Literary Spatial Patterning

BY: Liz Finnigan, Southern Regional College, Northern Ireland

In this entry I propose a statistical universal (see Hogan “What are Literary Universals?”) about visual spatial patterning within verbal narrative. The universal states that unique sequential patterns of representation can be found in in the literary descriptions for three categories of space: Setting, Place and Person. For example, in the following quotation from Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre (1847), the spatial description in the passage is formatted in a particular way; the narrator describes the space closest to her first and progresses to the space further away from her position: “I went to my window, opened it, and looked out. There were the two wings of the BUILDING; there was the GARDEN; there were the SKIRTS OF LOWOOD; there was the hilly HORIZON” (Brontë 72; capitalisation, where necessary, will distinguish patterning throughout).

This pattern emerges when we identify the first noun (building) and track its spatial relationship to all subsequent nouns (garden, skirts of Lowood, horizon). Descriptions of Place deliver a trend that describes the centre of the place then its edge, such as a dining table then a wall. Descriptions of characters, Persons, describe the outline of the person first and then the head/facial area and finally features of the body. They can also stop at the head/facial area.

These patterns are found in particular spatial frames, which I term “topological frames” because they describe the location of objects within a space and their inter-related arrangements relevant to the viewpoint of the narrator/character. Typically atemporal and absent of action, topological frames generally pause the story in order to render the detail of what is being viewed by a character or narrator. In literary texts, we might, all things being equal, expect individual writers to produce spatial representations that are based on stylistic choices which create difference and this also includes the possibility of randomness. Yet, in topological frames the same patterns of spatial relations occur consistently, demonstrating a statistical probability in their favour.

The universal can be stated as follows:

Verbal narrative contains topological frames of description which produce a systematic pattern of spatial representation which is, in turn, determined by their category: Setting, Place or Person.

I further propose that the patterning does not differ between writers, cultural influence and historical trends. In this study, one hundred narrative English language prose texts were examined ranging between the literary periods of Victorianism, Modernism, and Postmodernism. A transparent account of data selection would best describe it as purposive sampling. The corpus of texts was manually scanned to isolate any topological frames and then each of these frames was grouped into one of the three categories which were then further investigated for evidence of patterning. The sample includes non-western prose such as Nigerian, Aboriginal Australian, Chinese, and Japanese texts which, with the exception of one text which was a translation, were all written in English. The identification of these patterns in non-western texts suggests that cultural or stylistic factors may not influence the formation of the patterns. The translated text may also suggest that the patterns are conforming to English language conventions.

Before the patterns were identified, Jane Eyre was purposively sampled due to prior knowledge of the text’s frequent references to landscapes in the hope of understanding the more componential aspects of spatial representation for narrative setting. However, Brontë’s landscapes were soon found to produce a systematic pattern, what I term the progressive pattern because of the proximal to distal trend in its descriptions, and further categories were introduced to test for other patterns – Persons and Place. These two latter categories were determined because of the frequency with which descriptions of characters and rooms appeared within the corpus’s topological frames. Persons and Places are also given the same descriptive treatment as that of Setting. For example, Jane Eyre’s description of St. John Rivers seems to be describing a sculptured space rather than a living, moving organism. He is awarded the same spatial consideration by his narrator as a landscape. But new literary periods were also needed to test against cultural practices, hence the introduction of Modernist texts, all of which were sampled for their canonical standing and focus on one or more spatial categories. For example, the assumption for Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer (1925) was that it would deliver a heavy focus on cities (Setting) and rooms (Place). Canonical postmodernist texts were added for the same purposeful reasons to determine whether they conformed to the patterns despite their frequent dispensing with narrative coherency, for example, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939).

Therefore, the nature of this study’s methodology is more characteristic of narrative itself, in that it begins with a discovery in a single novel from a particular period and the scope of the analysis was broadened to test for cultural influence, or lack thereof. The initial exploration of Jane Eyre can be treated as a pilot study and this informed the subsequent data collection and the process was repeated using other texts. Thus, although there is no rigorous methodology adopted here, and in the strictest sense there cannot be, this study sets out to chart topological frames within a collection of texts in order to test the hypothesis against cultural trends. This is perhaps a first step for a potentially much larger study and my hypothesis could be tested by different methods in the future.


If we examine various examples from the corpus in further detail, we can track the following pattern for the category of Setting:

Consider the following description of a landscape from Jane Eyre:

Leaning over the battlements and looking far down, I surveyed the grounds laid out like a map: the bright and velvet LAWN closely girdling the grey base of the mansion; the FIELD, wide as a park, dotted with its ancient timber; the WOOD, dun and sere, divided by a path, visibly overgrown, greener with moss than the trees were with foliage, the CHURCH at the gates, the ROAD, the tranquil HILLS, all reposing in the autumn day’s SUN. (Brontë 90)

The descriptions of the Setting category are typical of outdoor spaces, frequently landscape views. In the example above from Jane Eyre, the contents of the space are sequenced relative to Jane from proximal to distal, resulting in a progressive pattern. This pattern emerges when we identify the first landmark and track its position to the next: Lawn, Field, Wood, Church, Road, Hills and Sun. The landmarks noted here by Jane’s viewpoint do not, however, represent a fixed typology of spatial objects as any kind of landmark/spatial object can be listed within the frames.

