[Most of the following essay derives from Landow’s keynote lecture delivered at the opening of I Dintorini del Testo: Approcci alle Perfiferie del Libro, the 2003 conference on paratext in Rome.]

When we first came up with the 'page' concept in BOOK VI, we thought we'd reached the zenith of story containment — compact, easy to read, and by using integrated PageNumberTM and SpineTitleTM technologies, we had a system of indexing far superior to anything SCROLL could offer. Over the years . . . . we have been refining the BOOK system. Illustrations were the first upgrade at 1.1, standardized spelling at V3.1 and vowel and irregular verb stability in V4.2. Today we use BOOK V8.3, one of the most stable and complex imaginotransference technologies ever devised. —  Jasper Fforde, The Well of Lost Plots (2003)

Decorated initial M

o what do we mean when we talk or write about a book? For centuries when students of literature and ordinary readers thought about a book, say, Middlemarch, Paradise Lost, or In Memoriam, they meant only a kind of abstracted text that in some way existed separately from any particular physical instantiation of that text. However, for several decades now, a wide range of scholars and critics have begun to ask questions about the ways the particular physical embodiments of a book affect the way readers experience the text it conveys to them. As Michele Moylan pointed out in Reading Books (1996), “Bindings, illustrations, paper, typeface, layout, advertisements [and] promotional blurbs – all function as parts of a semiotic system, parts of the total meaning of a text” (2). A decade earlier the French critical theorist Gérard Genette coined the word paratext to describe those parts of the physical book other than the main text, and in the last twenty years material aspects of the Victorian book have been the subject of a number of important studies which focus on aspects of illustration and book-covers

For example, building on the work of Douglas Ball (1983) and Graham Dry, Edmund King has greatly extended the bibliographical record of mid-Victorian covers. In Victorian Decorated Trade Bindings, 1830–1880 (2003), he provides a detailed catalogue of many of the physical attributes of popular imprints, a field of information that extends from types of cloth to end-papers and binders’ labels. King’s work is the encyclopaedic cornerstone from which other, more evaluative studies have proceeded in the investigation of individual designers and styles, and he continues these studies in an on-line blog. Other scholars have examined material aspects of Victorian illustration. Mary Elizabeth Leighton and Lisa Surridge recently edited a collection of essays examining the ‘object lessons’ of Victorian literature (2016), and the same authors have made an important contribution to the understanding of relationships between illustrations and texts by focusing on the significance of the images’ placement in serial fiction. These issues have been teased out an in an essay of 2008 and in a full-length study of 2018.

The focus, in all of this work, is on the interactions between the publications’ materiality and their messages. Several aspects of the Victorian book still remain relatively obscure and are in need of systematic investigation. Among these lesser-known areas are the significance of endpapers, pictorial frontispieces and illustrated titles, especially as they appeared in trade, as opposed to limited editions. While not making any claim to comprehensiveness, the present account sets out to suggest some ways in which these material signs might be read as part of the books’ physical code.

These matters have a double significance for you, the reader of the Victorian Web. First, of all, its sections on technology, book design, and illustration involve such questions of paratextuality. Second, merely reading anything on Victorian Web raises questions about text and paratext that bring us back to how we experience print text. Depending upon one’s vantage point, hypertext — text composed of lexias and links, such as this one you are reading on the Victorian Web — appears either as just another form of textuality or as a form of paratextuality. If one considers links, the defining component of hypermedia, to be a para, an add-on, something beside the point, then hypertext (or at least the hypertextual link) is a form of paratext. If, however, one looks at the link as a necessary component of a new kind of networked textuality, then hypertext is not paratextual but simply textual.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary Online, para has several meanings not particularly relevant to paratextuality, including the use of the word to mean the “New Zealand name for the large, evergreen fern, Marattia salicina, or its swollen rhizome, formerly used as food,” and a Brazilian seaport “on the south estuary of the Amazon.” More relevant, para is the “combining form” of a preposition that occurs “in words already formed in Greek, their adaptations, and derivatives, and in modern words formed on the model of these, and, in certain uses, as a living element, in the formation of technical nomenclature.” When used as a preposition in Greek, para meant “'by the side of, beside', whence 'alongside of, by, past, beyond', etc. In composition it had the same senses, with such cognate adverbial ones as 'to one side, aside, amiss, faulty, irregular, disordered, improper, wrong'; also expressing subsidiary relation, alteration, perversion, simulation.” These senses appear in derivative English words, such as parable, paradox, parasite, parallel, parenthesis, parish, parody, and paroxysm — surely a richly suggestive gathering of words. In anatomy, para has the sense of “an organ or part situated beside or near that denoted by the second element, or standing in some subsidiary relation to it “ such as parathyroid. In pathology it can also denote disease or abnormality, as in paresthesia — a skin sensation, such as burning, prickling, itching, or tingling, with no apparent physical cause.

The paradoxical and yet perhaps necessarily ambiguous nature of paratextuality appears with particular clarity in Jacques Derrida’s mischievous titling of the preface to Dissemination:

Even before we readers begin his discussion of the ways the printed book shapes (and limits) our modes of thought, we realize that Derrida has once again forced into our attention things we usually take for granted. Opening the covers of Dissemination, a codex book, we pass its title page, cataloguing information, contents page, and (in the American edition) a substantial introduction by the translator.

So when will the book actually begin, or has it already?

Are we encountering text or paratext? Then, about forty odd pages into this text-presentation machine (or book), we come upon the announcement that what follows, even this far inside the book, is hors livre — outside the book. That’s not all, for the next part of the title announces that we are about to read the outwork, “A minor fortification,” the American Heritage Dictionary informs us, that is “constructed beyond a main defensive position or fortification.” So this stand-in for what in other books would be a preface turns out to be, at least in part, something that defends the text which follows. Then, it’s back to French with hors d’oeuvre, the culinary, gustatory paratext that exists simultaneously inside and outside the meal, or at least what’s supposedly important about it. Next comes extratext, something that apparently lies outside the text (the text that counts) and may constitute an unexpected supplement of real value, or maybe just something unneeded and of no value. Then comes foreplay, the paratext of sexual pleasure, the word implying that whatever actions constitute it, they come before the real play, the real pleasure. Foreplay, it seems, is in the way of true sexual activity, it forestalls it while making it possible. Or paratext takes the form of a bookend. If we take the word book to denote a physical object, then a bookend is something heavy or stationary enough that when “placed at the end of a row of books” it keeps them “upright.” If we take book to mean Derrida’s text, Dissemination, then a bookend both demarcates its beginning or end and something that protects its virtue. With facing, the penultimate word in this list-title, we come upon the preface as façade, as the thin stone or metal material that simultaneously hides what it covers and makes that-which-is-covered look much more valuable than it really is; or perhaps it’s the author’s act of supposedly leaving his authorial role and directly confronting — facing — the reader, though obviously that would in fact be merely an exchange of one stylistic and rhetorical mode for another. And then we arrive at prefacing at last, that which introduces or provides a preliminary statement.

Derrida, who here offers a practical demonstration of deconstruction — the analytic destruction of false opposites and oppositions —  has several main points, all of which relate importantly to the understanding of paratext and the concept of paratextuality. First, the conventional nomenclature we use when discussing text appears hopelessly inadequate, inaccurate, and misleading. Take the example of preface:

The preface would announce in the future tense (“this is what you are going to read”) the conceptual content or significance . . . of what will already have been written. . . . From the viewpoint of the fore-word, which recreates an intention-to-say after the fact, the texts exists as something written — a past — which, under the false appearance of a present, a hidden omnipotent author (in full mastery of his product) is presenting to the reader as his future. . . . The pre of the preface makes the future present, represents it, draws it closer, breathes it in, and in going ahead of it puts it ahead. The pre reduces the future to a form of manifest presence. [7]

“This,” concludes Derrida, “is an essential and ludicrous operation.” Another essential yet ludicrous operation appears every time, when writing about textuality, we employ fundamental oppositions like inside and outside, for even when considered briefly, they do not make much sense: to what extent, for example, does an allusion— say, Dante’s to a specific passage in Vergil — exist inside or outside La Divina Commedia? Is the allusion text or paratext? As Derrida points out elsewhere, “when a text quotes and requotes, with or without quotation marks, when it is written on the brink, you start, or indeed have already started, to lose your footing. You lose sight of any line of demarcation between a text and what is outside it” (“Living On,” 81-82). Similarly, is a footnote in a student or scholarly edition of the Commedia part of the text (and, if so, how?) or is it paratextual? Which leads to the question, how much of what we experience while reading derives from the paratextual, or from things that we do not consider part of the main text, the real text?

Derrida, one of the few philosophers and critical theorists aware that the printed book is not natural or inevitable but a great imaginative and technological invention, points out correctly that “the form of the ‘book’ is now going through a period of general upheaval, and while that form appears less natural, and its history less transparent, than ever . . . the book form alone can no longer settle . . . the case of those writing processes which, in practically questioning that form, must also dismantle it” (3). Derrida realizes that book denotes at least three things:

  1. the physical text-presentation machine with a high-resolution display that we open, read, and in whose margins we write,
  2. the text independent of any physical instantiation of it that nonetheless requires a such physical embodiment to be read, and, least noticed,
  3. the thought-form, the mode of thinking, that has shaped, enriched, and limited Western culture since the Renaissance.

