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Literary Modernism and the Psychometric Subject

Literary modernism developed alongside the emergence of a new set of diagnostic categories designed to describe degrees of supposedly subnormal intelligence.[1] Guided by the emergent discipline of psychometry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, terms that had signaled developmental delay and physical frailty in the early nineteenth century, such as idiocy and imbecility, began to signal degrees of deviation from cognitive norms. Other terms, such as mental deficiency, moronism, and feeble-mindedness, filled out a newly invented vocabulary for intellectual lack. Psychometry, the study of mental measurement, drew from the eugenic principles that human traits can be quantified and ranked, that the future belongs to people with the most desirable traits, and that the state should manipulate populations towards improvement. The primary axis through which psychometry made its claims was intelligence, a loosely defined cognitive quality that often served as a proxy for more explicitly eugenic categories like race, class, and ability. The concept of intelligence also allowed for the formation of an imagined subject whose cognitive features harmonized with modern sensibilities concerning progress, standardization, and productivity.

Yet even as intelligence accrued new scientistic and cultural meanings in the modernist period, the psychometrists who studied intelligence often acknowledged the ambiguity of their object of analysis. I detail this history below, tracing how literary modernism gave life to these changes in scientific and cultural understandings of intelligence. I claim that given psychometry’s discursive instability in the first part of the twentieth century, modernist narratives that activate psychometric vocabulary and circulate psychometric visions of the mind are doing more than incorporating a popular contemporaneous discourse. I argue that such narratives also saturate ambiguous and, therefore, scientifically tenuous claims with thick description and specific meanings. When they animate psychometric diagnoses in characters and circulate images of the kinds of people that psychometric tools claimed to detect, modernist narratives bolster the legitimacy of psychometric inquiry as a framework for categorizing types through cognitive indicators.[2] In what follows, I trace references to psychometric concepts and principles in works by Mary Butts, Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, and James Joyce. Although typically associated with minor characters, psychometric terminology and principles pervade literary modernism, illustrating the consistency of literary engagements with the contemporaneous study of mental measurement. Together, these works show that even as literary modernism offers new ways to document cognitive experiences rarely addressed in earlier literary periods, it also bolsters the pseudoscientific psychometric claim that intelligence is a valid rubric for comparing and ranking subjects.

Psychometric Subjects

Intelligence and intellectual pathology were rarely objects of study in the nineteenth century. Instead, like in this 1882 passage by English physician William W. Ireland, medical discourse portrayed idiocy as simply a condition of weak physical responses and delayed development: “the idiot child is on the average about two years behind an ordinary child in bodily growth; and puberty comes on several years later; sometimes it does not appear at all. In some cases, especially belonging to the lower grades of idiocy, the temperature is below the normal; the pulse is so weak that it is difficult to count, and the respirations are irregular.”[3] Yet in the twentieth century, as the discipline of psychology gained institutional recognition and explanatory power, descriptions of idiocy such as Ireland’s became less common. In their place, psychometrists focused academic and public attention on intelligence, and terms such as idiocy became markers for deviation from cognitive norms. For instance, French psychologist Alfred Binet and his student Theodore Simon designed the first intelligence quotient (IQ) test in 1905 with the goal of identifying students who were falling behind in schools. By asking respondents to perform tasks such as playing memory games, naming rhyming words, and defining abstract terms, Binet and Simon aimed to locate an overlooked group: the “mentally defective.”[4] Binet and Simon’s test was quickly revised and adapted on both sides of the Atlantic. American psychologist William H. Goddard developed a new test inspired by the Binet-Simon scale that he claimed could locate “morons,” a group that he argued was insidious precisely because they blended in with the general population without detection by psychometric measurements.[5] New attention to the invisible territory of the mind in the twentieth century thus revised older diagnostic vocabulary and invented new categories of quantifiable intellectual pathology.

Psychometry’s focus on intellectual pathologies relied on the assumption that the mind is intended to function in a particular way; intelligence was the name most often used to describe this normative functioning. Depending on the psychometrist making the measurement, intelligence meant drawing designs from memory, recalling idioms on demand, or using multiple words in the same sentence. The variability of these indicators of intelligence shows that psychometrists rarely agreed about what intelligence meant even as their premises and tools gained legitimacy. At the heart of psychometric methods was the belief that intelligence was a discrete unit of analysis that could be observed, compared, and ranked according to utility and value. But even more than other qualities of eugenic interest, such as height, reaction time, or cranium volume, intelligence did not have an indexical relationship to the body. Instead, observing and analyzing intelligence required the manipulation of symbols.

