Digitally Modeling the Biospheres of Novels

By Alicia Peaker 

This post is based on work from a larger project described in more detail here.

I began with a single question: How might the natural worlds of novels be represented digitally? The more I grew into the question, the more I loved the imaginative possibilities and space provided by the word “might.” Freed from the onus of having to find a single model, I entered the realm of what was possible.

My single research question grew into a series of questions (as they so often do): What would a digital representation of an ecosystem or biosphere of a novel even look like? Can we develop useful digital models for better contextualizing human characters within the fictional natural worlds they inhabit? And what impacts might such models have on the ways we read and understand literatures of the environment?

To begin to get at these questions, I selected Mary Webb’s 1917 novel Gone to Earth as a primary text for some initial prototypes. Gone to Earth tells the story of Hazel Woodus, a young woman who lives with her father and a menagerie of rescued animals in the mountains of East Wales. Though Hazel is supremely happy in her world, two male suitors (one a minister, the other the local squire) begin vying for her attention—with tragic results.

I opted to begin with this novel in large part because it has a high incidence of what might be called “nature words” and because Webb has fallen into some obscurity, in spite of critical acclaim during her lifetime. If she is remembered at all, it is often as a major source of Stella Gibbon’s parody Cold Comfort Farm (1932). What follows are some early attempts to get at my larger research questions via Webb’s novel.

As part of this project, I have been developing a series of interactive web apps that attempt to visualize the connections between the humans and the more-than-human world they inhabit within the novel. In the visualization below, I have collected and displayed all of the words tagged “fauna” that appear within 45 characters (the average length of a sentence) of words tagged “Hazel.”

Hazel amidst Fauna (1)

I think of these pieces as modeling moments of interspecies textual cohabitation. Though the image above is static, you can interact with the web-like diagrams of all of the visualizations in this series by visiting http://bl.ocks.org/peakera.

One of the major drawbacks of these visualizations is that they put humans at the center of the diagram. If my goal is contextualize humans within the environments they inhabit, these visualizations do that—but at the expense of visually overemphasizing the importance of human beings.

Second, the strands that connect humans with their natural worlds don’t tell us anything about the kind of relationships they have with nonhuman others. For example, in one poignant moment in the novel, Reddin brings an urchin (a colloquial word for a hedgehog) back to Hazel. “‘Oh! it’s an urchin!’ cried Hazel delightedly.” Reddin then proceeds to torture the hedgehog “bruising and pulling at its spines with his gloved hands” (Ch. 28).

Hazel (2)Hazel Reddin (3)

In the visualizations, both Hazel and Reddin are linked to the urchin, but their relationships are dramatically different. Though the tendrils that connect the two humans to the urchin appear as if weighted equally, users can select a word in the radial diagram to view the context from the novel, providing at least a partial picture of the depth and tenor of the interaction.

I want to be clear that these visualizations in no way stand in for the novel, or even for readings of the novel. Instead, I think of this work aligning with Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuels’s argument that “interpretation of works of imagination call[] for responsive works of imagination, not reflexive works of analysis” (109). These visuals are my response to the novel, and to the possibilities of representing biospheres of fictional worlds.

What imaginative responses to the natural worlds of novels have you created or witnessed? Share them in the comments below or on Twitter.

Alicia Peaker is the Mellon CLIR/DLF Postdoctoral Fellow in the Digital Liberal Arts at Middlebury College.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *