governments and individuals.”

She gives as an example the federal Conservative government’s modification of environmental laws and the tendency to describe waterways and water systems as separate from oceans.

“There is an inability to think about the connection. The ocean isn’t just a place we pass through on the way to somewhere else. Our relationship with it isn’t static – it is constantly changing.”



Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

230 Elizabeth Ave, St. John's, NL, CANADA, A1B 3X9

Postal Address: P.O. Box 4200, St. John's, NL, CANADA, A1C 5S7

Tel: (709) 864-8000