Graphs, Maps, Trees

Franco Moretti, a literature professor, wants scholars to start thinking about history in different forms – that is, graphs, maps and trees. Graphs, Maps, Trees looks at literary history through these three models, which Moretti argues open up a whole new way of looking at history.


The first chunk of the book looks at the rise and fall of the novel through graphs. Moretti writes that this history should be looked at as a whole, instead of parts – the rise and fall of literature as a discipline, instead of the rise and fall of individual pieces of literature. Moretti includes a variety of graphs to support his text, including the rise and fall of the novel in individual countries, dominant genres, and the persistence of genres.

When considering the graphs of the rise and fall of the novel, Moretti looks at when the fluctuations occurred and what could be the possible causes. But then he points out that only looking at the causes for the changes is looking at the individual pieces of literature instead of the whole field. “If they are parts of a pattern, then what we must explain is the pattern as a whole, not just one of its phases,” he writes (13).

By looking at his graphs, Moretti observes that genres last for 25 to 30 years and then die off. He deducts that this pattern for a genre as a whole has to do with generations – people who read the genre died, so there was no one left to read the books (20-21). Not all quantification problems have easy solutions like this, though. “Because the asymmetry of a quantitative explanandum and a qualitative explanans leaves you often with a perfectly clear problem-and no idea of a solution,” Moretti writes, (26).

Not all graphs have an explanation, but it is better to look at history this way than to not look at it at all, Moretti seems to be saying. He writes how everyone thinks they discovered something unique in academia, but if they only plotted the information on a graph, they would see that isn’t something special, but just a reoccurrence, a part of the cycling pattern (27).


“Maps” is illustrated with the example of Our Village, a collection of village stories by Mary Mitford. Moretti maps out Our Village, not on a conventional map, but in circles, with the village being the center.

One central part of Our Village is the character’s walks in the country, something that is quite frequent in all village stories. “But in order to see this pattern, we must first extract it from the narrative flow, and the only way to do so is with a map… it shows us that there is something that needs to be explained,” Moretti writes (39).

It is hard to come to definite conclusions when using maps, but they bring to light something the researcher might not have seen before. Moretti says they are a good way to begin analyzing texts and that they help researchers concentrate on only a few elements. Those few elements are presented a different way and reveal something new to the researcher, something not seen with only text in a novel, (53).


The last model Moretti advocates for is trees, which Darwin called “diagrams” when he used them to explain his theory of evolution. Trees look at the form of history, where elements diverged and converged.

Moretti’s main example is detective fiction and how the presence of clues was the deciding factor of whether a book was popular or not. Moretti finds that when writers tried something new, like making clues decodable for the reader, it decided their book’s fate. “In making writers branch out in every direction, then, the market also pushes them into all sorts of crazy blind alleys; and divergence becomes indeed, as Darwin had seen, inseparable from extinction,” he writes (77).

Moretti uses trees to chart the change of a genre, and how popular those changes were with the readership. If the changes were not popular, the book died off, giving literary historians a better explanation for why some books in a certain genre made it, and others did not.

Graphs, maps, trees. Did you find one model more more useful than the other? Do you think historians use these models enough, or is there room for improvement? Are there any disadvantages to using these models to support text?

Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History. New York: Verso, 2005.

6 Replies to “Graphs, Maps, Trees”

  1. I got the same message from Moretti as you in terms of graphs being a “better to look at history this way than to not look at it at all.” I think that it expands the message of historic topics to a wider audience. The other part of Moretti’s writing that you mentioned about how “everyone thinks they discovered something unique in academia, but if they only plotted the information on a graph, they would see that isn’t something special, but just a reoccurrence, a part of the cycling pattern (27).” reminded me of the conversation we had in class a few weeks ago about the nature of academia. We discussed how researchers are highly motivated to concentrate on a topic previously over looked by other historians in order to make a unique contribution to the field of history. I’m not sure that I completely agree with his message though. I think that it the researcher’s role to look for the reoccurring pattern in the first place. While they exist in model land, it is the historian that puts each pattern into the the model that best expresses it and put that model into the context of a narrative. I found it interesting how Moretti advocated for taking maps out of the context of narratives. It does make sense in respect to impartial examination of the data because people can frame findings to support theories rather than coming to conclusions based on patterns in data.

