The rights of trees: on a Hungarian short story from 1900
This paper analyses a short story written in 1900 by Kálmán Mikszáth (1847–1910), a major Hungarian author. The plot narrates the genesis and the consequences of a strange last will, which bequeaths a substantial amount of money to two trees. The plot is partly funny, partly uncanny, and evolves rather slowly, in accordance with the long and rather inactive life cycles of trees. It is not so much the plot, however, that is interesting, but rather the ethical discourse of the personae in how to deal with the trees. Due to the exceptional legal situation, various people start regarding the trees as persons and have difficulties in making decisions about them. While it would be an overstatement to say that Mikszáth wrote a prototext of environmental justice, he definitely challenged some ideas of his times and asked important questions about possible ethical approaches to nature. Legal issues are ubiquitous in world literature, but the world of law is usually limited to human affairs. As soon as trees are treated as legal subjects, they seem to become persons. Usually the development is the reverse in legal reasoning: if one is a person, one has rights. Therefore the short story is a sort of thought-experiment: what if we regard the non-human world as having rights? And the result is a paradigm shift we can nowadays make use of, accepting that justice is not or should not be limited to just the human sphere.
KeywordsEnvironmental rights Short story analysis Kálmán Mikszáth Stories about trees
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