Graphing Jane Austen: Science, and 19th Century Novels

Digital Humanities is an endlessly fascinating field to me.

To that end, Brainpickings shares a neat post on Graphing Jane Austen: The Evolutionary Basis of Literary Meaning, which seeks to “bridge the gap between science and literary scholarship by borrowing from the evolutionary biology and modern data analytics to construct a model of human nature that explains the evolved psychology of character dynamics in nineteenth-century British novels. Using the framework of the model, they asked a sample of several hundred readers to give numerical ratings on 2,000 characters from 202 British novels, including all of Jane Austen’s.”

And, you get graphs like this —

“The researchers examined the positive and negative emotional responses readers have to characters based on a number of character qualities, including sex, age, attractiveness, personality, motives, and mate selection criteria. Five key motive factors emerged — dominance, constructive effort, romance, subsistence, and nurture — which varied greatly across the male and female protagonists and antagonists, and which played a key role in readers’ emotional responses. Personality was also broken down to five factors: extraversion (assertiveness and sociability), agreeableness (warmth and affiliative behavior), conscientiousness (organization and reliability), emotional stability (calmness and evenness of temper), and openness to experience (curiosity or mental life).”

The category choices seem interesting, but it sure takes some of the richness out of the Jane Austen novel when everything is plotted by reading response values, doesn’t it?

Here’s a link to a paper from the authors of Graphing Jane Austen, which gives a bit more insight into their methodology (I still don’t fully get it).

And while we’re on the subject, here’s a visualization of Pride and Prejudice, from Oxford University Computing Services. Maybe it says something about how my brain works, but maps like this seem like an easier way to trace connections between characters and themes. OUCS has some other visualization exercises, which you can check out.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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