I am currently in the construction stages of creating a visual map of a contemporary novel and I wanted to explore how it has become an interdisciplinary field within digital humanities. In my initial project meeting with my supervisor we discussed how I would go about using the process of remediation to visually map out the events, episodes and themes from a printed literary text. In ‘Mapping Literature: Towards a Geography of Fiction’ Barbara Patti devises two questions literary cartographers should consider when attempting to tackle literary mapping. Patti states ‘Firstly, how [do you] map narratives and their complex spatial structure? Secondly, what do we achieve by mapping literature?’[1] I have used Barbara Patti as the foundation for my project because as she explains by searching for answers to the importance of literary mapping; ‘the horizon of a promising interdisciplinary research field- a future literary geography-becomes visible.’[2]

The first stage of the analysis is focused on where is the novel set? In majority of novels, writers choose to set their narratives up with a ‘realworld counterpart’; however authors have infinite options to create space so settings can be partially or completely invented. Thomas Hardy’s Wessex is a prime example in which he remodelled an entire region for his nineteenth century novels which has a real world counterpart. The central issue with mapping a novel is does the author use a real world locations such as London or is the narrative set in a fictitious setting such as Middle Earth. In the case of Tolkien’s Middle Earth it is extremely difficult, if not impossible to map the narrative on a real geographical location because it does not have a real world counterpart. Whereas Virginia Wolf’s Mrs Dolloway uses real geographical locations within London in which literary cartographers such as Peter Walsh are able to trace Mrs Dolloway’s movements around London. Literary mapping is highly dependent on whether the literary text provides enough geographical information in order to create a visual map of the narrative. If a literary text does not have enough information to map or a real world location to map onto then an ethical question arises as to whether the visualisation is a true representation of the narrative.

The tradition of literary geography began in 1904. William Sharp created a map of the chief localities of Walter Scott’s novels, the map displays Scotland and in dark grey shade- the zone of action for several novels written by Walter Scott (among the famous Waverly). Sharp’s novel visualises where the real and fictional space overlaps in Scott’s novels.


Fig.1 Chief localities of Walter Scott’s novels (Sharp 1904)[3]

Following Sharp’s work, Franco Moretti’s Atlas of the European Novel symbolised the beginning of a new era in literary geography. Literary maps became truly tools of interpretation, allowing literary texts to be analysed in a new light. In Moretti’s Atlas of the European Novel he displays a map of Jane Austen’s England in which he maps several of Austen’s narratives from Sense and Sensibility to Pride and Prejudice. Moretti mapped the places, where the narration does start by using triangles and he used circles to symbolise where the narrative comes to a happy or unhappy ending. Moretti summaries the process by suggesting you read books, with a specific focus on spatial context, and then you design the map. The outcome is you have a map which provides you with a new way of understanding a literary text.

Both Sharp and Moretti portray in their projects that visualising narratives is a straight forward process yet I have encountered a few issues during my project. One of the issues is selecting a narrative in which there is an agreement about the referentiality between geospace and textual spaces. This issue is problematic because if the fictional setting is not based or partially based on geospace it is impossible to map the narrative in software’s such as Carto. Another issue which continuously encroaches on my project is that literary settings do not have definite borders, which is problematic because ‘cartography deals with hard borders to convey mapped phenomena.’[4] The final issue I have faced is if like The Kite Runner it uses geographical locations but lacks geographical information would visually mapping the narrative onto a real world location be a true reflection of the text? 

These three key issues troubled me for a number of weeks especially when I was researching digital software such as Google My Maps and Carto because both these software’s rely on actual geographical locations. The novel I have chosen is The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini which uses a range of real geographical locations within the narrative from the Wazir Akbar Khan district of Kabul to Fremont California. After I read the novel I had made note of the various events and episodes which I thought I could use in my project. However although these events and episodes occurred in actual geographical locations I didn’t have enough geographical information (such as street names) to plot these events into digital software such as Google My Maps.

During a seminar session I presented the progress I had made with my project and I discussed the various problems and ethical issues I was facing with my project. One of my supervisors, suggested that I could use journalist articles and other academic resources to illustrate why I had chosen to plot certain in specific geographical locations. I thought this was a sensible solution to my ethical issue of keeping the visualisation a true reflection of the geography. However due to a restricted time scale for my project I decided that to begin fresh research of the locations used in the novel was not a feasible plan. However my other supervisor, Julia Thomas suggested that I could drop the digital mapping software and use alternative software which we had been shown in our seminars. Aeon Timeline 2 is a digital resource which allows its user to create a timeline of the various events and episodes which occur in a novel. I have decided that this software would be better suited to my project as it allows me to map the events and themes without plotting them on geographical locations.

In the next part of my blog post I want focus on how Barbara Patti’s work on literary geography is relevant to my project and how I can use it a structural guideline during my analysis. In Patti’s article she outlines five spatial elements of a fictional text which I am going to use as guidelines for my textual analysis and visual mapping of a contemporary novel.

  • Setting: Where the action takes place
  • Zone of Action: Several settings combined
  • Projected Space: Characters are not present
  • Marker: A place which is mentioned, but no part of the categories above; markers indicate the geographical range and horizon of a fictional space.
  • Route: Along which characters are moving: by foot, by train or by car.

The five spatial elements define the remediated nature of my project because I am creating a visual map of a literary narrative through the processes of textual analysis and translation. Patti endorses this idea about mapping being a remediated process in which she states ‘One set of symbols- text- is translated to another set of symbols- map symbols.’[5] During my project I am going be working with a large amount of metadata (events, episodes and themes) in which I will need terms to describe individual fictional settings.  In her article, Patti provides four key examples of categories which each literary setting could fall into:

  • Toponmy: The place notation in the text might differentiate between actual and historical terms, between renamed and invented as well as paraphrased and nameless settings. This information is used to label the settings.
  • Spatial precision:  Quality indications show how precisely you can localise settingsor projected spaces on a map, with the options precise, zonal and indefinite.
  • Function of the space: This category indicates, if settings fulfil a specific task which goes beyond a simple background. This includes serving as a thematic background, but also the case of a possible protagonistic status of the setting, be it in a physical (i.e. avalanches, landslides, storm tide) or in a poetological sense (i.e.when an urban setting scares the characters, appears like a labyrinth or trap).
  • Special attributes: If there are clues for a mythic or an allegorical/symbolical layer of meaning, it can be pointed up in this category.

The next step in my project is to begin inputting the events and themes from my chosen novel into the Aeon Timeline software. My excitement is beginning because as Patti states ‘modern cartography has the ability to map almost any phenomenon for which spatial relationships are of primary relevance.’[6]

[1] Barbara Patti, ‘Mapping Literature: Towards a Geography of Fiction’,  Art & Cartography, I (2008),  179-194.

[2] Ibid

[3] William Sharp, Literary Geography (London: Pall Mall Publications, 1904)

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid