Chapter 2: Shape

Jonathan Reeve

Table of Contents

This dissertation chapter is a full-color, interactive document, originally formatted in HTML. It contains interactive plots, hyperlinks, and other dynamic elements. If you are reading this in another document format (PDF, DOCX, or paper), you are missing these dynamic elements. Please visit for the canonical edition of this text, and for its source code. Annotations are welcome in the sidebar to the right.


Modernity is increasingly filled with objects. There are 11.4% more objects—artifacts, natural objects, bodies, and more—in the fiction and poetry of 1880–1930 period than of that in the previous century. Although much of this may be owed to the industrial revolution and its mass production of goods, I hope to show that the modernist literary period begins to see objects differently, just as it did with color. Color is bounded and contained by shape, and the retinal cells responsible for color vision, cone cells, are complemented with rod cells which are responsible for the perception of shape. While cones, comprising 6-7 million cells per eye, are responsible for color perception, the much more numerous rod cells, at around 120 million cells, are responsible for night vision, peripheral vision, motion perception, and object recognition. This component of vision is the guiding metaphor for this chapter, which deals with objects, shapes, and bodies.

The modernist attention to detail, and expansion of description, which I show happening in the previous chapter, also takes place in its shapes, outlines, and objects. But like color, matter exists along a kind of spectrum. We may say with confidence that a sunset, at a certain stage, is red, yet it is much more difficult to pinpoint the exact moment it became red, since it passes through a multitude of similar colors along the way. Shape operates in the same way. Objects have shape. And shape is part of what makes an object. So to be an object, it should have shape, and be quantized and discretized: a handful of dust may be an object in the way that a beach full of sand may not. Can we find with the same confidence the moment that matter becomes an object? The point at which it takes on qualities of a discrete entity, such as size, shape, and utility? Like the color spectrum, the matter/object spectrum is semantically slippery.

These problems are compounded, too, once we start talking about the human body, one of the archetypes, as I will argue later, of shape and body. At what point, precisely, does a hand become a fist? Or at what point do thighs become a lap? At what point, during the process of standing up, does a lap disappear? And what are the spatial boundaries of these bodily objects? For instance, what, precisely, are the boundaries of the face, or the head? One’s teeth are in one’s head, yet when one has a toothache, it is not usually considered a headache. So as with color, shape and objecthood are, to a significant degree, linguistically determined.

So to continue to model the visual imagination of literary modernism, we now turn to shapes, objects, and forms. In literature, objects are coextensive with words, since, objects, although homomorphic with things, are by definition grammatical: they exist in relation to subjects and verbs. They are the stuff of nearly every sentence. So to count objects, one would count words. The experiments of this chapter are, first, to quantify the objects of turn-of-the-century literature. Using state-of-the art word sense disambiguation, and hypernym-based categorization, using the Princeton WordNet (a lexical database, described in the WordNet section below), I am able to calculate the proportions of objects in a literary text, and to analyze their diachronic trends. I show that objects in fiction and poetry increase by about 11.4%, but that this trend is much more complex than it may appear. Next, I quantify bodies, and their constituent parts, to better understand the visualities of the body in literature, where I find that bodies and body parts appear 64% more in 1920 than in 1800.

In the end, I discover several striking correlations: that texts we consider high modernist have the highest proportions of objects, by far; that as with color, these proportions correlated with genres such as juvenile literature, nature writing, and travel literature (supporting the theories around Bildung and isochronic distance I introduce in Chapter 1); that Austen and other early Victorian writers of social drama often show the lowest proportions of objects; that the most measurable writers of the body include Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, and the lesser-known Joan Conquest; and that the body parts mentioned in these works correlate with neurological sensory mappings.

Before we arrive at these results, however, it is necessary to trace the historical context. Thing theory and body theory, in contemporary literary scholarship, frequently operate at a remove from the anthropological and economic theories of the day, but to understand the rise of the object around the turn of the century, we must first understand the intellectual climate that enabled this phenomenon. By reading literary modernism through the latent object theory of James Frazer, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche, among others—latent, since these writers are rarely treated as object-theorists—we can reorient our understanding of modernism more toward the object-as-seen. Then, by examining the object, thus contextualized, the results of these quantitative experiments reveal the ocularity of the object to be of central importance to literary modernism.


