The Merits of Applying Digital Analysis Tools to Literary Studies

As a graduating senior, I have often been asked a variation of the following question: “Why study English?” and my response has always been, and will probably remain: Well, why not study English? One of the most valuable lessons that my time within the English major at Geneseo has taught me is that when it comes to literary studies, the possibilities are boundless. That being said, I’ve also learned that when it comes the digital humanities, those possibilities become tangible. 

As I reflect on the various digital skills I’ve learned in our digital humanities class, Voyant Tools remains the most influential in my studies outside of class, particularly on my independent study on the influences of Lord Byron on the Brontë sisters. While I admit I was a bit wary of using this digital-analysis tool, most of my qualms were related to the unfamiliarity of it all. My experience with Voyant Tools was largely based on frustrating trials and errors. To be quite honest, trying to figure out Voyant felt like trying to decipher Middle English — it was tedious, time consuming, and required many workshops and tutorials. One of the hiccups that I encountered occurred when I tried to upload Jane Eyre in its entirety in addition to Lord Byron’s Corsair. I was considerably overwhelmed by the numbers, that is of course until I took a step back and tried to assess what specific aspects of the literature I really wanted to focus on. 

So, after learning how to split plain text files of Brontë’s works into separate chapters, I endeavoured to also split The Corsair into its three cantos. Finally, I returned to Voyant Tools and uploaded Cantos I in addition to chapters 11 through 27 of Jane Eyre because I wanted to decipher how Byron and Brontë were utilising language in the developments of their heroes. I chose Canto I because it is our first interaction with Conrad and the descriptive language is at its prime; the same can be said for Rochester in Chapters 11 through 27 of Jane Eyre. When I searched the syntax, I typed in the term “cordial” but as I typed the letters “cor,” Voyant suggested “corsair” and noted that it occurred in two instances throughout the texts. Normally, I would have assumed that it was simply reflecting Byron’s work, but I had just finished re-reading the first Cantos while I was stripping the text-file for all numbers, roman numerals, and unnecessary publication information and I did not recall seeing the word appear in the text. So, I searched “corsair” instead to see what the context of the word might be and I was surprised to find that it did not appear in the first Cantos at all, but rather in Chapter 17 of Jane Eyre. This tool launched the exact context of the term in the reader view and I was able to follow on as Miss Ingram argues that a man is “nothing without a spice of the devil in him… he was just the sort of wild, fierce, bandit hero whom I could have consented to gift with my hand” and Rochester sings a “Corsair-song” because Miss Ingram “doats on Corsairs”  (JE, XVII). In all of the scholarly articles that I referenced for connections between Byron and Brontë, most of the critics pointed out the various physical and emotional similarities between Rochester and Conrad, but in my reading of their work, it never caught my attention that Brontë alludes directly to Byron’s Corsair. While I am certain other critics took notice of this allusion before me, this particular moment in my research was eye-opening, it even felt like an epiphany, and my interpretations took a turn in a different direction. 

It is without a doubt that the connection I have to Jane Eyre is largely sentimental and as a result, I have read it every winter for the past eight years and eagerly took advantage of the opportunity to study the text twice the academic level in the Spring 2017 and Fall 2018 semester. Yet, in all those times I engaged with this novel, I never once noticed Brontë’s reference to Byron, but it took this digital analysis tool less than five seconds to uncover it! I was amazed, even as I write about it and reflect on it, I am still in awe about it. This particular instance taught me that when we, as students of English, leap out of our comfort zones and and utilise digital analysis tools; we are bound to find ourselves presented with unforeseen possibilities and challenges in our interactions with literature. Indeed this is what makes studying literature so extraordinarily rewarding and I am glad I recognised the merits of digital humanities before bidding farewell to my beloved discipline.  

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