Play Me!

In 1979 Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar published their groundbreaking piece of feminist literary criticism: The MadWoman in the Attic. Through application of close reading, historicization, and critical theory, Gilbert and Gubar defined 19th century women-authored texts as being veiled projections of the authors’ own  “quest for self-identification” (76). The quests were carried out by their characters in a manner made acceptable by use of popularized genres, tropes, and literary techniques. Gilbert and Gubar argued that the characters created were not mere characters at all, but rather expressions of the authors’ own psyche. They were represented either as the madwoman “who emerges over and over again from the mirrors” and/or the “fiercely independent… who seek to destroy all the patriarchal structures” (77-78). These women were often described as being trapped in dark, confined spaces, which was a stand-in for the confinement female authors experienced in their inability to freely express their thoughts.

To uncover these themes, Gilbert and Gubar carefully read several novels. They picked apart the syntax and the figurative techniques. They even called into question the histories of the author. Gilbert and Guabr created a framework via which other scholars could close-read Victorian novels to fetter out hidden themes. This type of process can only be applied to a relatively small amount of texts, though. As Ted Underwood says, “you can’t wake up and trace patterns of change in a thousand novels” (A Dataset for Distant Reading). This is where distant reading practices can help. Distant reading approaches can test this same argument on a larger body of texts by defining a set of keywords as the parameters for algorithmic analysis. Text mining can “read” far faster than any human can, allowing us to see the bigger picture, faster, all the while drawing similar conclusions. 

        With a defined set of keywords inspired by Gilbert and Gubar’s scholarship, I aim to prove that the concealed themes in female-authored 19th century literature can be uncovered using distant reading methods. In doing so I assert that digital humanities methods open up a path via which feminist scholarship can be more widely applied to under-studied novels and help us better understand the manner in which female authors subverted male-dominated genres and tropes. 

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