Appointed As

Communication of Science and Technology Program


ACLS Emerging Voices Fellowships program


Vanderbilt University

PhD Field of Study

PhD, English, Claremont Graduate University

Dissertation Abstract

"Measuring Character: Statistical Thinking and the Victorian Novel"

My dissertation, titled “Measuring Character: Statistical Thinking and the Victorian Novel,” explores the contact zones between two domains often pitted as oppositional: statistics and literature. I argue that the emerging statistical discourse in nineteenth-century England played an important role in shaping, disseminating, and transforming Victorians’ ideas about individual character that literature, in turn, refracted, reimagined, and represented through fictional characters and plots. I show how ideas about representativeness, individual accountability, social [d]evolution, and the survival of humanity in Victorian novel genres, such as the social problem novel, sensation fiction, and speculative fiction, permeated in part due to the increased statistical attention to the population. This emphasis on representing the population numerically, classifying its members, and determining patterns of behaviors and characteristics all helped to shape Victorian novelists’ imaginings of a cultural legacy that saw the individual self not as isolated from others but rather contingent on the many. I show that Victorian authors were reimagining the individual as not in opposition to the masses but is instead comprised of it. In the same way that statisticians encouraged a form of civic imagination, Victorian novelists prompted ways of thinking about collective life through the formal device of character. That is, Victorian statistics and literature both participated in what philosopher and historian Ian Hacking called “making up people.” At times descriptive, other times prescriptive, novelists and statisticians were concerned with the idea of character—both as an abstraction (of an individual or some other figure) and as a quality or specificity that distinguishes one from the aggregate. In this dissertation, I look at Victorian novelists’ investment in character as a literary apparatus and as a moral concept. I trace the use of character in Victorian fiction as it shifted away from using comparisons of individuals to depict hierarchies (or the “ideal” way to be) and toward sharpening individual and categorical differences that introduced alternative ways of being. I define character as both an intrinsic condition of being and as a familiar mode of being in the world: what one is and what one does.
Historicizing how novelists responded to statistics’ transformation of character helps us to better understand how literature and statistics contributed to the creation of what is considered “human” or a “population” in the nineteenth century. Novelists and statisticians reimagined what it means to be an individual within populations, at times drawing from two alternative perspectives that each had claims of power over and knowledge of individual and collective experience. This dissertation invites us to reconsider the ease with which we identify through and with numbers. It also encourages us to reconsider our relationship with quantification that continues to shape our narratives of selfhood and belonging.
I look at three “categories of being” used and produced by statistical study—the average man, nobody’s child, and composite portraits—to trace how Victorian novelists created a comparative view of the self that is in negotiation with, and not always opposed to, the masses. Reading Victorian novels in the context of statistical reports about the population, I explore questions about the representativeness of individuals (in North and South), personal responsibility or accountability (in No Name), and the future of the English population, particularly concerning eugenics (in The Coming Race) to demonstrate how the Victorian novel proffered a way of thinking about the self as contingent on the masses while showing that this process is fraught with challenges for alternative forms of collectivity. I also show that, unlike earlier novelists, mid-century novelists like Elizabeth Gaskell, Wilkie Collins, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton depicted fictional characters who contemplate many, simultaneous forms of self at once. This focus on contingent forms of self, in turn, shaped the early twentieth-century modernist preoccupation with fragmentation and contingency, as I show in my readings of Virginia Woolf’s experimental
novel, Jacob’s Room. By referring to statistical concepts as discursive strategies with which we can read character development, I offer a descriptive model for understanding the dimensionality of character in the Victorian novel. By showing the novel’s response to and participation in the epistemological rise of numbers in the nineteenth century, I show one way of understanding the quantitative qualities of the literary.