The Portraits of Three Novels

The books I love have their own unique souls, but I struggle to communicate what they are. I can describe the plot, or talk about the themes and the language, but there's an essence that's hard to get across. I find word visualizations a fresh way of capturing that flavor, but I've never been able to get the results I can picture in my minds eye. That drove me to build Wordlings, an experimental service for creating graphical word clouds. Here's what I came up with when I applied it to some of my favorite novels.

Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Carefully disguised as an adventure story, this is actually a beautifully-drawn portrait of friendship. The psychology of the protagonists' relationship veers between suspicion and reliance, anger and affection, in a way it's rare to read. Here's Stevenson's dissection of the tangled reaction to a dependent friend:

The thought of a separation ran always the stronger in my mind; and the more I approved of it, the more ashamed I grew of my approval. It would be a fine, handsome, generous thing, indeed, for Alan to turn round and say to me: "Go, I am in the most danger, and my company only increases yours." But for me to turn to the friend who certainly loved me, and say to him: "You are in great danger, I am in but little; your friendship is a burden; go, take your risks and bear your hardships alone—-" no,that was impossible; and even to think of it privily to myself, made my cheeks to burn.
And yet Alan had behaved like a child, and (what is worse) a treacherous child. Wheedling my money from me while I lay half-conscious was scarce better than theft; and yet here he was trudging by my side, without a penny to his name, and by what I could see, quite blithe to sponge upon the money he had driven me to beg. True, I was ready to share it with him; but it made me rage to see him count upon my readiness.

What jumps out from the word cloud is the centrality of Alan to the book. With his accidental companion David as the narrator, you can see how the interplay between them comes out in the frequent invocation of his name. You can also see how plain Stevenson's language is; "Back", "Down", "Man", "Like". It's why the book flows so easily, despite the depth of ideas it wrestles with. That made the ship that Alan and David were thrown together on feel like the right outline for the cloud, gliding through the water apparently effortlessly, while in fact relying on an exquisitely well-organized web of rigging. 

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

I'm a late-comer to Austen, only discovering this book when I was a teenager. I would read a few pages to my girlfriend every night, and the book's world became part of our private language. I'd always liked to think I was Darcy, I can certainly match his pig-headedness, but in my darker moments I feared the unwitting ridiculousness of Collins was a better match. The older I get, the more happy I'd be to just achieve Bingley's quiet decency and contentment. There's a lot to be said for nice, but dim.

It's fitting that names dominate the cloud, since the novel is like a pool shark's trick shot, as actions and reactions cascade in an intricate yet believable way. Austen's genius is the way she sketches characters who behave like actual people, but still contrives to arrange events to produce a satisfying outcome for them all. Her dark wit and cutting sarcasm make the happy endings palatable to a cheerful pessimist like me.

The shape to choose was obvious. The 1995 BBC mini-series left Jennifer Ehle indelibly as my personal picture of Lizzy, minxing from underneath her bonnet and curls. I was so hooked, I even forced my old D&D group to watch it, and even they were sold. As one of them said afterwards, "Man, that was the Star Wars of costume dramas!".

Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens

Despite fears that he's better-known than read, I keep coming back to Dickens. His long-winded style forces me to switch gears, and the barrage of words is like a punch in the jaw compared to Austen's sweet smile while she sticks a stiletto in your ribs. It's effective though, and like reading David Foster Wallace, once you get accept the rhythm the chaos starts to make strange sense. He's unashamedly sentimental, which I appreciate, since I enjoy those sort of illusions even if I struggle to believe them.

The book revolves around power, authority and punishment, with the final chapter taking obvious pleasure in meting out lashes and rewards, sketching the future lives of even minor characters. I wonder if part of the wild success of his books was related to the audience's hunger for this sort of settling of scores? It's the same pleasure I get reading Sherlock Holmes, the relief of believing the world can make sense and is more than just one damn thing after another.

The authority is there in the words that pop out – 'gentleman', 'boy', 'old', 'Jew', 'young', 'lady'. Roles and positions are central to the action. The silhouette seemed to capture the spirit that Dickens was fighting against, self-satisfied and in charge, though I wish I'd found one with the true beadle's hat.


I'm finding this a rewarding experiment, if only for the way it's forcing me to look at my best-loved books in a new light. I'd love to hear about any you're able to create with Wordlings, and what you learned, so do let me know.

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