Objects in Early Twentieth Century Theory

As with color, object theory has a long history, across a wide variety of disciplines: in aesthetics, metaphysics, phenomenology, anthropology, psychology, and other disciplines, where it is variously called thing theory, material culture studies, or materiality studies. Objects are, seen through an anthropological and psychological lens, chiefly artifacts which have accumulated socio-cultural significance: those things which are possessed, carry a telos, or which otherwise require names, so that they may be discussed. This is especially true of objects as they are represented in language, and even more true of objects as they appear in literature. Thus, a discussion of objects in literature should start with their treatment in these human sciences: to understand how objecthood, that is, how objects are perceived as such, we must understand their social function.

The turn of the century saw the publication and republication of the hugely influential work of early socio-cultural anthropology, The Golden Bough, subtitled A Study in Magic and Religion. First published in 1890, it was republished a number of times, until it had grown into a twelve-volume edition by 1915 (S. J. G. Frazer). Its influence on modernist literature is wide and well-documented, most notably in John Vickery’s 1973 The Literary Impact of The Golden Bough, which traces its echoes in Yeats, Eliot, Lawrence, and Joyce, among others (Vickery).

As a work of comparative religion—it was originally subtitled A Study in Comparative Religion—it provides taxonomies of “magic,” or religious practices of smaller-scale societies, which often highlight their material aspects. Objects in Frazer are usually termed “totems” or “fetishes,” now-archaic terms describing artifacts of religious or other social importance. Fetish, a polyvalent term which now carries a dismissive tone to ethnographers, arose out of early interactions between African peoples and Europeans. Etymologically derived from Portuguese fetiço, it means “magical practice,” “spell,” or “witchcraft,” but ultimately comes from Latin facticius, “manufactured” (Pietz 5).

In Frazer, “fetish” means more than just a religious object, however. It is sometimes used to mean an object: “the Feloupes of Senegambia cast down their fetishes and drag them about the fields, cursing them till rain falls”; sometimes as social status: “On the Grain Coast the high priest or fetish king, who bears the title of Bodio, is responsible for the health of the community”; for architectural features: “clearly this double-headed fetish at the gateway of the negro villages in Surinam bears a close resemblance to the double-headed images of Janus”; for genius loci: “on Mount Agu in Togo there lives a fetish or spirit called Bagba, who is of great importance for the whole of the surrounding country”; for systems of belief: “yet though his power is great … the rule of the fetish forbids him ever to leave the mountain”; for socially proscripted natural features “the sea is the fetish of the Eyeos, to the north-west of Dahomey, and they and their king are threatened with death by their priests if ever they dare to look on it”; interregal holding cell: “he on whom the choice falls is suddenly seized, bound, and thrown into the fetish-house, where he is kept in durance till he consents to accept the crown”; or many others (J. Frazer). In short, fetish in Frazer is a catch-all word for little-understood foreign objects, places, or practices which are imbued with cultural significance.

In Frazer, fetish always implies a social and geographic distance. French or German religious implements, or other important ritual artifacts, are never fetishes, but the term is reserved for societies at a cultural remove from Britain and Europe. As in the previous chapter, where I argue that the presence of a color word depends on a socio-cultural or geographic distance between the viewer and the described object, the presence of culturally significant foreign objects in fiction demand a defamiliarization with their telos. A door-frame, for instance, would not be named as such, in a novel, if it existed only as a waystation between inside and outside. But its cultural distance makes it into what Frazer would call “a double-headed fetish.”

The term fetish later came to be ascribed to sexual predilections. In early psychology, Alfred Binet coins the term, fétishisme érotique in 1887: sexual fetishism, in which “l’adoration de ces malades pour des objects inertes comme des bonnets de nuit or des clous de bottines ressemble de tous points à l’adoration du sauvage or du nègre pour des arêtes de poissons ou pour des cailloux brillants, sauf cette différence fondamentale que, dans le culte de nos malades, l’adoration religieuse est remplacée par un appétit sexuel” (Binet 144).“The adoration of our patients for inert objects, like nightcaps or boots, resembles in all ways the adorartion of the savage or the black for fish bones or shiny rocks, except for the fundamental difference that, in the cult of our patients, religious adoration is replaced with a sexual appetite.”

