The use of the term “sympathy” in the nineteenth-century novel is in need of distant reading. In the field of English, many Victorian literature scholars take a look at a small corpus of authors to examine how sympathy operated in the nineteenth century: George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and Elizabeth Gaskell are commonly the subjects of this research. What’s more, this look at sympathy is often connected to the genre of the realist novel. As a result, most of our understanding of how literary sympathy works comes from a small subset of canonical Victorian literature, a subset that becomes even smaller when we consider the broader corpus of the nineteenth-century novel as a whole, as scholars such as Franco Moretti have pointed out. The stakes get higher here when we consider that sympathy is such a commonplace topic of Victorian studies that it can, at times, become cliche. For something so ubiquitous in Victorian studies, it’s about time that we start to move away from the “sympathy canon”. What would sympathy look like if we used the methodology of distant reading to look at the nineteenth-century novel? Do we include certain novels in the canon because they employ a more “sophisticated” definition of sympathy? Would the accepted claims about what sympathy is and does change if we looked at its use across the broader range of non-canonical Victorian literature? Are definitions of sympathy dependent on genre? Would sympathy look different if we weren’t looking at the realist novel?
For HASTAC 2015, I’d like to present a poster of the initial results of a project that uses textual analysis and topic modeling to examine this broader corpus. I will examine the use of the terms “sympathy”, “sympathies”, and “sympathetic” in context and along with their collocates to see if there is a connection between the way these terms are used and the genre in which they are used. Will my results show anything different from the way that Victorian scholars already understand sympathy? This project will also be a way for me to test the argument of my dissertation, which is about philanthropic discourse and culture and its intersections with the novel. I look at how philanthropists defined sympathy differently from novelists, specifically how a small group of subversive novels challenged the idea that sympathy allows us to understand the Other better and thus act upon that knowledge. I’d like to compare my argument to a broader nineteenth-century novel corpus in order to see if these novels were, indeed, anomalies. Thus far, close reading has been the dominant methodology used to understand sympathy in the nineteenth century; I would like to be one of the first to examine it using distant reading methodologies.