As I have argued elsewhere, the descriptions of text, network, and authorship offered by Derrida and other poststructuralists parallel, and sometimes anticipate, the statements of the computer scientists who created the new media — digital text and image, hypertext, and cybertext. Many of Derrida’s descriptions of how texts work, which seem oracular and bizarre from the vantage point of print culture, make perfect sense when seen from within the world of networked digital media. The following description by him of an individual text, for example, clearly explains how an individual electronic document (again, such as the one you are reading) exists on the World Wide Web with its links and search tools: “What I still call a ‘text,’ for strategic reasons, — a text that is henceforth no longer a finished corpus of writing, some content enclosed in a book or its margins, but a differential network, a fabric of traces referring endlessly to something other than itself, to other differential traces. Thus the text overruns all the limits assigned to it” (“Living On,” 84). All boundaries in digital texts, unlike physical ones, are necessarily provisional since the individual documents (or lexias), participate in an extensive, perhaps infinite, docuverse. In a networked electronic docuverse, such as that exemplified by the Victorian Web, search tools and links traverse the supposed beginning, middles, and ends of what in print would be physically discrete documents. In such an environment, it becomes especially difficult to locate or define a paratext. If a paratext is that which is outside, extra, or alongside a central text, then in the world of the internet our looked-for paratext becomes the entire docuverse –1:

Paratext = all existing electronic documents – 1= docuverse -1

That is, the paratext consists of all documents other than the one on which we presently concentrate our attention. At the same time, however, in a networked electronic space one could also claim that no paratext can exist, since all texts are in an important sense part of the same whole. “What are the borderlines of a text?” Derrida asks. “How do they come about?” (“Living On,” 85) They come about because we need to establish borders, distinctions between para and text, but such distinctions remain provisional, matters of authorial assertion that the reader in an electronic environment can ignore.

Approaching the notion of paratext from its relation to information technology instead of its relation to an individual document reminds us that all media exclude certain possibilities as a means of achieving others. All information technologies therefore have their specific paras and their explicit exclusions. Thus speech excludes fixity, exact reproducibility, and precise information about matters such as color and form. What is its para? Gesture? Writing? Some things, however, seem to stay the same as we move from one information technology to another: Whether in speech, writing, print, painting , or cinema, allusion is always accompanied by paradoxical notions of inside and outside, main and subsidiary, host and parasite.

Until the development of electronic text — at which point the digital computer became a manipulator of symbols rather than just a means of making complex mathematical calculations — all writing had been a matter of making physical marks on physical surfaces. With computing, text instead takes the form of electronic codes that can be moved, reproduced, manipulated at an entirely different scale than ever before possible or even conceivable. Text presentation becomes virtual rather than physical , and the rule becomes: Move the code move the text — Change the code change the text. In the digital realm the notion of paratext and paratextuality, as we shall see, becomes ambiguous. Nonetheless, certain forms of the paratextual remain roughly the same in virtual and physical text. Thus, if in the world of printed books tables of contents, lists of illustrations, and indices are conventionally paratextual, merely supporting apparatuses, then by analogy sitemaps, navigational links, and framing devices on websites serve as their hypertextual equivalent.

Let’s now leave matters involving digital textuality and consider modes of Victorian paratectuality:

The Material Book in the Victorian Age

Related material


Chiquet, Vera. ‘The Leviathan Frontispiece.’ Theorizing Visual Studies: Writing Through the Discipline, ed. James Elkins. New York: Routledge, 2013. 150–154.

Derrida, Jacques. La Dissemination. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1972. Dissemination. Translated by Barbara Johnson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Duran, Teresa and Bosch, Emma. ‘Before and After the Picture-Book Frame: a Typology of Endpapers.’ Picture-Books: Beyond the Borders of Art, Narrative and Culture. Ed. Evelyn Arizpe. London: Routledge, 2013. 42–63.

Genette, Gérard. Seuils. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1987. Translated by Jane E. Lewin as Paratexts. Thresholds of interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Leighton, Mary Elizabeth & Lisa Surridge, eds. ‘Object Lessons: The Victorians and the Material Text.’ Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens 84 (Automne 2016).

Leighton, Mary Elizabeth & Surridge, Lisa. The Plot Thickens: Illustrated Victorian Serial Fiction from Dickens to Du Maurier. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2018.

Leighton, Mary Elizabeth & Surridge, Lisa. ‘The Plot Thickens: Towards a Narratology of Illustrated Serial Fiction in the 1860s.’ Victorian Studies 51:1 (2008): 65–101.

Moylan, Michele. ‘Introduction’. Reading Books. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996. 1–16.

Paratesto. Rivista internazionale. Rome: Istituti Editoriali e Poligrafici Internazionali; N.1 - 2004 edition (2005).

Price, Leah. How to do things with books in Victorian Britain. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2012. [reviewed in the Victorian Web]

Last modified 28 October 2019