Patchwork Girl in the Romantics Classroom

Romanticism & Contemporary Culture

Patchwork Girl in the Romantics Classroom

Jay Clayton, Vanderbilt University

  1. Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl takes as its premise that Mary Shelley's second monster, the female companion that Victor Frankenstein began creating but then destroyed, was secretly finished by Mary Shelley herself. The monster becomes Mary Shelley's lover, then travels to America, where it goes through numerous adventures until its death in the early 1990s. This ambitious hypertext, one of the most successful efforts in the medium, consists of 323 lexias (or screens of text), varying in length from a single sentence to some 300 or so words. The lexias are joined to one another by 462 links, which create multiple pathways through the text. Like most hypertexts, Patchwork Girl has no proper beginning or end, but it does have numerous narrative characteristics, including characters, settings, flashbacks, and shifting points of view, as well as temporally consecutive sequences, which arouse various kinds of affective response in the reader, such as curiosity, suspense, amusement, erotic tension, and surprise. It also contains many of the distinctive characteristics of the emerging genre of hypertext fiction, including a pervasive self-reflexivity about its own medium and an emphasis on the intertextual nature of writing. Passages from Jacques Derrida's Disseminations, Donna Haraway's "A Cyborg Manifesto," Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, L. Frank Baum's The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913), and Barbara Maria Stafford's Body Criticism are woven into the fabric of Jackson's text, often without visible attribution, creating a pastiche or verbal patchwork, which is continuously juxtaposed to the stitched-together body parts of the monster's body.

  2. The most compelling dimension of this hypertext is how it connects four sets of motifs: first, issues of reproduction and sexuality—childbirth, female creativity, and queer sexuality; second, issues of embodiment—monstrosity, the artificially constructed body, prosthesis, the cyborg; third, traditionally female arts such as sewing, weaving, quilting, and patchwork; and fourth, literary theories of intertextuality, nonlinearity, fragmentation, dispersal, and dissemination. Describing this complex text in terms of its many threads of intellectual interest may obscure the fact that many sections are also moving.  It possesses some of the comic force of Katherine Dunn's Geek Love (1989), the repellent fascination of movies like Freaks (1932) or Eraserhead (1977), the pathos of the final reel of The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), and the performative flair of Paris Is Burning (1990). Students readily identify the passages on sewing together skin and transexuality with the similar motifs from The Silence of the Lambs (1991); they less readily note the text's kinship with Peter Greenaway's experimental movies Prospero's Books (1991) and The Pillow Book (1997), but those lines of affiliation are certainly present.  In one class, students admitted to being near tears as they read of the female creature, 173 years old at the "end" of the story, beginning to come apart, to break back down into the separate components of her body.

  3. Patchwork Girl provides a dramatic counterpoint to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Anomalous as this hypertext is, the variations on Shelley's novel supply a rich source of ideas for class discussions and paper topics.  A frequent difficulty with assigning contemporary texts that are explicitly meant to be dramatizations of a Romantic work, such as the latest movie of Frankenstein starring Kenneth Branagh (1994), is that students become fixated on whether or not the cinematic version is faithful to the original.  Teaching Jackson's work renders this problem moot—or, more provocatively, helps one theorize the entire problematic of versions, parodies, pastiches, revisions, allusions, and intertextual relations.  A less radical solution to the same pedagogical problem is to pair a contemporary film with a different but related Romantic text.  Thus, in my most recent nineteenth-century fiction class, I taught the novel Persuasion and had the students watch Gwyneth Paltrow in Emma (1996) and the comic Valley Girl rendention of Austen's Emma, Amy Heckerling's Clueless (1995). With Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone, we watched David Lean's A Passage to India (1984), and ended up talking productively about British colonialism rather than about the filmmaker's liberties with the text.

  4. Teaching hypertext presents its own set of instructional challenges.  For people who are interested in experimenting with this medium, I have appended four recommendations for using hypertext in the classroom.  The best way to look at or obtain a copy of Patchwork Girl is to go to the website of its publisher, Eastgate Systems, <>. Eastgate Systems is the largest and most respected publisher of free-standing, rather than web-based, hypertexts, and its site is an informative source for all kinds of information about the genre.