    In regards to your question, I tend to prefer the visual aspects of trees, but I think that they are more difficult for quantitative comparison. I believe there is room for improvement in how historians use models. The digital age also lends itself to models and the interactive aspect that they offer. Historians have already begun to take advantage of these as we’ve seen in the practicums of this course; there are so many resources to providing a new type of interpretation to history.

  2. Angela,

    I found the maps to be the most useful. I know novels are supposed to push the use of one’s imagination but when it comes to studying the novel for a historical or any other research purpose, I think maps are a helpful way of approaching it. This is especially interesting if it is used with more than one person to study how readers perceive a story in the same way or different ways.

    I would guess that historians use the maps the most since we need to contextualize places that we study but I do not think they are core methods of research and interpretation. I could see graphs and trees making their way into research practices once historians overcome their fear of numbers and quantitative analysis.

    I do not necessarily agree with Moretti’s belief that studying individual items detracts from a pattern as a whole. Depending on the size and scope of a historian’s research, studying the individual parts is key for picking up on nuances, smaller details that contribute to the larger conclusions.

    I do not see any disadvantages to these methods that are so severe they should not be used by historians. Statistical analysis always runs the risk of bias despite its perceived objectivity. As for the task of people charting their information to find that their work fits into a cycling pattern, I would say that it is possible but it is not always the case.


  3. Great explanation Angela! I liked Moretti’s overall discussion that graphs, maps, and trees provide a fresh perspective to literary history and lead to new discoveries. I think this follows our discussion in class around Google N-Grams. By looking at trends over time, N-Grams and other devices allow researchers to not only find fresh answers, but also find new questions (which could lead to new answers and a new explanation of something already studied).

    I do agree with Kelly that there are dangers with focusing on studying trends at a macro level and ignoring struggles on the micro level. Looking at overall trends does not capture the nuances within the literary field and might not provide a full explanation as to the changes in trends. However, Moretti understands that a macro level representation does not always provide the in-depth analysis. He writes, “The models I have presented also share a clear preference for explanation over interpretation; or perhaps, better, for the explanation of general structures over the interpretation of individual texts.” [1] However, overall, I do not believe that graphs, maps, and trees can replace traditional methods of analysis. These methods can definitely shed new light on certain questions, but should not be the primary source of examination.

    [1] Franco, Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History (New York: Verso, 2005), 91.

    1. Meghan,

      Moretti’s graphs also reminded me of Google N-Grams. And as historians, it is our job to look at the big picture, as well as the individual instances that occur. I think what Moretti is trying to say goes back to my point of better to use the graphs and see what they turn up, than to not use them at all. Maybe, in regards to my question of whether historians utilize these models enough, Moretti feels that researchers and scholars don’t use graphs and look at the big picture enough for the individual texts they analyze?

      1. To tag off of an idea that Kelly and Meghan started, I think the plethora of historical literature dedicated to the study of cities and regions (think urban history, western history, southern history, etc.) helps refute Moretti’s disapproval of looking at the smaller pieces of a puzzle or narrative. Scholars who study and write about one small area often try to place their work within a larger national context, thereby hoping that doing so will shed new light on a national narrative and show how a particular narrative may or may not truly apply to the whole country. I too disagree with Moretti’s idea and think that historians need to take into consideration things that happen on a small, local level while trying to form a narrative that tells a single story of a complex, heterogeneous society.

  4. Clearly, maps are a very important part of analyzing history, literature and politics. I like Moretti’s idea that maps represent overall patterns. In politics, for example, I appreciate how on election nights, CNN uses maps to demonstrate voter patterns. CNN maps show how votes are cast based on geographic location. But they do more than that, looking at the bigger picture, they then compare those maps to past voter maps to demonstrate changing demographics. Some of their maps show that voter patterns stay the same: conservative votes in the deep South, for example, or how votes have changed from formely red states to more liberal voting. I also like Trevor’s idea that maps can be used to analyze literature. Mapping out books can give us a deeper understanding of patterns and genres in literature. They can show us how characters evolve and how geography brings new perspectives.

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