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March 15, 2010

Franco Moretti’s Trees

Follow-up to Franco Moretti's Maps from The Midnight Heart

In his recent study, Graphs, Maps, Trees Franco Moretti takes his analytical models ‘from three disciplines with which literary studies have had little or no interaction: graphs from quantitative history, maps from geography, and trees from evolutionary history’ (2007: 1-2). Moretto distances himself from academics that look to ‘French and German metaphysics’ and he commends instead the methodologies of ‘the natural and social sciences’ (2). I am going to discuss his findings in three blog entries:

• and Trees.



Darwin’s tree was more than just a diagram. Moretti describes Darwin’s kind of mapping as creating ‘morphological diagrams, where history is systematically correlated with form’ (69). Playing on evolutionary theory, Moretti suggests that ‘divergence pervades the history of life, defining its morphospace – its space-of-forms’ (70). But the question is, how does this work for literature?

Moretti begins to consider this question by focussing on British detective fiction, where divergence was dictated by ‘the literary market’ and its ‘ruthless competition – hinging on form’ (72). British detective fiction developed through the sophisticated presentation of clues in the narrative and Moretti explores which strategies worked and which were unsuccessful. What he discovers is that the ruthless market makes ‘writers branch out in every direction’, sometimes forcing them ‘into all sorts of crazy blind alleys’ (77). Consequently, ‘divergence becomes indeed, as Darwin had seen, inseparable from extinction’ (77). If there is divergence, there must also be convergence, but Moretti is keen to note that ‘Convergence […] only arises _on the basis of previous divergence, and its power tends in fact to be directly proportional to the distance between the original branches (bicycles and internal combustion engines)’ (80).

Having explored the evolution of a particular genre, Moretti turns to mapping a specific literary technique: free indirect style. Moretti suggests that free indirect style has a ‘composite nature’ which ‘made it “click” with that other strange formation which is the process of modern socialization: by leaving the individual voice a certain amount of freedom, while permeating it with the impersonal stance of the narrator. And the result was the genesis of an unprecedented “third voice”, intermediate and almost neutral in tone between character and narrator: the composed, slightly resigned voice of the well-socialized individual, of which Austen’s heroines – these young women who speak of themselves, in the third person, as if from the outside – are such stunning examples’ (82).

Moretti maps various branches and streams of free indirect speech in international fiction, such as British and Irish modernism and Latin American dictator novels. Moretti notices though that one convergence that was not possible is that of free indirect speech with dialogism. Interestingly, in response to this fact, Moretti comments that ‘Culture is not the realm of ubiquitous “hybridity”: it, too, has barriers, its impossible limits’ (85).

Overall, in mapping British detective fiction, or the use of free indirect style in international literature, what Moretti is suggesting is a different way for academics to analyze the novel. Ultimately, he asks us to ‘Take a form, follow it from space to space, and study the reasons for its transformation’ (90).

Further Reading

Moretti, Franco (2007) Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History. London and New York: Verso.


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The Midnight Heart

“Zona de plagas donde la dormida come / lentamente / su corazón de medianoche” – Alejandra Pizarnik

Night ramblings of insomnia, and day ramblings for the sleep deprived.

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