Sam Alexander is Associate Professor of English at Endicott College, where he is helping to implement a “Digital Liberal Arts” grant from the Davis Educational Foundation. His current book project explores the dialogue between modernist fiction and quantitative social science.
Does the size of a novel determine the scale of the social world it represents? In the terms that increasingly frame our own social world, do long novels contain larger or more complex social networks than short ones? Caroline Levine suggests as much in her reading of network form in Victorian novels like Dickens’s Bleak House. Levine argues that the “sheer length” of such works allows them to reach insights that are “precluded by shorter narrative forms” about networks as “sprawling, overlapping, and indefinitely expanding processes of interconnectedness.” This argument rightly rejects critics’ tendency to equate length with formlessness, but it also reflects the widespread assumption that nineteenth-century fiction is the place to look for compelling representations of networks. Within modernist studies, the word network appears not primarily in analyses of narrative form but in discussions of the real-life networks —“of periodicals, of migration routes, of coteries and collectives”—that circulated and sustained the innovations of the avant-garde. Network analysis also offers a powerful mode of intrinsic criticism, however, and it can help answer questions like the one with which I began by providing empirical measures of a novel’s social scale and density.