Distant reading in 19th century British novels

In this blog post I will elaborate on Moretti’s discussion of late 18th century and Victorian British novels in his book Maps, Graphs and Tress: Abstract Models for a Literary History and then I will comment on findings for the same topic, from Heuser and Le-Khac’s project A Quantitative Literary History Method of 2,958 Nineteenth-Century British Novels: The Semantic Cohort 

Reading Moretti’s  Graphs, Maps and Trees , in our class tutorial we talked, among other things, about text analysis and commented on his idea of ‘distant reading’ whereas opposed to ‘close reading’. ‘Distant reading’ essentially means that you move away from a text or a small number of texts and you are researching on a macro even global scale, i.e. 19th century novels. Moretti applies this technique and  visualises his findings with the use of graphs, maps and trees.

What attracted our attention was the following illustration where he suggests that in late 18th up to 19th century British Literature, new genres appeared every 4 years and the life expectancy of each genre was about 23 to 35 years (p. 24). He hasn’t found any given solution but he proposes the change of generations and audience, in other words, evolution as a possible explanation for this phenomenon (p.26).

http://ariddell.org/weblog/2011/05/30/reconstructing-graphs-maps-trees/                                                Approximation of Moretti’s observed clusters from Allen Beye Ridell .

There were a lot of productive arguments about Morreti’s interdisciplinary methods and goals in this book, in our class discussion. Some liked his mapping technique; others got disappointed or thought that he was too attached to the scientific method in contrast to literary criticism that in the end didn’t reveal any ground-breaking results. We decided to view it as a DH Manifesto. Personally, it offered an insight to the multiplicity of voices in DH field and acted as a fruitful ‘food for thought for the possibilities of literary research and for further research and exploration in DH.

Searching for Moretti, I found an article from the Literary Lab of Stanford about Victorian British novels, culture and literary history which discussed morphological findings in novels of the same period.  By undertaking a quantitative study, with the use of text mining methods and semantics, Heuser and Le-Khac discovered that there was a shift ‘from abstract, evaluative language to concrete, non-evaluative language, in other words ‘from explicit to implicit narration, from conspicuous commentary to the dramatization of abstractions, qualities, and values through physical detail’ in the period from 1790 to 1900 (45-46). More specifically, their research was based on proto-semantic fields (i.e. sentiment field) that later divided into taxonomies (heart, feeling, emotion, passion, sentiment) with the help of Oxford English Dictionary and Thesaurus.  What attracted my attention was Figure 18, where they illustrated that the frequency of abstract terms declines significantly as we move from the didactic to adventure novel. They distributed their results in 8 different chronological genre categories: some of which only had authors’ names (Eliot, Hardy and Austen) as well as genres (didactic, gothic etc) (32). The y-axis shows these categories whereas the x-axis describes the word frequency of abstract terms. A turn to more solid terms is apparent.The following explanation is mentioned in their article:

LiteraryLabPamphlet- Aggregate word frequency

Figure 18: Spectrum of novels, authors, and genres as ranked by concentration of the abstract values fields. The x-axis shows number of standard deviations above the corpus-wide mean concentration of abstract values fields. For example, the median for the evangelical and didactic novels was around 2.25 standard deviations above the mean.

To conclude,  distant reading is a helpful approach which can provide results on a macroanalytic scale and enable us to trace data even from a global corpora. However, as it deals with a massive amount of surface and big data, it is more susceptible to misleading results. Specific methodologies and approaches cannot be used as panacea for any research literary topic, as for instance the results of the above mentioned article are sufficient only for the propositional and not the symbolic meaning of words. It is apparent that concrete words were predominant in later novels (i.e. Elliot in contrast to the didactic novel)  but still its general meaning  is more absurd.  It seems that macroanalysis is useful if it can function as a starting point for further research or provide us with a general idea  for a following close reading analysis.

Works Cited:

Beye Ridell, Allen. Reconstructing the List of 44 British Novelistic Genres in Graphs, Maps, Trees. Beye Ridell, Allen. 2011. 23 Oct. 2013.Web https://ariddell.org/weblog/2011/05/30/reconstructing-graphs-maps-trees/

Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History. London & New York: Verso, 2005. Print

 Heuser,R.  and Le-Khac’s, L. A Quantitive Literary History Method of 2, 958 Nineteenth Century Novels: The Semantic Cohort. Stanford Litera  Pamphet 4. Stanford: Stanford Literary Lab, 2012. 23 Oct.2013. Web



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