Sigmund Freud later expands this into a discussion of a wider range of paraphilias. Freud’s explanation, following his characteristically convoluted castration theory, is that “the fetish is a substitute for the penis … the woman’s (the mother’s) penis that the little boy once believed in and—for reasons familiar to us—does not want to give up. … Thus the foot or shoe owes its preference as a fetish—or a part of it—to the circumstance that the inquisitive boy peered at the woman’s genitals from below, from her legs up; fur and velvet—as has been long suspected—are a fixation of the sight of the pubic hair…” (Freud 79). Castration theory aside, we may say that, following Freud, objects as they appear in literature involve mechanisms of fixation that are visual, if not also sexual. This is especially true of body parts, as we shall see later, but is true of inanimate objects, as well.

A related concept, from anthropology and psychology of this period, is the totem. Frazer, in his 1910 Totemism and Exogamy: a Treatise on Certain Early Forms of Superstition and Society, defines this as “a class of material objects which a savage regards with superstitious respect, believing that there exists between him and every member of the class an intimate and altogether special relation” (J. G. Frazer 3). Frazer is careful not to confuse a totem with a fetish, however: “as distinguished from a fetich, a totem is never an isolated individual, but always a class of objects, generally a species of animals or of plants, more rarely a class of inanimate natural objects, very rarely a class of artificial objects” (J. G. Frazer 4). Freud’s definition, meanwhile, is somewhat more narrow. He defines a totem, in his 1913 Totem and Taboo, subtitled Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics, as, “as a rule an animal (whether edible and harmless or dangerous and feared) and more rarely a plant or a natural phenomenon (such as rain or water), which stands in a peculiar relation to the whole clan” (Freud and Strachey 5).

In both Freud and Frazer, it is socio-cultural distance that allows for an examination of the object as a culturally important object. In contrast, western, domestic objects, by nature of their telos, are rarely discussed as fetishes, or totems. Yet, in some sense, all objects are fetishes, and all objects are totems, by the definitions given above, since an object may not be completely independent of its social or familial importance, or its visual qualities. Thus, when modernist writers interpret Freud and Frazer, by reorienting their psychological and anthropological lenses inwards, they further defamiliarize an already-defamiliar modernity. Everyday objects become fetishes and totems, and their visual qualities are suddenly heightened.

This fetishization of the everyday object is aligned with Karl Marx’s concept, in economic theory, of commodity fetishism. There, Marx extends the fetish analogy to a quasi-religious mode of perception in which objects are perceived less with the eyes, and more with a symbolic order of social relations:

In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. (Marx and Engels 83).

This passage has been cited thousands of times, of course, but rarely with reference to Marx’s ocular metaphor. Marx’s understanding of commodities relies on the contrast between a visual mode and a telic. The opposition is one between, on the one hand, ocular and retinal seeing, and on the other, an anthropomorphization in which objects become, conceptually, “independent beings endowed with life.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Marx’s contemporary, takes this concept a step further, by explaining how objects are fetishized by our natural need for anthropomorphization. In his early early essay of 1873, “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” argues that objects, as we understand them, are products of “the metamorphosis of the world into man”:

If I give a definition of ‘mammal’ and then, after inspecting a camel, declare, ‘Behold, a mammal,’ a truth has indeed been brought to light, but one of limited value, by which I mean it is thoroughly anthropomorphic and contains not a single point that would be ‘true in itself,’ real and universally valid, apart from man. The seeker of such truths seeks at bottom only the metamorphosis of the world into man; he strives for an understanding of the world as a human thing and gains, in the best case, the feeling of an assimilation. (Nietzsche 34–35)

Since so much of what constitutes the objecthood of a thing is its utility to human beings—its size and shape, whether it can fit in the human hand, whether it can be moved by human beings—it necessarily follows that objecthood is, as Nietzsche argues, an illusion caused by our need for an anthropocentic taxonomy of things.

