Before we consider the short story “The Trout” by Sean O’Faolain (John Francis Whelan) from an ecofeminist lens, we need to establish what we mean by ecofeminism.
Ecofeminism explores the connection between environmentalism and feminism, and the way that environmental and animal liberation are inextricably linked with women’s liberation. Ecofeminism also looks at the way that environmental exploitation can be seen as a symptom of capitalism and patriarchy.
This short story is about a young girl, Julia, who frees a trout from a small pool in which he is trapped. The reason for the trout being trapped is not made explicit; Julia thinks that the man who tends to the kitchen garden, Old Martin, may have something to do with it. Julia’s parents posit that the trout became trapped in the pool through the passage of the seasons and the changing water levels of a nearby stream, or that a bird might have “carried the spawn” to the pool.
Even though the way that the trout was trapped in the small pool is not portrayed as a function of capitalist or patriarchal exploitation, the different responses of Julia and her brother, Stephen, hint at Carol Merchant’s ecofeminist writing. Julia wonders about the trout’s survival and origins, while her brother was “not really interested in the actual trout but much interested in the story which his mummy began to make up for him.” In her book The Death of Nature Carol Merchant wrote that science and commerce make nature into something which must be “bound into service,” but that the “female earth” is one of curiosity and benevolence. Julia’s curiosity and the repeated imagery of the moon, the smooth dark wood, and the streams rising and falling all hint at the “organic cosmology” that Merchant discusses in her book.
Julia’s concern for the trout’s well-being, and her response when her mother turns the trout’s existence into a “horrible old moral story” (p. 2), show that she is troubled by the trout’s safety as a creature, and she worries about the way other people think about the trout. This concern with the way that animals are conceived of is another tenet of ecofeminism: animals should not be oppressed, and that animals should have full consideration as autonomous beings.
The trout is bound up with Julia’s own freedom. When the trout is trapped, so is Julia, but once she sets the trout free she sees her holiday “spread before her” like a “river of joy.” (p. 2) The connection between different forms of oppression is another focus of ecofeminism.