Other texts from the same period also conform to this pattern such as the example below from Austen. Here, there are two separate examples of the same Setting pattern in the same passage which emerge with a change in narrative view:

Sense and Sensibility(1811):

The situation of the HOUSE was good. High HILLS rose immediately behind, and at no great distance on each side; some of which were open downs, the others cultivated and woody. The VILLAGE of Barton was chiefly on these hills, and it formed a pleasant view from the cottage windows. The prospect in front was more extensive; it commanded the whole of the VALLEY, and reached into the COUNTRY beyond. (Austen 23)

Thus, we initially are met with: HOUSE – HILLS BEHIND HOUSE – VILLAGE ON TOP OF HILL. And this is followed by: VALLEY – COUNTRY BEYOND.

Even a text with the complex narrative structure of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939) demonstrates the same patterning for Setting:

Who blocksmitt her saft anvil or yelled lep to her PAIL? Was her BANNS never loosened in Adam and Eve’s or were him and her captain-spliced? I heard he dug good tin with his doll, delvan first and        duvlin after, when he raped her home, Sabrine Astore, in a parakeet’s cage…[There are 8 other rivers mentioned in the intervening text here]Who sold you that jackalantern’s tale? Pemmican’s pasty pie! Not a grasshoop to ring her, not an ants grain of ore. In a gabbard he barqued it, the boat of life, from the harbourless IVERNIKAN OKEAN till he spied the loom of his landfall and he loosed two croakers from under his tilt, by the smell of her KELP they made the PIGEON HOUSE. (197)

This sample requires some deciphering in order to see the pattern: this passage describes the moment HCE, the male protagonist, first meets ALP, his female counterpart. Throughout the text, each word is generally a pun on another, although not necessarily from the English language lexicon. The first point of space here “pail” could refer to both a pail of water or The Pale, an Anglo-Norman term for Dublin and its hinterlands. Bann – a river in Northern Ireland is also a marriage band (captain-spliced). However, what is evident is that all the points of space can be said to refer to a body of water – PAIL – RIVER – OCEAN. And, like the other examples, there is this movement from proximal to distal. The pail is swollen to a river and the river washes to the ocean. The pattern is reversed when HCE spots ALP (“till he spied the loom of his landfall”) and the water volume dissipates: IVERNIKAN OCEAN – KELP (only grows in shallow oceans and seas) – PIGEON HOUSE (South Wall entrance to the River Liffey in Dublin).


The patterning also appears for people (here thought of as descriptive spaces) and other types of location such as rooms. Notably, for each of these spaces, the systematicity does not alter but what does change is the type of pattern produced by what I term the spatial set. This term denotes the spatial groupings of objects and locations from the beginning to end of a description, and their relationship to each other. The type of pattern produced in the spatial set is determined by how quickly the description delivers the space from origin to boundary and in which direction it moves.  With the category of Place, such as the indoor space of a room, the description often contains multiple spatial sets because the pattern “alternates” between the centre and the edge of a room, as illustrated below:

It was a large, stately apartment, with PURPLE CHAIRS (CENTRE) and CURTAINS (EDGE), a TURKEY CARPET (CENTRE), WALNUT-PANELLED WALLS, one VAST WINDOW RICH IN STAINED GLASS (EDGE), and a LOFT CEILING (CENTRE) nobly moulded. Mrs. Fairfax was dusting some vases of fine purple spar, which stood on SIDEBOARD (EDGE). (Bronte 88)

In this example we see three spatial sets, each involving a movement from centre to edge:




Place patterning for Victorian texts, as with Jane Eyre above, generally appears in descriptions of rooms. However, in Modernist texts particularly, patterns do occur for outdoor spaces – where the pattern of Setting is expected – but as the characteristically indoor pattern of Place. The city, despite architectural embellishment or functional purpose, is pared down to its skeletal frame – it becomes an indoor space and within it we find the patterning for Place instead of the outdoor patterning for Setting. The city literally oppresses its inhabitants and this physical state of suffocation is often accompanied by a mental counterpart. It seems that despite the social, visual, technological and architectural developments that have occurred from Dickens’ 1860’s to the 1920’s of the Modernist writers, our cognition of these changes remains the same. With Hemingway’s Fiesta, buildings, monuments, narrow streets, etc. occlude, and even obstruct, the natural line of sight, forcing the narrator to move upwards constantly for an organic escape. The enclosure of the city renders the narrators’ perception of this space as proxemically limiting and hence, patterns which we would expect to follow the outdoor progressive trend are forced into the alternating patterns of Place due to the demands on the peri-personal space of each protagonist.

