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The Rise of the Novel
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Exercise 7: Topic Modeling

4 min read

All the following topics are based on the whole corpus.

41 topics, 1000 iterations, 20 words printed per topic

Public Men Do Public Man Things: people power country laws state government law great liberty public men nation equally constitution present influence justice interest order private

Love Story: man woman good love make thought men women young world creature wife word poor find sex thing give don girl

50 topics, 500 iterations, 12 words printed per topic

Topic Modeling If Fo Fatiffying: fuch fo faid reverie fame moft fome thefe foon himfelf thing

Seventeen(sixty) Magazine: beauty lady fine eyes young fair beautiful air women eye dress appearance

50 topics, 500 iterations, 5 words printed per topic

Young Pickle!: peregrine pm gentleman young pickle

: man good make men give

Reading Tristram Shandy: tears heaven soul grief distress

80 topics, 1000 iterations, 12 words printed per topic

Putting the ‘List’ in ‘Orientalist’: japan taycho great dairo chinese empire orator cuboy farm people japonese fika

So Torrid: passion love heart lover mistress affection object sentiments tender tenderness soul loved

Authorial Modesty: author great genius learning learned read book works work poet books taste

I hoped that narrowing down the number of words per topic would yield more coherent topics, but I actually found that shorter topics were vaguer and more random-seeming, perhaps because by the time you are looking for the five words that are most likely to co-occur, you’re likely to get sort of generic, everyday words like “man good make men give” -- the ones I list above are the most coherent of the 5-word topics.

Armstrong claims that the transition from using the class system to using a person’s internal moral qualities as a measure of a person’s worth occurred through the novel, since the novel imbued the middle-class woman with individuated subjectivity. The topics that are explicitly gendered male seem to confirm her hypothesis, if we accept that in the 1760s, the part of the shift in which all middle-class people, including men, could be measured by their internal moral qualities had not yet happened. The topic Public Men Do Public Man Things lacks nouns that could be coded as having to do with the internal subjectivity of characters. We might infer that novels where that topic is prevalent conform more closely to an old model of fiction in which social stature determines worth, even if their particular ideas about the social order (liberty! equally!) are relatively modern.

However, Armstrong’s primary point, that the interiority of middle-class women began to matter in novels, is not precisely confirmed by the topics that are explicitly gendered female. The topic I called Seventeen(sixty) Magazine is representative of a number of topics which seem to be the “women’s novel” topic. Interestingly, while they certainly do not place emphasis on social class in the way that public, manly topics do, they also place no more emphasis on interior virtues. Rather, they bring to light a middle ground between the privacy of “essential qualities” and the publicly visible social order: physical appearance. The topic Seventeen(sixty) Magazine features appearance words laden with positive connotations, like beauty, fair, and young. It would be interesting to see whether, in novels where this topic is prevalent, female characters’ worth is defined more by their “essential qualities of mind” or their physical beauty.

The topics that reflect romance open up onto a number of questions about Armstrong’s thesis. So Torrid and Love Story, topics reflective of the romance genre, are composed of words that do explicitly refer to essential qualities of mind: good, love, passion, affection, tenderness, soul...According to topic modeling, it is in the romance genre that characters are most likely to be endowed with inner moral virtues. The romance, a particular type of domestic fiction, seems to match most closely with Armstrong’s argument. Do these (heterosexual) romances, which presumably demand both men and women main characters to function, imbue both their male and female characters with qualities of mind? Armstrong says that domestic novels “seized the authority to say what was female” -- were these feminized novels doing that through both male and female characters, or is it the feminized nature of the genre alone that allows Anderson to make that claim (468)?

*I’m not sure if it’s fair game to compare a topic chosen from a list of 50, generated through 500 iterations, and containing 12 words to topics chosen from a list of 41, generated through 1000 iterations, and containing 20 words. I think that the main thing that matters here is that they are all topics generated from the same corpus, groups of words that are likely to co-occur in that corpus, and that should make it acceptable to compare them???