The Role of Location in Crime Fiction Essay
Updated: Oct 25th, 2020
In his article “A Tale of Two Cities,” Franco Moretti analyzes a great contrast between the macroscopic and microscopic levels of London’s economic texture as it is represented on a nineteenth-century map published in Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the People of London in 1889 (77). Moretti remarks that while Booth has presented a thorough analysis of the city based on its division into seven social groups, there are still some unclear issues as to how and in what ways criminal life in the city is represented in the works of fiction (77).
Upon studying the article, it seems possible to say that the portrayal of criminal activity in London in the nineteenth century was closely associated with the division of the city into districts based on people’s financial achievements. At the same time, there is a huge contrast between the actual criminal activity and the fictional one. Thus, the paper argues that the representation of crime in nineteenth-century literature was based on disparities between the regions of the city as well as the countryside.
According to Moretti, at the microscopic level, London is a “self-organizing system” with a set of “regular patterns” (77). However, at the microscopic level, it becomes clear that there is no strict division between prosperous and less fortunate streets and regions of the city (Moretti 77-78). It is not possible to say that “extreme poverty” and “great wealth” are present in some major parts of London since they are present in the neighboring streets (Moretti 77).
The distance between the divergent social classes may be as little as just two hundred meters. Within this distance, one may see both “the brilliant gold” and “patches of chronic unemployment and misery” (Moretti 78). Thus, Moretti concludes that Booth’s map indicates that the city as a whole is rather ordered whereas its individual parts are predominantly random (78). Such a confusion evokes wonder and fear, and it makes London “not easy to read” (Moretti 78).
One of the reasons for such a state of affairs is the psychological conditions created by large cities (Simmel 131). People are contingent on the “supplementary activities of all others,” which leads to inevitable contrasts between various parts of the city as well as between rural and city life (Simmel 130). Such an opposition posed a complicated question to nineteenth-century writers who had to come up with the most appropriate narrative mechanisms of making cities “legible” (Moretti 79).
The approach favored by the authors of that time was showing only a part of London rather than the whole city. Thus, only West End used to be portrayed in novels, which was “not really a city” but “a class” (Moretti 79). Characters living in West End did not use to work but merely “lived” (Moretti 79). Several features were common in all novels: a city square, some “exclusive” gathering spots, parks, and “the border” (Moretti 79-83).
The border, which was marked at Regent Street, was considered the most crucial element of all, and it was a “splendid neoclassical barrier erected between 1817 and 1823” (Moretti 83). As Moretti remarks, writers avoided addressing urban complexity by reducing it (83). Their characters did not go further than Regent Street, and even if they did, no street names were ever mentioned, and “roads lost their names” (Moretti 83). There was a great contrast between West End addresses and other areas of the city: while the former was meticulously acknowledged, the latter was “lumped wholesale in… anonymity” (Moretti 83). The symbolic amputation of some parts of the city leads to the inability of writers to represent some crucial aspects of the city’s life.
As soon as the border “has been crossed,” it is sensed by the language (Moretti 84). Diverse spaces do not only mean different landscapes but represent different “narrative matrixes” (Moretti 84). In order to exemplify his opinion, Moretti analyzes Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist – the novel in which “the metaphor of the labyrinth” has the power to return time whenever the storyline becomes close to dangerous places (84). As Moretti remarks, there were two different halves of London: that of West End and one of the less prosperous districts (84).
However, the paradox was that those two halves did not make a whole when combined. Whenever a novel concentrated on one half of London, it could not “see” the other half or even depict the fact of crossing the border between the halves (Moretti 86). When Dickens made an attempt to unify the two halves, the outcome was more than just the sum of the parts. London became not only larger but also more complex, which gave the writer a possibility for “richer, more unpredictable interactions” (Moretti 86).
In his analysis of the crime epicenter, Moretti concludes that it was almost always in West End (134). In his investigation of Conan Doyle’s works’ popularity, Moretti concludes that the lack of success of Doyle’s first two novels was connected with their being located between Lambeth and Camberwell (135). As soon as the writer made a “shift in location” and situated his short stories in the City and West End, he became very successful (Moretti 135).
Another interesting fact is associated with the crimes occurring in the countryside. As Moretti notes, with Holmes’s moving away from London, the crimes became more and more “bloody” (138). While none of the seven “London stories” incorporated murder in the first Holmes collection, each one of the five “countryside” stories did (Moretti 138). Thus, the contrast between the city and the countryside was quite stark.
The most interesting issue outlined by Moretti is the opposition between fictional and real crime scenes (136). According to the author, the areas that are marked as “vicious” and “semi-criminal” on Booth’s map are “the exact inverse” of Conan Doyle’s city of crime (136). In fiction, the crime occurred in the “world of wealth” (Moretti 136). Meanwhile, in reality, it happened in “the London of poverty” (Moretti 136). Moretti concludes that there is a profound symbolic argumentation behind the “two Londons” (137).
While the actual map indicates crime as it is, the fictional world presents some mystery of which the real world is devoid. Writers found it much more exciting to portray “fancy hotels, mansions overlooking the park, great banks, diplomatic secrets…” than unamusing life in East End (Moretti 137). Therefore, the crime in nineteenth-century fiction was based on the difference between London regions and the contrast between the city and the countryside. Writers preferred to focus on the areas that they found to be the most exciting to describe rather than write about realistic situations in poor or rural regions.
Moretti, Franco. “A Tale of Two Cities.” Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900, edited by Franco Moretti, Verso, 1999, pp. 75-140.
Simmel, Georg. “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, Blackwell, 1999, pp. 130-135.
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