Meanwhile, Nietzsche’s contemporary, Edmund Husserl, outlines a phenomenology of objects in which their anthropomorphic projection is engendered from their sensory qualities: things are objects, to the degree that they are tactile. Husserl contends that “the originarily presentive act” is “the material perception (perception of physical things), perception of bodies. With this, a basic sort of perception is designated, fully delimited from every other sort of perception” (Husserl 1). In a fragment called “the constitutive role of the movement-sensations in comparison with other sensations and the relation between the constitution of animate organism and of physical thing,” Husserl argues that “only by means of” the “free acts” in which “an object moves over the skin surface,” or “the skin surface of the hand, feeling over it (the object) moves” may we “carry out … the constitution of physical-thing objects” (Husserl 108).

A parallel concept may be also found in the works of the later philosopher Henri Bergson, whose Creative Evolution was widely read by modernist writers: “the human intellect feels at home among inanimate objects,” he writes, “more especially among solids, where our action finds its fulcrum and our industry its tools” (Bergson 21). In other words, the solidity of the object is what distinguishes it from matter.

Similarly, William James, in a chapter of his 1890 Principles of Psychology called “The Perception of Things,” conducts a thought-experiment which highlights the telic/aesthetic dichotomy of thing theory. Looking at a landscape, or a painting, upside-down, he observes, causes the aesthetic experience of it to be richer:

Another well-known change is when we look at a landscape with our head upside down. Perception is to a certain extent baffled by this manoeuvre; gradations of distance and other space-determinations are made uncertain; the reproductive or associative processes, in short, decline; and, simultaneously with their diminution, the colors grow richer and more varied, and the contrasts of light and shade more marked. The same thing occurs when we turn a painting bottom upward. We lose much of its meaning, but to compensate for the loss, we feel more freshly the value of the mere tints and shadings, and become aware of any lack of purely sensible harmony or balance which they may show. (William James 81)

This experiment, of turning a painting on his head, is found in a different form a decade later, in the literary theory of Viktor Shklovsky. In his 1917 theory of defamiliarization, or estrangement, which underpins his theory of descriptions in Tolstoy and other writers, he emphasizes that fresh aesthetic experience of an object happens in negative correlation to its conventional telos, its name, and its taxonomy:

The devices by which Tolstoi estranges his material may be boiled down to the following: he does not call a thing by its name, that is, he describes it as if it were perceived for the first time. In addition, he foregoes the conventional names of the various parts of a thing, replacing them instead with the names of corresponding parts in other things. (Shklovsky 6)

I am not merely arguing here that there is a genealogy of thought about objects which, threading through Frazer, Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, Bergson, and James, arrives in literary theory, and the literary theories of early twentieth century writers. Rather, I am saying that things become objects, grammatically and phenomenologically, through a process of fetishization, which infuses the object with a social, sexual, and pragmatic function. That function is by necessity an anthropomorphization. The opposite function, in which the object becomes a thing, operates through a disillusionment with this anthropomorphization, and defamiliarizes the object.

We also hear these struggles with object theories in the prose works of the modernist writers themselves. I have already discussed, in chapter 2, Pound’s manifesto of imagisme, which includes as its first precept “direct treatment of the thing.” This is also the aim of the critic, as Walter Pater has it. “‘To see the object as in itself it really is,’ has been justly said to be the aim of all true criticism whatever,” Pater writes, “and in aesthetic criticism the first step towards seeing one’s object as it really is, is to know one’s own impression as it really is, to discriminate it, to realise it distinctly” (Pater xix).

T.S. Eliot’s famous critique of Hamlet, as is often cited, is that it lacks an “objective correlative,” or “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion” (Eliot 120). This aesthetic is apparent in “The Waste Land” and elsewhere, where emotions like “fear” are perceived through objects like “a handful of dust,” and April’s cruelty is shown with lilacs. Similarly, Pound’s war poem “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly” laments that “there died a myriad,” not for patriotism or any other ideology, but “for two gross of broken statues, / for a few thousand battered books,” that is, for objects (Pound 67).

