Putting the Novel on the Map

Michael Harwick '11
Michael Harwick '11
One fictional and the other expository, novels and maps have a unique and little-studied relationship. But if maps on their own are misleading, the potential for misinterpretation is even greater when they are used in fiction. Michael Harwick ’11, working with Professor of Comparative Literature Peter Rabinowitz, has been awarded an Emerson grant to analyze the relationship between readers and the maps that riddle the fiction they read.

Maps and novels interact in many different ways. How is a reader supposed to navigate this cartographic minefield of misinterpretation, Harwick wants to know? He is also analyzing cartography as both a science and art, based in fact but covertly distorted.

When a map appears in a plot, Harwick finds that the effect on the reader falls into a wide range. If the protagonist is given a treasure map, for example, the plot is immediately given a specific course to follow in relation to its setting. “The map exists because it points to a destination and sets up the path of the story,” Harwick explained. “That necessarily limits the possible conclusions; the characters either get there or they don’t.”

Some books include actual maps for the reader, a supposedly trustworthy graphic depiction upon which the reader can rely right from the beginning. “In books like Treasure Island and the Lord of the Rings series, the map literature is almost as prodigious as the work itself,” Harwick said. These types of maps give the reader a stronger connection to the fictional world, and these maps are almost never inaccurate.

But in some books, such as Joyce’s Ulysses and Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, the maps are implied, appearing only as a network of names for the reader to follow. “The characters are not strangers to the area, so the references are more causal, even if they’re very comprehensive,” Harwick explained. “You can follow along, but the implication is that you’re on the outside; the protagonist doesn’t need a map, but you do. This changes the reader’s relationship to the protagonist and creates psychological distance.” Especially in modernist novels, Harwick has found, the author makes the reader feel lost in a world where external geography is increasingly fluid.

But postmodernist authors such as Michel Butor use maps to further disorient and mislead the reader, like in the novel Passing Time. “The map [suggested at the beginning of the book] becomes subject to lots of problems and misinterpretations,” Harwick said. “The map becomes not useful and a more confusing agent as the book progresses.” Its function is to make the reader confused; he/she is disconnected from the external world as well as the protagonist’s psychology. Clearly, the author’s intention is to show that the reader should not rely on any seemingly-firm ground in fiction.

Many cartographers, literary critics and avid readers feel the desire to realize this implied map into a real tour, making the actual geography of real places conform to fictional stories. The Bloomsday walk in Dublin, which follows Leopold Bloom’s ramblings from Ulysses, Dostoevsky tours of St. Petersburg and the Sherlock Holmes House and Museum in London are all examples of tourism based on fiction. “There’s a lot of interplay there that seems rich,” Harwick said. He sees these tours, however, as distinct from a place like Harry Potter World, which are constructed completely based on fiction.

People, Harwick has noticed, are quick to trust maps, so they sometimes do not pick up on the implicit statements made by particular elements of the map. Harwick is also reading up on cartographic literature, including a book titled How to Lie with Maps. “A map automatically implies a story; there’s a narrative bent to most maps,” Harwick observed. “The story of a map comes from the fact that it’s necessarily a distortion. There is accuracy in certain elements with the sacrifice of other elements.” He has also read books on realism and theories of place, space, and fictional worlds to further inform his study. With regard to all cartographic and fictional analysis, Harwick said, it helps as a reader to be informed about text you are reading, the texts the text is using and how to read them.

Harwick is a graduate of Bridgewater-Raritan HS in Bridgewater, N.J.
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