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Feeling by the numbers

Speed read
  • Emotions in fiction can be mapped
  • Quantitative literary analysis reveals the ‘big picture’ hidden in fiction
  • Happiness associated with prosperity; poorer neighborhoods are overlooked

In the West End of London, an elegant young lady strolls arm-in-arm with her handsome suitor through a blooming rose garden. Across the river in Southwark, a pickpocket lounges against the wall of a gin shop, scanning the crowd for his next victim.

These fictional scenes suggest to a reader how to feel about the different neighborhoods of the burgeoning metropolis: Romance and happiness flourish in the prosperous West End, while crime, danger, and poverty lurk in the shabbier precincts south of the Thames.

<strong>Taking the temperature. </strong>What was the mood in London from 1700-1900? Here are four half-century views of the types and intensity of emotions as expressed in 5,000 English novels. Courtesy Ryan Heuser, et al.

The presence of emotion in fiction suggests that feelings such as happiness or fear can be linked to specific places and therefore constitute a kind of emotional geography.

Researchers at Stanford University’s Literary Lab have used a combination of quantitative textual analysis (also known as distant reading) and crowd-sourcing to analyze 5,000 English novels published between 1700 and 1900 and map the emotions associated with London place names.

“It should matter to us how stories influence our sense of the cities we live in,” says Ryan Heuser, a doctoral candidate in English who co-authored the study. “Maps of places in novels reveal patterns we otherwise wouldn’t see.”

Isolating emotion

Quantitative literary analysis uses statistical and machine learning techniques to extract information from a large number of works, allowing researchers to study at one time more books than they could possibly read in a lifetime.

“Most literary criticism focuses on a highly selective ‘canon’ of works, which, in the case of nineteenth-century novels, amounts to less than 1% of those published in the period,” says Heuser. “Quantitative criticism allows us to ask how the broader literary system helped to construct readers' sense of London's urban and social geography.”

The presence of emotion in fiction suggests that feelings such as happiness or fear can be linked to specific places and therefore constitute a kind of emotional geography.

A disadvantage, however, is that contextual nuance can be lost. For example, discovering the frequency with which place names are mentioned in novels doesn’t tell the researchers how they were mentioned.

With assistance from Stanford’s Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA) Heuser and his colleagues used Named Entity Recognition (NER) software, a common method of information extraction employed in Natural Language Processing, to identify 382 London locations that had received at least 10 mentions in the selected novels.

English novels of the 18th century

English novels of the 19th century

They developed simple Python scripts to isolate approximately 15,000 passages that included one of these specific place-names (e.g., “Regent Street” or “Newgate”) at the center, plus the 100 words that preceded it and followed it.

They then distributed the passages to several hundred human readers via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and asked the readers to annotate the emotional context in which the place-names appeared in the novels, designating each passage with either ‘happiness’ or ‘fear.’

Invisible growth

Heuser discovered that in the works published during the first fifty years of the study (1700-1750), fears associated with spaces of punishment and imprisonment, such as Newgate, Tyburn, Bedlam, and the Tower, were the dominant emotion.

But from then on, the appearance of fear in the fictional spaces of London declines significantly until happiness begins to bloom in the West End in the first half of the nineteenth century, associating well-being with the wealthier areas of Harley Street, St. James Square, Hyde Park, and Belgravia.

Heuser notes that the two-hundred-year period examined in the research was a time of great change and expansion for London, during which its population exploded from a relatively modest 600,000 people in 1700 to become a teeming metropolis of 6.5 million in 1900.

But little of this growth is reflected in the novels, which confine their events mainly to the historical central districts of the City and the West End. This failure to engage with the new neighborhoods that proliferated along the Thames reveals a drastic discrepancy between fact and fiction.

<strong>Missing the mood. </strong> London began as a town along the Thames, with a population of about 600,000 in 1746. By 1896, the city held upwards of 6.5 million people. Fictional accounts of London failed to reflect the drastic change in size and demographics. Courtesy Ryan Heuser, et al.

“Though we commonly speak of ‘London novels’, this image reveals how partial the representation of the city actually was,” says Heuser. “In the course of the nineteenth century, real London radically changed—and fictional London hardly at all. The rest of London — where most of the growth was actually taking place —wasn’t mentioned and never really mattered.”

Heuser’s study suggests that in periods of rapid change, writers (and by extension, their readers) prefer to confine their imaginations to the landscape as it once was, not as it currently is. The neighborhoods of rapid growth, of the working class and immigrants, were portrayed either as fearful or as not really part of the world that mattered.

“Portraying certain places as sites of fear has potentially dangerous class and racial implications,” says Heuser. “For example, how does President Trump’s insistence on the ‘carnage’ taking place in ‘inner cities’—despite falling crime rates nationwide—distort our sense of how populations of color live in cities, and how does it affect policing in those communities?”

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