Symbolic manipulations in psychometry played out primarily in the register of statistics. British psychologist Charles Spearman posited in 1904 that “general intelligence” could be revealed by examining the correlations among cognitive tasks, such as memory and language games. Factor analysis, the statistical method that he developed to study these correlations, aims to locate latent variables—variables that stand in for otherwise unobservable concepts and attributes. Likewise, Binet and Simon’s intelligence test assigned scores to subjects by tallying individuals’ answers and comparing these numbers to other respondents in the same class in order to locate an average, a process that involved inferring conceptual relationships and excluding variables.[6] Psychometric statistics thereby converted cognitive behaviors into symbols that required extensive interpretation in order to be meaningful.

Psychometry’s reliance on symbolic interpretation reveals the extent to which the replicability—and, thus, the scientific validity—of psychometric methods was compromised by the complexity of discourse. In 1916, Binet worried,

How will it be possible to keep a record of the intelligence of pupils who are treated and instructed in a school, if the terms applied to them, feeble-minded, retarded, imbecile, idiot, vary in meaning according to the doctor who examines them? The absence of a common measure prevents comparison of statistics, and makes one lose all interest in investigations which may have been very laborious.”[7]

Binet’s comments articulate the fear that psychometric statistics are empty forms: conceptual structures that organize observations without providing meaning or advancing knowledge. By 1927, Spearman observed that psychometrists, and, consequently, the testing tools that they developed, were rarely in accord. Spearman writes:

Chaos itself can go no farther! The disagreement between different [intelligence] testers—indeed, even between the doctrine and the practice of the selfsame tester—has reached its apogee. If they still tolerate each other’s proceedings, this is only rendered possible by the ostrich-like policy of not looking facts in the face. In truth, “intelligence” has become a mere vocal sound, a word with so many meanings that it finally has none.[8]

Psychometric methods continued to gain explanatory power in political rhetoric and public institutions throughout the interwar years; yet, Binet’s and Spearmans’s hesitations about the scope of psychometric claims show that psychometrists wondered concurrently what, exactly, their tools were measuring. Statistical interpretations, Binet and Spearman recognized, mean little if drawn from discursive ambiguities.

Modernism’s Psychometric Refractions

Literary modernism lent specificity and repetitions of meaning to these discursive ambiguities that, I argue, distilled psychometric claims, thereby making such claims portable and available for use in other cultural formations. What intrigues me about psychometric discourse in the texts I examine below is the accumulated force that their often brief references accrue when read alongside one another. The similarities among these authors’ approaches to psychometric ideas and terms suggest consistency across disparate literary forms and moments in literary history. That consistency bolsters the credibility of psychometry’s diagnostic vocabulary even as practitioners of psychometry questioned the field’s scientific validity. Furthermore, these references confirm the entanglement of psychometric concepts and eugenic rubrics for measuring and ranking human qualities.

Literary modernism engages with psychometric principles in part through the articulation of intelligence and intellectual pathology as inborn traits that, because they are fixed characteristics, invite comparative frameworks for understanding more dynamic human types. Unlike madness, which in the modernist period was associated with instability, fragmentation, trauma, and irrational substitutions, intellectual pathologies such as idiocy were associated with a cognitive lack impervious to correction.[9] Binet explained the distinction between these two forms of mental difference in terms of the possibility for transformation. With suggestive socioeconomic implications, Binet asserts, “He [the madman] is a rich man become poor; the idiot has always been in misery and want” (The Development of Intelligence, 17). Madness, in other words, was understood to be an ontologically complex process of becoming; idiocy was static and unchanging, signaling little more than the absence of complex mentality.

Butts’s Armed with Madness (1928) activates this distinction between madness and intellectual pathology in its contrasts between central characters, putting into play the eugenic categories of race, class, and sexuality. The novel overlays the grail myth with a story about a group of young friends living in rural England. A queer man, Picus, appears to other characters to be a “moron” and “stupid,” while his spurned lover Clarence goes mad.[10] The divergent psychometric vocabulary used to describe the two men accentuates other aspects of their opposed identities in terms of contrasting cognitive styles. Picus is white, disinterested, and rejects a same-gender relationship; Clarence is black, consumed by “frightful emotion,” and rejects heteronormativity (Butts, Armed, 63). The novel’s dramatization of Clarence’s madness relies in part on a contrast with the stasis associated with Picus’s intellectual pathology.

Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) also draws on this dialectic between madness and idiocy to crystallize issues of race and gender. Antoinette Cosway learns on her honeymoon that her new husband has discussed her family history with a creole man who claims to be her half-brother. Confronting him, Antoinette says, “I know what he told you. That my mother was mad and an infamous woman and that my little brother who died was born a cretin, an idiot, and that I am a mad girl too.”[11] Rhys’s description of the rumors surrounding the Cosway family relies on the distinction between madness and idiocy, one that the narrative as a whole reinforces. Rhys explores the sources and experiences of Antoinette’s (and her mother’s) madness, which reflects the intersection of gendered violence, diasporic trauma, and the violent legacy of slavery. In contrast, the comment from Antoinette’s neighbors that her brother Pierre is “an idiot kept out of sight and mind” is as much gossip about the Cosway family as it is a meta-textual comment (Rhys, Wide, 29). Mentioned only briefly in the novel, Pierre attracts little narrative attention, and his idiocy calls for no backstory. Rhys presents madness as a symptom and a symbol, terms that share the prefix sym-, which indicates an implied relationship between a present element and an absent one (symptoms and symbols of something else). Intellectual pathology, by contrast, is presented as self-evident: indicative of an innate feature of type rather than attributable to cultural contexts.

Woolf also frames idiocy as innate, immutable, and an unworthy subject of narrative exploration by associating idiocy with old age. In an infamous 1915 diary entry, Woolf claims that “a long line of imbeciles” she encountered while walking on a tow path “should certainly be killed.”[12] Assessing this entry, Janet Lyon claims that, for Woolf, the “public appearance of mentally deficient persons . . . could and did constitute the conditions for a certain kind of shock” that the author closes down “with a sovereign-sounding speech-act of condemnation.”[13] Although Woolf’s personal writings on idiocy should not be viewed through the same interpretive lens as her published fiction, her diaries prefigure how she frames idiocy elsewhere in her oeuvre. In another essay, I have discussed idiocy as a form of mental privacy that recedes from narrative exploration in Between the Acts (1941).[14] In her last novel, Woolf presents a “village idiot” as a peculiarly inaccessible form of subjectivity. As the community gathers together to perform and experience a pageant play, the village idiot speaks gibberish and disrupts the performance, disordering the process of collective knowledge production in which the community engages. This association between idiocy and narrative breakdown persists throughout Woolf’s writing. In a 1940 diary entry, she comments about an acquaintance’s aging, “How hideous to be reduced to that kind of feeblemindedness—at 84. Something pitiable, unvenerable; not imbecile, but near it. . . . I think it was pity more than anything that I felt; & all her clothes were undone; shaggy; untidy—like King Lear only without any tragedy or poetry.”[15] Woolf thus uses psychometric classifications—“feebleminded” and “imbecile”—to designate a subject who exists only as character, mere type, without the flourishes of narrative and lyric. For Woolf, subjects deemed to be mentally deficient mark the boundary of literary inquiry and figurative language.

Lawrence extends Woolf’s argument about idiocy as a category with linguistic and literary implications by directly opposing idiocy to modernist stylistics. Mental deficiency, from Lawrence’s perspective, is associated with breakdowns of literary experimentation and novelty. “The great social idiot, it must be confessed,” he writes in “A Tale Told By an Idiot” (Pansies, 1929), “tells dull, meaningless, disgusting tales, / and repeats himself like the flushing of a WC.”[16] Lawrence’s lines link idiocy with insufficient storytelling: the “idiot” crafts forms of narrative that are not only repetitive and offensive, but also devoid of significance. Furthermore, Lawrence’s simile, which compares idiots’ speech to the removal of human waste, suggests that idiots themselves are superfluous beings that should be flushed away. Like William Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury (1929), Woolf and Lawrence invoke Shakespeare to contrast the elegance and durability of the Bard’s language with a simple and repetitive discursive style that they associate with intellectual disability. Unlike Faulkner, Woolf and Lawrence dismiss intellectual disability as a focus or origin of meaningful storytelling.

Lawrence disparages the idiot figure in part because he repeats his stories. Rather than developing new tales, he is caught in a loop of narrative time. Conrad’s first published short story, “The Idiots” (1898) similarly depicts imbecilic figures as incongruous with the steady progression of linear time. The story concerns a family whose children are all born intellectually disabled. Watching the children from the window of his carriage, the narrator learns that the accumulation of their births brings tragedy to their family. “Such creatures are forgotten by time,” Conrad writes, “and live untouched by years till death gathers them up into its compassionate bosom; the faithful death that never forgets in the press of work the most insignificant of its children.”[17] Unaffected by the changes that time creates, the children remain where they began, “untouched by years,” until the moments of their deaths. Binet and Simon’s intelligence test presupposed a group of French students en retard, or behind time, establishing the key psychometric premise that normative intelligence is the condition of keeping pace with time. The imbecilic children in Conrad’s story reflect degenerationist fears that biological change would lead to social decline and also that nascent psychometric proposition that mental capacity indicates a subject’s relationship to temporality. Like the idiot figure in the “Circe” episode of Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), who “jerks past, shaken in Saint Vitus’ dance,” the imbecilic children are out of step with time.[18]

