chapter  10
14 Pages

Vegetal Haunting

The Gothic Plant in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction
ByMatthew Wynn Sivils

With the increased interest in ontological questions related to nonhuman Others, particularly animals, theorists have begun to address plants as something more than merely green scenery upon an otherwise human stage. As Michael Marder writes, “Curiously enough, the absolute familiarity of plants coincides with their sheer strangeness, the incapacity of humans to recognize elements of ourselves in their forms of vegetal being, and, hence, the uncanny—strangely familiar—nature of our relation to them.” Drawing upon work in critical plant studies by Marder and Matthew Hall, this essay examines how Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Chesnutt, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman—three exemplars of nineteenth-century American gothic fiction—imagined instances of what might be termed vegetal haunting, a condition in which plants, through their uncanny, alien, and seemingly transparent presence, serve as disturbing spatiotemporal markers of human and environmental trauma. This essay examines the question of the vegetal within a nineteenth-century ecogothic frame, arguing that plants—though their extreme longevity, blood-fed roots, and at times uncannily human-like traits—function as the haunted and the haunting, doubling for, or even incorporating, victims of trauma. They likewise call into question traditional partitions between the living and the dead, the body and the soul, the devourer and the devoured.