Evaluating Quantitative Methods in the Analysis of Victorian Novels

Susan Jaret McKinstry, Department of English, Carleton College.
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Students recognize that the novel as a literary form has a powerful relation to culture. But what, precisely, is that relation, and how does it change over time? How can we find data to support or challenge our understanding of the role of the novel in culture? The Victorian novel is an ideal form to examine, since it was broadly popular and widely available (coinciding with a dramatic rise in literacy, cheaper publication methods, circulating libraries, and an explosion of new titles and sub-genres). Current research on the Victorian novel includes fascinating, even radical quantitative methods that are transforming assumptions about literary history. This assignment will explore these new methods and help students learn to understand and evaluate quantitative data in relation to literature.

Learning Goals

  1. Articulate assumptions and questions about historical materials (specifically, the Victorian novel).
  2. Use research skills to locate quantitative resources that might support or challenge these assumptions (this is a burgeoning area in literary analysis).
  3. Select a quantitative resource in order to analyze its effectiveness (quantitative and visual) by considering its assumptions, its strengths, and its limitations as evidence.
  4. Present the quantitative example on the class MOODLE with a concise, clear, descriptive analysis and evaluation.

Context for Use

This assignment would take place in an advanced Victorian Novel course with upper-level students from diverse majors, although it could be used in any literature course dealing with older materials. The course is deeply interdisciplinary (including work with photography, illustrations, and serial editions), and this assignment would invite a different method for understanding these novels. It would take place early in the course, over a week: a class discussion of assumptions about the Victorian novel, followed by examples of quantitative research. Then students would complete the assignment in teams.

Description and Teaching Materials

First we will consider students' prior assumptions about these novels ("Dickens was very popular," or "women did not write novels," for example), then read an article by Franco Moretti as an example of quantitative work, examining some of his excellent and challenging graphs on the Victorian novel (see references below) as evidence to substantiate the assumptions. The assignment will ask students to locate materials that examine the novel using quantitative research. Students will work in teams to select a visual example of a quantitative study and present it to the class on MOODLE with a discussion: What does it demonstrate? How effective is it as evidence? What does it emphasize, and what does it ignore? Students will present their findings on the class MOODLE site.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Initially I wanted to explore the concept of the best seller in Victorian times, but discovered that such an assignment would sidetrack the students into very complex statistical analysis (for example, how could we determine relative numbers of copies sold? Was Dickens' David Copperfield as popular as Harry Potter? What is the relation between literacy rates, copies sold, and numbers of readers?). The data is not precise enough to master in a single assignment.
Franco Moretti's work gave me a far more exciting direction, for he has created superb graphs and maps that visualize and quantify the development of the "global" novel during the Victorian period, providing a broader sense of "culture" as well as a challenging approach to understanding the form, and even projecting its future possibilities.
Having students work in pairs will allow them to share strengths. Given Carleton's graduation requirement in quantitative reasoning, this will not be a new approach for all of the students, and the assignment might be developed more fully for students with interest and background. For example, some teams with statistical experience could create their own graphs from statistical data.


The posted examples and analyses will demonstrate students' ability to select, understand, discuss, and evaluate quantitative evidence. Since this is a new arena for me, I do not yet have specific rubrics or even a context for their results, and I will develop those with the students in discussing their examples and postings. One possibility might be to ask students to comment on another team's work, or even to select the most effective representations of quantitative data.

References and Resources

Moretti, Franco. Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900. London, New York: Verso, 1998.
------. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary Theory. London, New York: Verso, 2005.

Carroll, Joseph. "Evolutionary Studies"—an entry for Blackwell's Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory (forthcoming)

Cohen, Patricia. "Analyzing Literature by Words and Numbers." New York Times online, December 3, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/04/books/04victorian.html?adxnnl=1&emc=eta1&adxnnlx=1314117123-hkFQD3wUP6L2SPf8DamD/g

Moretti, Franco. "Narrative Markets, ca. 1850." Review, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Spring 1997), pp. 151-174. Research Foundation of SUNY.