Constellating literary modernism’s flickering references to psychometry invites us to see how a substantial strand of literary modernism supports the articulation of the psychometric subject. This strand calls into question two aspects of conventional accounts of literary modernism. First, while literary modernism is often associated with explorations of non-normative subjectivities, including mental differences such as trauma and mental illness, modernist authors rarely imagine the subjectivities of characters that they associate with the diagnostic labels of intellectual pathology. Even in the hands of literary modernists whose works aim to present pluralistic communities, such as Joyce and Woolf, the minds of intellectually disabled characters are typically unexamined. Literary modernism often directed narrative attention to underrepresented cognitive experiences, yet it also contributed to a new diagnostic atmosphere that framed minds as fixed—and therefore indicative of type—rather than as dynamic and contextual. Understood in these terms, literary modernism, often celebrated for its empathic explorations of non-normative minds, must also be understood for its rehearsals of the constructions of intellectual pathology offered by psychometry. Second, and more broadly, a substantial strand of literary modernism approaches non-normative minds as sets of measurable variables that can be known and compared through arrangements and interpretations of symbols. Psychometry’s most durable promise is that it can reveal—and reduce—the mind to a number derived from mental measurements, such as an IQ test. Literary modernism participates in similar reductions when it uses mental types as the basis for character. Despite its claims and gestures to novelty and experimentation, many of literary modernism’s approaches to intelligence and intellectual pathology mirror psychometry in their reliance on reifications of the mind.


[1] For a discussion of how French statistician Adolphe Quetelet’s concept of l’homme moyen was misappropriated by Francis Galton and other eugenicists to propose that populations can divided into normal and non-normal groups, see Lennard J. Davis, Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body (New York: Verso, 1995), 24–35.

[2] As Ian Hacking observes, classifications are interactive: recognized through particular diagnostic frameworks, people are subjected to practices and institutions that in turn affect the legibility of their diagnoses (Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What? [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999], 103).

[3] William W. Ireland, “On the Diagnosis and Prognosis of Idiocy and Imbecility,” Edinburgh Medical Journal 27, no. 12 (1882): 1072–1085, 1077–78.

[4] See, for example, Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon’s Mentally Defective Children, trans. William Blackley Drummond (London: Edward Arnold, 1914).

[5] James Trent discusses the transference of Binet and Simon’s test across the Atlantic via Goddard, who became acquainted with Binet’s work while traveling in Europe. Goddard later administered similar intelligence tests at the infamous Vineland institution in New Jersey and at Ellis Island; tests based on Goddard’s work were administered to enlisted servicemen during World War I. See James W. Trent Jr., Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Intellectual Disability in the United States (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 157–66.

[6] Not all psychologists accepted Binet and Simon’s testing methods. American psychologist Leonard Ayres, for example, argued in 1911 that intelligence tests instead measured language proficiency. See F. Kuhlmann, “A Reply to Dr. L. P. Ayres’ Criticism of the Binet and Simon System for Measuring the Intelligence of Children,” Journal of Psycho-Asthenics 16 (1911): 58–67, especially 58–59.

[7] Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon, The Development of Intelligence in Children (the Binet-Simon Scale), trans. Elizabeh S. Kite (Baltimore, MD: Williams and Wilkins, 1916), 11.

[8] Charles Spearman, The Abilities of Man: Their Nature and Measurement (London: Macmillan and Co., 1927), 14.

[9] In the United Kingdom, madness (“lunacy”) and idiocy were legally distinguished in the 1886 Idiots Act.

[10] Mary Butts, The Taverner Novels (New York: McPherson and Company, 1992), 20, 23.

[11] Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (New York: Norton, 1992), 128.

[12] Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 1: 1915-1919, ed. Anne Olivier Bell (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1977), 13.

[13] Janet Lyon, “On the Asylum Road with Woolf and Mew,” Modernism/modernity 18, no. 3 (2011): 551–574, 554, 560.

[14] See Rebecah Pulsifer, “‘Contemplating the idiot’ in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts,” Journal of Modern Literature 42, no. 2 (2019): 94–112.

[15] Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. V: 1936-1941 (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1984), 249.

[16] D. H. Lawrence, The Complete Poems, ed. Vivian de Sola Pinto and Warren Roberts (New York: Penguin, 1993), 522.

[17] Joseph Conrad, The Complete Short Fiction of Joseph Conrad: The Stories, ed. Samuel Hynes (New York: Ecco Press, 1991), 2.

[18] James Joyce, Ulysses (New York: Random House, 1986), 350, italics in original.