Individual Work
Patchwork Girl

Alternative Title: Patchwork girl, or, A modern monster by Mary/Shelley, & herself: a graveyard, a journal, a quilt, a story & broken accents

Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl was created in Storyspace, is distributed by Eastgate Systems, Inc., and ranks among the most widely read, discussed, and taught works of early hyperfiction.

Patchwork Girl is rooted in an allusion to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus—as is echoed in both the title and the author’s own name—and can be read as a feminist response to Shelley’s 1818 gothic masterpiece. Patchwork Girl couples original writing with the aesthetic strategies of metafiction and collage to create a recombinant text borrowing heavily from deconstruction and gender studies. Jackson quotes passages from Frankenstein, Derrida’s Disseminations, Evelyn Shaw’s and Joan Darling’s Female Strategies, Carolyn Walker Bynum’s Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion, Nancy K. Miller’s Poetics of Gender, and Barbara Maria Stafford’s Body Criticism: Imaging the Unseen in Enlightenment Art and Medicine. In the “sources” lexia, the author lists further seminal works of postmodernist and feminist criticism (e.g. Cixous, Deleuze and Guattari, Haraway, Lyotard, Theweleit).

The metaphor of both the monster and the patchwork quilt are made literal through the formal aesthetic strategies of the work, with the corporeality of hypertext taken as a central and self-aware concern. The narrator, Mary Shelley "herself," compares printed books with hypertext in the “this writing” lexia (no doubt one of the most quoted passages from a work of hyperfiction):

    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 in dreams, I can see only that part most immediately before me, and have no sense of how that part relates to all 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 am 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.

Where the work starts is left to the reader to decide. Jackson provides five possible starting points—analogous to the five human senses, and adds a “sources” page. “A graveyard” “resurrects” the creature from buried body parts of other people, mostly women. The owners are characterized so as to form a patchwork identity in the female monster originally created, yet “forsaken” by Mary Shelley in the original novel. “A journal” contains fictional diary entries by Mary Shelley, recording her feelings towards the female monster. The shock upon first beholding her own creature is reminiscent of Victor Frankenstein’s in Mary Shelley’s original novel. Unlike Dr. Frankenstein, (the fictionalized) Shelley in Jackson’s hyperfiction manages to overcome her sublime fear, giving way to motherly affection, which, at times is charged with eroticism. "A quilt" contains only two lexias, both displaying the same quote from Frankenstein as Victor embarks on creating a female companion for his monster. By literally "sewing" her own words into the passage, Jackson demonstrates the actual making of a written patchwork quilt. She uses different fonts and formats to underline her intention. "A story" is by far the most exhaustive section of Patchwork Girl. It tells a linear story, the "biography" of the monster, who—following Victor Frankenstein’s order—does in fact leave Europe bound for North America. Like a postmodern frontier woman, she ventures her way through American suburbia and the metropolis, until she finds in Death Valley her ultimate destination. As her physical components gradually disassemble, her legacy is to continue her mother’s, Mary Shelley’s, work. She observes that hyperspace is the ideal environment for écriture féminine or feminine writing, which may be considered one of Jackson’s key messages. As she writes in her essay “Stitch Bitch” (2003), a companion piece of sorts to Patchwork Girl, “Hypertext then, is what literature has edited out: the feminine.” In the section entitled “& broken accents,” the narrator pays tribute to her physical mothers, the women from whom she received her organs resulting in a contemplative interrogation into postmodern identity.

In parts, Patchwork Girl resembles a philosophical treatise, with its many aphorisms, ontological contemplations and meta-poetic, apocalyptic prophecies: “Metaphors will be called home for good. There will be no more likeness, only identity” (from “hidden figure”); “If all things are called back to their authors, that is. Mary, Mary, I know you want me back, but I shall be no more than a heap of letters, sender unknown, when I return” (from “mementos”). Jackson refers to Plato, whose tenets she applies to poststructuralist discourse as she discusses them from the point of view of the monster: “There is thus for Plato no such thing as a written thing […]. – that is, I don’t exist. I am a passel of parts and should be returned to their original owners” (from “interrupting D”). It can also be read as a philosophical examination into media change in both form and literal content. Its black and white interactive illustrations resemble woodblock prints or copper plate engravings, calling to mind outmoded forms of book illustration and production while foreshadowing later electronic literary works that move beyond hypertext into the realm of hypermedia.

Critics have almost unanimously praised Patchwork Girl. Robert Coover has described it as “what is perhaps the true paradigmatic work of the era...elegantly designed, beautifully composed” (1999). George Landow, in Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory and New Media in an Era of Globalization (1997), devotes a chapter to Jackson’s hypertext, describing it in terms of “Bakhtinian multivocality” and emphasizing the handing over of “Frankensteinian” power to the reader, “stitching together narrative, gender, and identity” (200). Reviews and analyses have appeared in great numbers.

This entry adapted from Dr Astrid Ensslin, Canonizing Hypertext, London: Continuum, 2007 (pp. 78-81).