Reflection by Kate Holterhoff

As a member of the Stanford Literary Lab’s research collective, Sarah Allison’s Reductive Reading engages with the center’s work on “Quantitative Formalism,” which uses computational analysis to reveal relationships across texts. Allison builds on this expertise to show that reducing nineteenth-century literary works to their stylistic component parts does not sacrifice the complexity of these works, but rather it reveals the compelling ethics that underlies them. I was particularly attracted to the methodology of Allison’s monograph, which she shows off to best effect in her chapter on George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Here she identifies the syntactic unit of the commentative clause as opening up not only the unique process of seeing that Eliot models, but also “an ethics of syntax operating at the level of the clause” (62). Interestingly, instead of studying the entirety of Eliot’s novel, Alison examines only every third sentence—a device suggested by a colleague in the linguistics department—in order to generate a reductive, but quantitatively valuable analysis of this stylistic unit. What interests Allison in Eliot’s idiosyncratic and repeated use of sentences that wed present-tense moralistic generalizations to a narrative past-tense statement is this device’s illumination of the author’s sometimes obscure moral purpose. Therefore her methodology offers not only a measure of the commentative clause’s ubiquity (it appears “about 130 times” [61]), it also opens up a window into how Middlemarch succeeds in suggesting ethical work without falling into heavy-handed didacticism. Allison’s approach to literary scholarship permits her to show quantitatively that style is not a passive or unimportant means of communicating Eliot’s narrative intent.

Reductive Reading is sure to appeal to scholars interested in theory after “distant reading.” Indeed, Lauren Klein and Andrew Goldstone have made it clear that the work of formulating new and reductive forms of literary scholarship is only beginning. I admit that at first Allison’s study seemed to me to be more focused on literary theory than digital humanities specifically. Unlike other experiments in Quantitative Formalism coming out of the Literary Lab, which depend much more concertedly on computation (consider Franco Moretti and Michael Witmore’s use of the Docuscope “smart dictionary” to cluster the genres of 250 British novels taken from the Chadwick-Healey collection [1]), in her introduction Allison admits that computer analysis did not effectively demonstrate the importance of syntactic structures in the prose and poetry of Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Charles Dickens. However, upon greater reflection I have come to believe that the methods and aims of this study bulwark the spirit of this endeavor in a fundamental manner. In fact, because Allison’s arguments are so well supported by secondary sources, I cannot doubt the importance of this research to the field of digital humanities and literary scholarship. By suggesting an exciting new and quantitative approach to Victorian literary studies, Reductive Reading succeeds in pushing these intertwined fields in new and compelling directions.  

[1] Sarah Allison et al., “Quantitative Formalism: An Experiment” (Stanford Literary Lab, January 15, 2011), 2,

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