Across the Atlantic, the American modernist poet William Carlos Williams, in the first few stanzas of Paterson, writes “say it, no ideas but in things.” This is an oft-quoted maxim, but one which deals even more with objecthood in its context: Williams spends the initial passages of his poem anthropomorphizing places and things, particularly the Paterson, New Jersey, of its title. Paterson “lies in the valley under the Passaic Falls / its spent waters forming the outline of his back” (Williams and MacGowan 9). In Williams’ reification reverie, Paterson’s houses have “blank faces,” and his trees are forked by “preconception”; “split, furrowed, creased,” as if of a human face.

Max Beerbohm, whose “A Defense of Cosmetics” I discuss in the previous chapter, emerges from the Yellow Nineties with an essay called “Ichabod,” published in a 1900 issue of The Living Age in which he describes the collection of travel labels he had accumulated on his hat box (Beerbohm et al.). Just as “A Defense” argues, in good aestheticist form, in support of art for art’s sake, “Ichabod” celebrates objects for their own sake. This is not quite the things-in-themselves, of the Kantian formulation, nor the neumenon of earlier philosophy, but an aesthetics of the useless. Here, Beerbohm describes the gradual development of the collector, and his collection. It is an aestheticist collection, not of butterfly species, where the goal is to catalogue a genus, or of stamps, where the goal is to have the most rare specimens, but of beautiful things, which are collectible for their own sake:

My collection, like most collections, began imperceptibly. A man does not say to himself, ‘I am going to collect’ this thing or that. True, the schoolboy says so; but his are not, in the true sense of the word, collections. … It follows that he has no real love of his collection… The sincere collector, how different! His hobby has a solid basis of personal preference. Some one gives him (say) a piece of jade. He admires it. He sees another piece in a shop, and buys it; later, he buys another. He does not regard these pieces of jade as distinct from the rest of his possessions; he has no idea of collecting jade. It is not till he has acquired several other pieces that he ceases to regard them as mere items in the decoration of his room, and gives them a little table, or a tray of a cabinet, all to themselves. How well they look there! How they intensify one another! … Thus awakes in him, quite gradually, the spirit of the collector. (Beerbohm et al. 134–35)

Beerbohm’s “sincere collector” collects purely aesthetic objects, which have no purpose other than to be beautiful. He doesn’t collect them accidentally, but neither does he collect them purposefully. Rather, he is a bricoleur, driven by unseen and unacknowledged forces, creating beauty out of whatever objects happen to be at hand.

Twenty years later, Virginia Woolf published a short story in The Athenaeum called “Solid Objects” in which the protagonist follows a similar development as a collector, or appreciator of objects (The Athenaeum). In this story, much discussed by the critics I cite below, two young men, Charles and John, discuss politics on the beach. But John is distracted by a piece of green sea glass—remarkably jade-like, as we shall see—which Woolf gives a lengthy description, through Charles’s eyes. This bears quoting in full, to convey the scope and visuality of the description:

When the sand coating was wiped off, a green tint appeared. It was a lump of glass, so thick as to be almost opaque; the smoothing of the sea had completely worn off any edge or shape, so that it was impossible to say whether it had been bottle, tumbler or window-pane; it was nothing but glass; it was almost a precious stone. You had only to enclose it in a rim of gold, or pierce it with a wire, and it became a jewel; part of a necklace, or a dull, green light upon a finger. Perhaps after all it was really a gem; something worn by a dark Princess trailing her finder in the water as she sat in the stern of the boat and listened to the slaves singing as they rowed her across the Bay. Or the oak sides of a sunk Elizabethan treasure-chest had split apart, and, rolled over and over, over and over, its emeralds had come at last to short. John turned it in his hands; he held it to the light; he held it so that its irregular mass blotted out the body and extended right arm of his friend. The green thinned and thickened slightly as it was held against the sky or against the body. It pleased him; it puzzled him; it was so hard, so concentrated, so definite an object compared with the vague sea and the hazy shore. (The Athenaeum 543)

