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  • Michael W. Rickard II

The Population Bomb: Eco-Criticism in Harriet Martineau's "Illustrations of Political Econo

Copyright 2019 by Michael W. Rickard II

Harriet Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy (Illustrations)has been credited with helping to illustrate the principles of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. However, like many of Martineau’s works, the book can be evaluated and appreciated on many levels, including eco-criticism. An eco-critical examination reveals Martineau’s progressive attitudes towards population control and conservation of resources as seen in the tales, Weal and Woe in Garveloch, A Manchester Strike, and Cousin Marshall.

Eco-criticism is well-suited for evaluating Illustrations’ because it repeatedly discusses population growth and its impact on finite resources. Martineau was well-read and familiar with the works of Thomas Malthus, particularly his work on overpopulation, An Essay on the Principle of Population. For example, Weal and Woe in Garveloch shows what happens when a continually growing population faces a decline in resources. In it, a thriving population over-expands during an abundance, failing to plan for the future. When a shortfall ensues, the population faces an uncertain future.

Ecocriticism provides many areas to explore in literature, but Illustrations is best-suited for its didactic message. As noted in A Glossary of Literary Terms, “…science-based knowledge of impending ecological disaster is not enough because knowledge can lead to effective political and social action only when informed and impelled, as it is literature, by imagination and feeling” (Abrams and Harpham102). Illustrations provides several instances where its stories can be evaluated to determine if it provides information to challenge the reader’s beliefs and whether this presentation is compelling.

Harriet Martineau’s call for population control was controversial, but like her other works, she was not afraid to speak her mind if it meant it would help society. Nonetheless, Martineau faced criticism. Ann Hobart notes how Martineau was criticized for her support of population control:

In exhorting the working classes to enhance the value of their labor by controlling their numbers via Malthus's "preventive check"-celibacy and late marriage-Martineau violated what contemporary domestic ideology defined as gentlewomen's "natural" commitments: the family in any of its class-inflected forms and charity toward (225). This conservation of resources is shown in Cousin Marshall when Mrs. Marshall comments on her situation with her neighbor, “You got your first set of baby-linens at the same time that I did, and with your own money; and why yours should not have lasted as well as mine, I can’t think” (Martineau 225). I argue this is a metaphor for people using all their resources wisely, a link with ecocriticism whether it is natural resources or man-made resources (which typically use natural resources in their manufacture). This is seen again when Dale comments on charity, “…from what I have seen here, that every blanket given away brings two naked people, and every bushel of coals a family that wants to be warmed” (271). Martineau’s argument that charity is counter-productive in stopping indigence is another area for eco-critical examination.

The theme of stewardship is in Weal and Woe in Garveloch. Ella discusses raising children with her neighbor, “When God gave us the charge of these little ones, he gave us no leave that ever I heard of to expose them to sickness and hardship, and to corrupt them by letting them live like brutes” (70). Again, Martineau has her characters point out the folly of overpopulation where Katie tells Ella, “Since Providence has not made food increase as men increase…it is plain that Providence wills restraint here as in the case of other passions” (111). The two discuss the pitfalls of overpopulation, noting how other countries deal with maintaining their resources by balancing things out with a proportionally smaller population.

Harriet Martineau’s discussion of resources throughout her works provide many opportunities for eco-critical examination. Whether it is natural resources such as food supplies, manufactured goods, or human population, Martineau argues that there must be more capital than people if a nation is to survive. In today’s world of diminishing resources and increasing population, Illustrations provides eco-critics with considerable material to evaluate.

Works Cited

Abrams, M.H. and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms, 11th ed., Cengage Learning, 2015.

Hobart, Ann. “Harriet Martineau's Political Economy of Everyday Life.” Victorian Studies, vol. 37, no. 2, 1994, pp. 223–251. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Martineau, Harriet. Illustrations of Political Economy: Selected Tales, ed. By Deborah Anna Logan, Broadview Editions, 2004.

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