8 Classic Novels Reduced To Their Punctuation

What can you tell about Moby Dick and other literary masterpieces after you’ve stripped out all the words?

What’s a novel without its words? Just punctuation. But when you take those lines of commas, periods, exclamation points, and quotes, then arrange them in a big spiral, you can still tell something of the character of the original work: the endlessly curious and expository quality of Ishmael’s narrative in Moby Dick, for example, or the titular wonder of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.


Between the Words by Chicago-based designer Nicholas Rougeux is a series of posters that takes the text of classic novels like Pride and Prejudice, Huckleberry Finn, The Christmas Carol, Peter Pan, The Time Machine, and more, then strips them of all their words until they are mere swirling vortices of punctuation. The project was inspired by Stefanie Posavec’s Writing without Words data visualizations, which colorfully chart the structure–but not the actual prose–of many classic novels.

After admiring Posavec’s work, Rougeux says he wanted to try his own take on visualizing literature. “After experimenting with a few ideas,” he says, “I ended up accidentally removing all the letters in some text and saw that the punctuation let behind was interesting in its own right.” The spiral pattern of his finished posters was just the most visually compelling way of densely fitting a large volume of text on a single poster.

The posters do indeed reveal patterns. Broken up by chapters, in several of Rougeux’s punctuation vortexes, you can see how an author slips between dialogue and narrative sections, just by how often quotes pop up. “The double quotes adds a lot of density in dialogue where longer narrative sections are mostly strings of periods, commas, semicolons, and so on,” he says.

Some books seem like they’d be almost identifiable by their punctuation. Alice in Wonderland, for example, has an abundance of exclamation marks (“Off with their heads!”). Peter Pan uses a lot of commas, reflecting the breathless “and then, and then, and then” way children tell stories about their dreams. And Moby Dick can be identified by its huge number of em-dashes, which are used by Herman Melville throughout the novel to cite his sources on the habits of whalers and leviathans throughout the book.

Unlike Ishmael, when it comes to his punctuation posters, Rougeux hasn’t yet landed his typographic white whale: James Joyce’s Ulysses, known for its idiosyncratic (and, sometimes, wholly nonexistent) use of punctuation. But Rougeux says the modernist tome is the next to be visualized. The rest of his posters can be purchased as prints for around $28 each here.