My last post did some basic analysis of a selection of Thomas Carlyle’s writings using Voyant. Now I want to use Voyant to compare Carlyle’s writings to those of his contemporary Charles Dickens. Dickens was primarily a novelist, and I am going to use here four novels and one novella for analysis. Specifically:
Oliver Twist (1838)
The Chimes (1844)
Bleak House (1853)
Hard Times (1854)
A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
Dickens is, then, generically different from Carlyle. Carlyle was not a novelist or fiction writer. Indeed, from our point of view, it is difficult to place him generically at all. However, to his contemporaries he was a Sage. I have earlier noted that the Sage exhibited features of both the novelist and of the philosopher. Like the philosopher, he was concerned with life in the widest sense, but unlike the philosopher, the Sage did not employ logical argument to prove his validity as an interpreter of life. Rather, he used a myriad of techniques, including several from the novelist’s toolbox: narrative, characterization, dialogism, irony, sarcasm, parable, exhortation, sermonizing, and, in Carlyle’s case, sheer abuse. The abusive mode is one that is now rarely used, but it is not without power. Take this example from Carlyle:
Get out of that, you ugly and foolish windbags: do you think the Eternal God of Nature will suffer you to stand in the way of His work? If you cannot open your eyes and see that this is a thing that must be done, you had better betake yourselves elsewhere – to the lowest Gehenna were fittest – there is no place for you in a world which is ruled, in the long run, by fact and not by chimera. (Latter-day Pamphlets)
Carlyle is here contemptuous of his readers, the “foolish and ugly windbags” referred to. He does not try to convince through logic, but by the strength of his contempt for any opposing position. He almost orders the reader to convince themselves: If you cannot open your eyes… His position holds little logical authority, but its intensity is often effective. Ruskin, Carlyle’s disciple, also used this mode, as I have discussed elsewhere.
Dickens is an interesting comparison with Carlyle, both because he is the pre-eminent novelist of the time (in the Anglophone world, at least), and because his debt of influence to Carlyle is well established. He inscribed Hard Times (1854) “To Thomas Carlyle” and claimed to have read Carlyle’s French Revolution five hundred times. They had certain of the same social and perhaps even artistic aims, yet they were received very differently by the public and the press. Perhaps by comparing Carlyle with the great novelist, we can get a better idea of what the Sage was doing, and how he was doing it.
Most frequent words:
In the selective corpus inputted to Voyant, the most frequently used word is Mr, and it is followed by said, little, sir and know in that order. Remember Carlyle’s most used words were man, men, world, like, and shall. A major overlap appears to be the overwhelming male bias in their lexica. Both authors are far more interested in a specifically male experience of the world, with the female equivalents being far less commonly used. This bias is more pronounced in Carlyle, though, as woman, Miss and Mrs do also feature fairly high in Dickens’ list. The most surprising word on Dickens’ list is little, which appears 1959 times (for comparison, large is at 237; and big at 22).There is probably no other writer in whose corpus this adjective would be so prominent – and the books analyzed don’t even include Little Dorrit or The Old Curiosity Shop (protagonist: Little Nell), so the results could have been even more striking. The concept of littleness, then, is clearly central to Dickens’ work. Other than that, Carlyle’s choices are more distinctive and revealing than Dickens’. I will not repeat what I have already written about Carlyle, but regarding Dickens it is really striking how commonplace and unliterary are all of his most frequent words. Forty of the top 50 words are monosyllables, and the only entries of more than two syllables are the trisyllabic gentleman and Oliver (as in Twist, the only character name in the top 50).
Carlyle’s most dense text was Sartor Resartus at 0.137, with French Revolution the least dense at 0.073. With Dickens the range was from The Chimes at 0.138 to Bleak House at 0.065. Even from my few initial Voyant analyses, I can see that this measure is rather misleading if taken in isolation, as a shorter text will almost always have a higher density than a long text. So the two authors’ longest works are also the ones with the most repeated words and the lowest density. At the other end, the comparison is more revealing, as Chimes and Sartor have almost equal density, though the latter is much longer: 85251 words as opposed to 34124. So Carlyle actually demonstrates a much higher vocabulary density than Dickens, and a much larger vocabulary. In total Carlyle uses 32294 unique words, Dickens 22432. This is a strikingly large gap. Carlyle has a significantly larger vocabulary than Dickens.
Words per sentence:
I noted in the last post that Carlyle’s average wps ranged from 22.6 to 31.5 across the selective corpus. Dickens’ wps ranges from 15.7 in The Chimes to 18.6 in A Tale of Two Cities and Oliver Twist. In fact, apart from Chimes having a noticeably lower wps, there is little variation across Dickens’ texts. But they all have much lower wps than Carlyle. Carlyle was particularly fond of long sentences and complex structures. At the same time, there may be a generic reason for the big difference here: Dickens’ fiction has a lot of dialogue, and this will generally be comprised of much shorter sentences, including one-word sentences (replies like “yes”, “no”, etc.).
To ascertain the role played by such factors as genre on wps would of course require analysis of a much wider range and larger number of texts. This initial analysis does raise several interesting points about the differences between Carlyle and Dickens. The biggest surprise for me is the degree to which the statistics seems to suggest a greater sophistication in Carlyle’s works. I may perform further comparisons using other Victorian writers – novelists, Sages and other – to get a more nuanced understanding of this.
Dickens Voyant analysis: https://voyant-tools.org/?corpus=dcc74d10fbfc6d00c4dc79b07670a90c
Carlyle Voyant analysis: https://voyant-tools.org/?corpus=38b0c430d5a5179d802fac046003b23d
Voyant analysis of my PhD thesis https://voyant-tools.org/?corpus=f259039874058130cc7d18fbf033b91d