With the help of Zach Whalen’s extraordinarily clear instructions, I set up my first twitter bot, @austensays, which tweets out a single sentence (provided it’s 140 or fewer characters) from Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park. I was teaching the novel last term, and while this started out as a form of procrastination, it actually turned out to offer some interesting insights about tone, style, and voice.
I procured a copy of Mansfield Park from Project Gutenberg, and then ran some regular expressions to separate it out into individual sentences–I looked for the ends of sentences, as indicated by periods, and then added a line break after each. This I could then copy directly into a google spreadsheet, which was much simpler than I’d anticipated, as each paragraph became its own row in the spreadsheet. The data preparation I did does not register exclamation points or question marks as line breaks–more robust regular expression searches would help me do this, and look for capital letters after such punctuation, but for the time being I chose to simplify this way. If you’re curious about the data, here is the spreadsheet.
What I was surprised by the way that genre of “the twitter post,” with all its restrictions, proved perfect to capture the sense of distance, even isolation, in much of the novel. It also offers an opportunity for readers to see, in a microcosmic way, how Austen’s irony works. For instance:
Many of these tweets, for instance, exemplify the use of passive voice, and the fraught simplicity of the verb “to be.” The broad sparseness of the sentence structure employed injects an element of loneliness in the language, which is embodied in Fanny’s experience. Other patterns we might notice include the use of the comma to balance, in a strangely imbalanced way, sentences like these:
It is as though you can hear the pause of a sigh in each comma. With more refined data, I wonder what else this kind of algorithmic reading can reveal? Ultimately, then, this was not quite as much about procrastination as I might have initially thought. 🙂