Graphing Jane Austen: Using Science to Extrapolate the Human Condition from Classical Literature
What literary Darwinism reveals about universal values.
By Maria Popova
In 1959, C. P. Snow lamented the tragic disconnect between science and the humanities in his famed “two cultures” lecture. In Graphing Jane Austen: The Evolutionary Basis of Literary Meaning, researchers Joseph Carroll, John Johnson, Daniel Kruger, and Jonathan Gottschall — who gave us the fascinating The Storytelling Animal earlier this week — embody Snow’s vision and 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.
This exercise in literary Darwinism produced three key findings: (1) these novels have determinate “agonistic” structures of meaning — centered on protagonists, antagonists, and minor characters — that can be captured using the model’s framework; (2) the perceived differences between protagonists and antagonists are much more structurally pronounced than the differences between male and female characters; and (3) the agonistic structure of these novels fulfills an adaptive social function, wherein literature articulates and cultivates specific social values.
A few of the findings (PDF) follow, in unnecessarily ugly academic graphics. (Please, oh, please, would some talented literature-loving information designer care to spruce them up?)
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 authors sum up the findings in a conclusion that seems as true of literature as it is of real life:
Standing as a protagonist — a good major character — typically depends on a combination of prosociality and an active mental life.
Also found were normative differences in personality based on gender:
In personality factors and mate-selection criteria, female protagonists most fully exemplify the normative tendencies of good major characters. The norms of the novels are thus gynocentric or feminized.
Though some may argue that bringing the rigorous lens of scientific research to world of literature is a barbaric way to rob the latter of its whimsy, if we subscribe to the view that fiction illuminates reality, Graphing Jane Austen shines a spotlight that not only would make C. P. Snow proud but also helps better understand our culture’s relationship with constructs like personality, gender, and introversion.
Published May 10, 2012