Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Concordances and Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott has been my favourite author since I first read Little Women when I was in third or fourth grade. She was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1832 and published her first novel in 1854. An Old Fashioned Girl was published in 1869, and it tells the story of a young country-girl who visits a wealthy friend in the city first when she is 14 then again 6 years later. Polly (the country girl) helps guide her friend’s family to the conclusion that their family life is all they need when they face bankruptcy. Throughout all this Polly is becomes very close to her friend’s elder brother Tom introducing a romantic aspect to the novel. 
I drew a fair amount of the above from the wikipedia entry and to be honest I caught myself thinking “really? the book is about family values?” I haven’t read it in at least 5 years, very possibly longer. My impression was that the novel was, at its heart, a romance. I had already decided to use the book for the Digital History class’ simple text mining assignment; the inconsistencies between my personal impression (recollection) of the book and the wikipedia description helped me decide what question to ask of the text. I decided to attempt to figure out using concordances if the book is a treatise on family values with a minor romantic sub-plot or a romantic novel as I was, before reading the wikipedia summary and thinking about it a bit further, inclined to believe.
I began by selecting a plain text edition of the novel available on Project Gutenberg and plugging it into the TAPoR Find Words -Concordance tool on the linked page. I decided to start by asking how love appears in the text. The word love appears in the text 88 times and is interspersed with reasonable regularity throughout. However, my initial TAPoR results just didn’t tell me much about the context the word appears in. I decided to expand my concordance to give me the sentences on either side of the word instead of just 5 words. First and foremost I need to mention that apparently Louisa May Alcott did not subscribe to the view that writing should be clear and concise- there is absolutely nothing concise about some of the sentences that the tool selected. More importantly though having the concordance tool give me the sentences gave me a much better picture of the context in which the word love appeared. It quickly became apparent that the majority of the mentions of love in the novel were not romantic in nature. They either referred to the love of, for example, an activity or person more generally, or they referred to familial love. More importantly, mentions of love that directly related to Polly were very rarely of a romantic nature. Making the assumption that love and romance in the 19th century especially among higher class city dwellers revolved around courtship with the eventual end goal of marriage I decided to see what the concordance tool had to say about the words marriage, matrimony, and union. There was only one mention of the word marriage in the entire novel, matrimony does not appear at all, and union appears once in an unromantic context towards the middle of the novel. Finally I asked the concordance tool to tell me about the words courtship, courting, and flirtation. Courtship does not appear in the novel at all, nor does courting. Flirtation, I suppose, is a word that has very few other meanings. It appears in the novel on four distinctly romantic occasions.
In my opinion, the results of my concordances tell me rather unequivocally that my childhood impression of An Old Fashioned Girl as a romantic novel was, at least, thematically wrong. This was at the very least an interesting way to use concordances to examine text.
Perhaps the most challenging thing about generating these concordances was choosing a question to try to answer, followed immediately by choosing words or phrases to plug into the concordance tool. I carefully employed my trusty thesaurus and used the tools linked on the TAPoR pages but I’m sure there was probably a better way to answer my question using the tool. We’ll stick it in the category “learning experience.”


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