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Article Note: “Conrad in the Computer,” by Michael Stubbs

In Arts & Letters, Essays, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Writing on October 12, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This article uses quantitative methods of text and corpus analysis to interpret stylistic elements of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  The author carries out such method and analysis by way of computers—hence the title of the article.

A major goal of this piece is to challenge the linguistic community that is mostly skeptical of “stylistics.”  Put another way, the piece calls into question the prevailing idea that statistics is not a proper hermeneutic for interpreting literary style.

The value of computer-generated quantitative datum is its ability to clarify what is normal and predictable in texts.  The value, moreover, is to contextualize a vast amount of information by reducing it to simplified summaries.  For instance, this piece reduces Heart of Darkness to seven narrative frames within which are themes of vague impressions and unreliable knowledge (conveyed through words such as “blurred” and its variations, “dark” and its variations, “shadow” and its variations, and so forth).

The author concedes that his approach depends upon selection: which features to study and which to ignore.  But he believes his approach is valuable precisely because computers can identify features of texts that are not at first obvious to the naked eye or the pensive mind.  Humans carry with them various associative registers and preconceived notions, whereas software is a naïve reader.

One reason the author applies his quantitative method to Heart of Darkness is that this novel has not undergone rigorous explication in light of stylistics.  This method quickly provides the analyst with a concordance, and this method enables the analyst to index keywords (“Kurtz,” “seemed,” “river,” “station,” and so on) and then divide those keywords into numbers and declensions (how many nouns or adjectives, what variety of verb tenses, etc.).  This method is beneficial, furthermore, because the computer can catch allusions that the limited human mind cannot catch.  In support of this theory, the author cites to several allusions and possible allusions from the novel.

The article draws several conclusions about the novel—for one, that the novel’s phrasal patterns suggest that the narrative is tactically repetitive—but the overarching point seems to be to validate the methodology and not explicate the book.  That the author of this article has chosen Heart of Darkness (as opposed to some other novel) seems incidental.

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