In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,“ Laura Mulvey argues that, in film, fragmented body parts shown on screen call attention to the mediating cinematic apparatus and rupture the viewer‘s sense of the world-object presented onscreen as a contained, whole world, destroying “the illusion of depth given by the narrative“: the fragmented body part “gives flatness, the quality of a cut-out or icon rather than verisimilitude to the screen“ (Mulvey, 12). Shelley Jackson‘s visual and verbal fragments work in much the same way. Jackson‘s Patchwork Girl demands attention to its format, insistently refusing the reader‘s comfort and refusing to be understood as a coherent, self-contained narrative space. Rather than tell a story from start to finish and present it as a knowable whole, Patchwork Girl layers streams of consciousness, snippets of histories, and decontextualized theoretical statements to explore the meaning that can emerge through the juxtaposition of fragments. Accordingly, Jackson draws attention to the dual function of her patchwork character‘s scars, which evoke both the disjuncture of her discordant parts as well as the attempt to unify fragments into a semi-harmonious whole: “I see that your scars not only mark a cut, they also commemorate a joining.“ The scars operate in a way comparable to hypertext links, which connect fragments of text together, sometimes smoothly and sometimes with jarring, gnarled results (Landow, 239-240).

Yet while the scars draw attention to a rich history — the history of the individual body parts, and the history of their unions — the links pull the reader forward toward a future — if not to the future of the story, of a progressing plot, then toward the future of one‘s own reading process (Landow, 391, n10). This is what Jackson elsewhere calls “the compulsion to find out what happens nextÉa not entirely pleasant compulsion disguised as entertainment, like being forced to dance by a magic fiddle“ (Shelley Jackson, “Stitch Bitch: The Patchwork Girl,“ quoted in Hendershot, 68). As Patchwork Girl spurs the reader to the next moment of reading, the text sometimes leads the reader back to where he or she has already been, forcing a confrontation with the history of one‘s own reading. Jason Williams notes the shifting temporalities of Patchwork Girl: the title character‘s history, presumably well-known to the speaker and more or less knowable to the reader, “parallels our normal linear perception of time;“ passages written as thoughts or stream-of-consciousness emulate nonlinear thought process, circle back on one another and link to several possible directions; and the integration of theory forces a stilted, start-stop action comparable to flipping back and forth from main text to index and back again (Landow, 238). The thematization of history takes shape in the reader‘s own (often frustrating) attempts to move forward through the text and heightens our awareness of our acts of reading.

Indeed, the section of Patchwork Girl entitled “This writing“ juxtaposes the assuring spatiality and self-confirmation of reading a tangible text against the troubling non-spatiality and potential self-dissolution involved in electronic media: Assembling these patched words in an electronic space, I feel half-blind, as if the entire text is within reach, but because of some myopic condition I am only familiar with from dreams, I can see only that part most immediately before me, and have no sense of how that part relates to the rest. When I open a book I know where I am, which is restful. My reading is spatial and even volumetric. I tell myself, I am a third of the way down through a rectangular solid, I came a quarter of the way down the page, I am here on the page, here on this line, here, here, here. But where am I now? I am in a here and a present moment that has no history and no expectations for the future.

Reading hypertext not only dislocates its reader spatially, it also dislocates temporally. The reader has no past that is immediately viewable — he or she cannot grasp and measure the pages already read. There is a back button, and the reader may choose to trace his or her own history of reading, but to visit that history one must visit every single moment of that history and cannot sum it up in a general way. In contrast, while the past is accessible, the future is completely unknowable. The reader can never know how much text remains to be read, and the story only ends when the reader can go no further or can find nothing new (Douglas, 168). In its departure from print literature and material forms of reading, Patchwork Girl throws its reader into an uncertain future. Ward Tietz emphasizes the difference between print literature and its electronic counterpart as the degree of “care“ put into our reading and writing of them:

These temporal and connective differences are often discussed as material differences, differences of interface or medial support, but only rhetoric addresses the most important experiential difference between printed and electronic texts: we care about them and exercise our care in reading and writing them, in time, in very different ways. And while it might sound overdramatic or metaphorical to say these two types of texts care about us in very different ways, it often feels that way. [Tietz, 508]

The nebulous sense of being “cared for“ seems directly connected to the sense of stability derived from the process of reading, and it is not a sense that Jackson readily offers her reader.


1. In what ways does Jackson‘s work replicate the process of reading material texts? Does Jackson thematize or problematize our own need for history and self-assurance?

2. Does Patchwork Girl care for its reader? How is the reader addressed in this work?

3. What connections can we draw between the two primary narrators of Patchwork Girl, the title character and Mary Shelley, and the two narrators of Fingersmith? Are the similarities rooted in the authorship (female), the time period (contemporary), the themes (lesbianism, the female body) or the narrative form (multiple voices)?

4. Last week I argued that Frankenstein‘s monster adds up to an excessive whole, citing a passage in which Frankenstein describes the monster‘s individual parts as beautiful and proportional on an individual scale but grotesque when combined. Consider Shelley Jackson‘s revision of that passage, which incorporates segments of text from L. Frank Baum‘s The Patchwork Girl of Oz and Klaus Theweleit‘s Male Fantasies Vol. 1: Women Floods Bodies History:

How delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form? Her limbs were in proportion, and I had selected her features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! A perfectly beautiful woman must have the voluptuous buttock sand lovely breasts of the ladies of England, the fiery glance of the women of Poland, a German body, and a podex from Paris. But when my housework girl is brought to life she will find herself to be of so many unpopular colors that she‘ll never dare to be rebellious or impudent. (beauty patches)

How does Jackson‘s version thematize the gender anxieties and fear of femininity that many critics locate in Mary Shelley‘s text? To whose perspective does this passage give voice? Does this string of quotes describe Patchwork Girl earnestly or ironically?


Douglas, J. Yellowlees. “ÔHow Do I Stop This Thing?‘: Closure and Indeterminacy in Interactive Narratives. Hyper/Text/Theory. Ed. George P. Landow. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994. 159-188.

Hendershot, Heather. “Review: Rethinking Media Change.“ Film Quarterly 59.1 (2005): 67-69.

Jackson, Shelley. Patchwork Girl. Environment: Storyspace. Cambridge: Eastgate Systems, 1995.

Landow, George P. Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory and New Media in an Era of Globalization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2006.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.“ Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18.

Tietz, Ward. “Linking and Care in Connection.“ New Literary History 35.3 (2004): 507-522.

Victorian Overview Neo-Victorian sitemap

Last modified 19 April 2010