This passage is overflowing with objects and artifacts: real, imagined, or metaphorical. Most importantly, however, it is the visuality of these objects which interests Woolf. It is not a sea glass that appears at first, but rather “a green tint.” The object doesn’t possess the lexically-conditioned archetypal shape of a telic object, such as a “bottle, tumbler or window-pane,” and this is what amplifies its visuality. It is “nothing but glass,” a fetishized commodity. The extended comparison with a green jewel suggests, of course, jade, thereby updating the aestheticist (or cosmeticist) philosophy of Max Beerbohm’s Yellow ’90s with the anthropological fetishology of the ’10s and ’20s. Woolf had certainly read Beerbohm’s essays, for in her “The Modern Essay,” she praises him as “without a doubt the prince of his profession,” and so it is not unlikely that Woolf has Beerbohm’s “Ichabod” in mind when she writes “Solid Objects” (Woolf). The sea-glass, a seemingly insignificant object, and the refuse of a bygone era, is elevated to the status of a precious gem, once it takes on the social significance that John lends it. Crucially, the aesthetic lens of this glass, also now a literal lens, transforms Charles into a blot, where his body and extended right arm used to be. Instead of the practical, political Charles, there was now a shape: a visual, aesthetic quantity.

Vague shapes of all sorts haunt “Solid Objects.” It begins, in a manner which seems to anticipate the birds’-eye helicopter shots of late twentieth century cinema: “the only thing that moved upon the vast semi-circle of the beach was one small black spot.”This seems to me strikingly similar to the opening stanza of Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” which begins, “among twenty snowy mountains / the only moving thing / was the eye of the blackbird.” Stevens’s poem was published almost three years earlier, in the Chicago-based “little magazine” Others. (Saphier)

Later, we find that the spot is in fact the outline of the two protagonists. Here again, distance is what makes these people into figures, shapes; only here, it is a physical, rather than psychical, distance. It is only when one of them speaks that they come into focus: the speech act transforms them from aesthetic to pragmatic objects, full of body parts, articles of clothing, and other objects:

“Politics be damned!” issued clearly from the body on the left-hand side, and, as these words were uttered, the mouths, noses, chins, little moustaches, tweed caps, rough boots, shooting coats, and check stockings of the two speakers became clearer and clearer; the smoke of their pipes went up into the air; nothing was so solid, so living, so hard, red, hirsute and virile as these two bodies for miles and miles of sea and sandhill. (The Athenaeum 543)

“The body on the left-hand side” we later learn is John. But it is also a different left-hand body, since John personifies the left hemisphere of the brain. While Charles, in right-hemispherical style, looks for stones that have practical value (flat stones for skipping), John’s interest in them is aesthetic.

Woolf’s story continually contrasts these two hemispherical modes, just as she contrasts “hard” and “solid” objects with the airy, smoky, and hazy. Definite objects are the antidote to, and the antagonists of, the politics that John rejects in this passage. Like Beerbohm’s collector, who “sees another piece in a shop, and buys it,” John “found himself attracted to the windows of curiosity shops when he was out walking, merely because he saw something which reminded him of the lump of glass. Anything, so long as it was an objects of some kind, more or less round, perhaps with a dying flame deep sunk in its mass, anything—china, glass, amber, rock marble—even the smooth oval egg of a prehistoric bird would do” (The Athenaeum 543). Eventually, collecting beautiful objects would completely consume him, to the detriment of his career and his friendships.

Objects in Contemporary Scholarship

The past few decades have also seen a considerable amount of scholarship dealing with modernist literature and its relation to material objects. Douglas Mao’s influential 1998 monograph Solid Objects: Modernism and the Test of Production, whose name is a reference to Woolf’s story, begins with an anecdote about a letter from Freud to H.D., in which the psychoanalyst acknowledges the receipt of flowers, accompanied with a note reading “to greet the return of the Gods.” While others in Freud’s circle had read “goods,” H.D. had actually written “Gods.” This “goods/Gods” dichotomy, while anecdotal, becomes for Mao a useful metaphor for literary modernism’s struggles with materiality and, if not spirituality, at least, abstraction: the green sea-glass of Woolf’s story above, is “definite” as opposed to “the vague sea and the hazy shore” of abstraction.