Fiesta (The Sun also Rises):

The taxi went up the hill (CENTRE), passed the lighted square (EDGE), then on into the dark, still climbing (CENTRE), and leveling out onto a dark street behind St Etienne du Mont (EDGE), went smoothly down the asphalt (CENTRE), passed the trees and the standing bus at the Place de la Contrescarpe (EDGE), then turned on to the cobbles (CENTRE) of the Rue Mouffetard. There were lighted bars and late open shops on each side of the street (EDGE). (Hemingway 22)


Descriptions of people form a different pattern; they begin with an outline of the shape, for example, “a large, heavy-set man,” and then move to the facial and head area. However, they do not form the closed alternating pattern that we see with the centre-edge combination in rooms, because what follows once the outline/head is delivered is a third component with two possibilities: the description can either remain with the facial/head area or move to a body part. Thus, it is not random because it never returns to outlining the shape. Instead, the descriptions form an open-ended sub-set of two.  This is evidenced in the two differing sample sets below:

Set 1: Outline-Face/Head-Body

Jane Eyre: “I looked at my pupil, who did not at first appear to notice me: she was quite a child, perhaps seven or eight years old, SLIGHTLY BUILT, with a small featured FACE, and a redundancy of hair falling in curls to her WAIST” (Bronte 85).

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea [1]: “They were true Papuans, men of fine stock, athletic in BUILD, FOREHEAD high and broad, NOSE large but not flat, TEETH white. Their woolly, red–tinted HAIR was in sharp contrast to their BODIES, which were black and glistening like those of Nubians” (Verne 80).

Set 2: Outline-Face/Head only

Crime and Punishment: “Sonya was of small STATURE, about eighteen years old, a THIN but GOOD-LOOKING blonde, with wonderful EYES” (Dostoevsky 221).

And, in Pride and Prejudice: “Lydia was a STOUT, well grown-girl of fifteen, with a fine COMPLEXION and good humoured COUNTENANCE” (Austen 40).


Literary Universals  

To conclude, this study demonstrates that a claim can be made for a statistical universal within certain spatial descriptions in verbal narrative which is determined by the spatial categories of Settings, Places and Persons. Traditionally, descriptive terms in verbal narrative have been associated with cultural and theoretical assumptions and for good reason. For example, the word landscape (a nineteenth century invention [see Hirsch and O’Hanlon]) alludes to all sorts of cultural agency–cultivation, environment, or the picturesque, to name a few. Similarly, the term place can denote either inside or outside, private or public, and each of these also comes with its own set of cultural and historical values. For example, the change in historical attitudes towards domesticity and its relationship to place not only impacts societal and cultural discourse but can also inform new architectural modes of thinking (see Rice). Therefore, conceptions of space, it would appear, are neither a cultural nor a historical constant. Despite this, the epistemological difficulty, and perhaps paradox, posed by this study is that the patterns doprovide evidence of a constant.

Future Research

The most important and immediate area for further research is the testing of a much larger, diverse non-purposive sample randomly selected by a concordancer from a substantial sample of non-English texts. A rigorous retesting of this sample multiple times would be necessary to check for data verification/falsification which may enable the claims made here to go beyond the bounds of theory. This would be a large undertaking but it could be performed in stages, and if corroborated, could potentially inform each literary genre/culture as it proceeds. Alternatively, smaller projects could review non-English language texts, professionally translated, to test for textual interference, research data could be collected from writing experiments, the relationship to sign language could be examined in order to test for differential outcomes. Further work could found within the literary texts, for example, a larger variance of period data could be introduced to test the overall claims made here or different perceptual systems. For example, Austen’s proclivity for matchmaking within her texts and the ubiquitous gossip that follows could test for auditory pattern invariance. It is also hoped that the manual search approach adopted here could influence corpora methodological design towards a more efficient search engine to speed up the process of analysis.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. London: Norton, 2002.

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London: Plant Three, 2003.

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: Norton, 2001.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. London: Penguin, 2003.

Finnigan, Liz.  “A Cognitive Approach to Spatial Patterning in Literary Narrative.” Doctoral Thesis, Strathclyde University, Glasgow,  2013.

Hemingway, Ernest. Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises. London: Arrow, 2004.

Hirsch, Eric and O’ Hanlon, Michael ‘Introduction’ in The Anthropology of Landscape. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995.

Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake.London: Penguin, 1976.

Rice, Charles. Emergence of the Interior. London: Routledge, 2007

Verne, Jules. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Many Books, 2017. eBook collection

[1]This description continues for a further five lines but remains with the bodies of the islanders. Notably, it switches from the male to female islanders but does not begin a new pattern with the women instead it moves from the bodies of the men to those of the women: “Beneath their pierced, distended earlobes there dangled strings of beads made from bone. Generally these savages were naked. I noted some women among them, dressed from hip to knee in grass skirts held up by belts made of vegetation. Some of the chieftains adorned their necks with crescents and with necklaces made from beads of red and white glass. Armed with bows, arrows, and shields, nearly all of them carried from their shoulders a sort of net, which held those polished stones their slings hurl with such dexterity” (Verne 80).