More Delicate The Map-Maker’s Colors


This week we are to read Franco Moretti’s landmark Graphs, Maps, Trees.   All three titular methods are intriguing new ways of looking at literature, but maps are for me the most fascinating, for I have always been enthralled by the way texts interact with space.

Moretti’s theories of mapping have come under much fire.  First, it is all very well to have mapped a narrative, but once that is done, what does one do with the map?  And if you do manage to prove something with the map – as Moretti does in his book – does it not merely visually reveal something that is already apparent from reading the text?

The first question was something I often wondered prior to reading Moretti, largely on encountering the Digital Flânerie project, an admirable composite map of literary Americans and their paths through 20th-century Paris, which I nevertheless could not, for the life of me, work out what to use for.

Moretti’s examples in his book are far more illustrative.  For instance, he maps the shift in the village story genre that occurs from Mary Mitford’s Our Village to Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford.  Mapping Our Village spatially in a circular structure, with the village centre as a locus, shows that over time the stories begin to occur farther and farther from the village; mapping Cranford onto the same geographical space, the Grand Junction Railway, signifier of industrialization and technological progress, is shown cutting through where Mitford’s narrative would once have rambled.  According to the maps, Mitford’s village story disintegrates under the impact of reality while Gaskell’s betrays the genre in order to retain its form, become effectively a town ‘under siege’.  ‘Mitford in 1832, and Gaskell twenty years later,’ he writes, ‘are the two ends of the spectrum: Our Village explodes, and Cranford is Madame Tussaud’s idea of a village story.’  The maps, then, demonstrate how the development of a genre impacts – or is impacted by – form.


Image from Moretti, ‘Maps’, Graphs, Maps, Trees, found on New Left Review.

Moretti, of course, takes many liberties with Cranford to produce this conclusion: among other things, he ignores the importance and prevalence of travel to and from Cranford, not least the regular train journeys of the narrator Mary Smith between Cranford and London.  But nineteenth-century novels and their finer points are not our focus today.

As for the second question, Moretti has responded by declaring a future mapping project on regional narratives such as Hardy and Verga, and daring map-skeptics to write ‘in advance’ about the obvious facts he is going to find.  We have yet to see how that turns out.

What is interesting is how these maps have highlighted for me the disjunction between real and narrative geography.  Bill Benzon cites a study in which a group of graduate students were asked to map their apartment.  Despite having lived there for years and knowing their way around perfectly, the students made significant geographical errors in their sketches.  So: narratives are in fact map-pable without the author of the text actually being explicitly aware of the lay of the land.  In fact , the maps of these narratives might well reflect things that the authors themselves were not aware of.  The maps visualize not just space, but also the gap between real space and the space in the mind of the author, and how that is bridged in the text.

A third question.  So far we have been speaking in terms of spatial mapping.  Can we move beyond physical space?  What else can we map?  Can we map bodies, language, philosophy, data, minds?  Benzon makes an interesting comparison between Moretti’s circular maps of Our Village and narrative ring structure, or the chiasmus – when a narrative unfolds until a mid-point and then retraces its steps back in the same way, but in reverse, 1 – 2 – 3 – 3’ – 2’ – 1’.  The physical ring and the narrative ring are of course completely different phenomena, but Benzon contemplates the possibility that ‘the narrative ring ultimately depends on neural structures that arose for the purpose of navigating the physical world’.   How can we map the myriad ways the world goes into our minds and produces text?  I can’t wait to find out.

  • Moretti, Franco.  Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History.  London & New York: Verso, 2005. Print.
  • Benzon, Bill.  “Maps, Iconic and Abstract.” Jonathan Goodwin and John Holbo, eds. Reading Graphs, Maps, Trees: critical responses to Franco Moretti.  South Carolina: Parlor Press, 2011. 56-63.
  • Moretti, Franco.  ‘Moretti Responds (I)’. Goodwin and Holbo 71-2. Print.

The title image is a map of Manchester in the form of an angiogram by Daksha Patel of the Manchester Modernist Society, created for an exhibition about maps performing aesthetic and abstract functions.
The title quote is from the last line of ‘The Map’, a poem by Elizabeth Bishop.




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