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Spoiler alert: what I am about to tell you may forever change the way you read the classic horror novel Frankenstein—not in a bad way, just in a Marxist way (which is my favorite way). Mrs. Shelley didn't just write this book to entertain people; she also wrote the book as an indirect way of critiquing the world she lived in.
Let's take Frankenstein—that's the doctor, not the monster, 'kay? Did someone say science out of control? Ethical taboos? Irresponsible science? Playing God? Well, I just did—and so did Mary Shelley. She was really covert with her sociological critique, but it's all in there, my friend.
Robinson Crusoe—Western civilization's most beloved island dweller after Gilligan—is a character for whom I have an endless fascination. My take on the book is that even though Crusoe is miles from civilization, and even though he has Friday around to help him out, he doesn't just choose to kick back under a coconut tree and muse over the shapes of clouds. Oh, no.
Even on the desert island, this guy works like a good middle class man so that he can enjoy little leisure time—or "comfort," a favorite word of the bourgeoisie. Don't think too much about it, because you'll get really bugged that the one guy whose life is like a Tahitian vacation works like someone in 1950s New York. What does it mean? That Crusoe's had a bourgeois brainwash, that's what. Think you're any different?
As you know, I'm a real cartophile—a lover of maps. I especially like to map out novels and think about how authors have arranged geography in their stories and how characters behave in those places and spaces.
Stay with me. So when I talk about a Jane Austen novel, I consider what her idea—and therefore her characters' idea—of the United Kingdom is.
Do you suppose Emma Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennet is really thinking about everything from Brighton to Glasgow? Nope. They have in mind a teeny, tiny slice of social life that exists in a certain countryside-ish area.
Austen's characters don't hang out in Dickens's filthy, foggy London, and they have no idea about the world outside of the UK. Do you remember Fanny Price wondering where all the money that supports those estates comes from? (Like, maybe, say far-flung colonies where slaves work day and night?) She has no idea.
I diagrammed Hamlet until it looked like one of those woven Navajo blankets you see in Arizona. (57 diagrams, to be exact.) Lines were going everywhere, and at the center of three clusters were Hamlet, Claudius, and Horatio. I didn't do this for kicks; I did it to achieve a deeper understanding of the plot, because what I found was that all of these people interrelated in ways I had never considered.
See, it helps to get a visual on things. Perhaps a quotation from my extensive findings on the play will clarify things: "A network is made of vertices and edges; a plot, of characters and actions: characters will be the vertices of the network, interactions the edges [...] My figures must be seen to be believed" (source). The point is: there's so much going on in any literary work that it takes a visual to even begin to work them out.