Mao’s centerpiece, as his title suggests, is this story, “Solid Objects.” The two men of the story, John and Charles, have the same occupations, but divergent fascinations with shiny things. Mao notes that, for Charles, the utility of the object is its meaning (its telic hypernymy, as the WordNet lexicographers will describe this relation, in the section below)—Charles would rather find a stone to skip over the water, rather than one to admire, as John would. John’s aestheticism, Mao points out, is Paterian, aligned with Pater’s dictum, “not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end.”

Tracing object theories in philosophy, from Kant and Hegel through the Frankfurt School, Mao argues, as I do in this chapter, that the twentieth century sees a palpable change in the way we treat objects: “… one of the swerves (if not the break) of our own century is to be found in a new return to objects, now held to illuminate not only the order of the cosmos or distant antiquity but also the immediate human past” (Mao 6). Mao cites the object as a fulcrum at which the epistemological problems of modernity collide: “the object could hold a privileged place within certain readings of modernity in part because modernity could be construed as an affair of consciousness gone awry, a phenomenon of subjectivity grown rapacious and fantastically powerful either with the help of or under the sway of science and expansionist capitalism” (Mao 8).

Bill Brown, one of the most visible scholars of object studies, also writes extensively about this story of Woolf’s. His 1999 article, “The Secret Life of Things,” employs William James’s chapter quoted above, to differentiate between things and objects: “what I want to underscore is how in James the difference between the apperceptive constitution of the thing, in what I would call its objecthood, and the experience of a thing, in what I would call its thinghood, emerges in the moment (and no doubt only as a moment) of reobjectification that is a kind of misuse—turning the picture bottom up, standing on one’s head” (Bill Brown, “The Secret Life of Things (Virginia Woolf and the Matter of Modernism)” 6). In Brown, objectification of things happens along the axis of perception: there is a negative correlation between an object’s visual properties—its colors and shapes—and its recognition, its digitization and lexicalization.

Brown’s 2004 edited collection of object theory essays, Things, begins by expanding on the distinction between things and objects. Objects are things that have taken on the grammatical quality of their syntactic namesakes. Things, on the other hand, exist outside of grammar, action, and abstraction: they are “something warm, that relieves us from the chill of dogged ideation, something concrete that relieves us from unnecessary abstraction” (Bill Brown, Things 1). Brown expands further on this object theory in 2016’s Other Things, where he argues that subject and object are engendered by things: “some thing, by which I will always mean the thingness of the constituted object, is the outcome of an interaction (beyond their mutual constitution) between subject and object” (B. Brown 22).

The cultural critic Jean Baudrillard, in The System of Objects, observes the proliferation of objects in our world of mass production, arguing that “our urban civilization is witness to an ever-accelerating procession of generations of product, appliances and gadgets” (Baudrillard 3). In the eighteenth century, he contends, these could be systematically catalogued in, for example, Diderot’s Encyclopédie. But lately, “everyday objects … proliferate, needs multiply, production speeds up the life-span of such objects—yet we lack the vocabulary to name them all” (Baudrillard 3).

More recently, there has been even more interest in this field. In 2018, John Stout’s Objects Observed: the Poetry of Things in Twentieth-Century France and America, traces objects in the poetic works of, among others, Pound, Zukofsky, Oppen, and Stevens, on the American side, and Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Appollinaire, Breton, Ponge, and Tortel, on the French, narrating the evolution of object, objectification, and desire through movements such as imagisme, surréalisme, cubism, and objectivism (Stout). Susan Sachon’s 2020 Shakespeare, Objects and Phenomenology reads Macbeth, King Lear, and Titus Andronicus in terms of their objects and bodies, using methods from phenomenologists such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Sachon). Jörg Kreienbrock, his his 2013 Malicious Objects, Anger Management, and the Question of Modern Literature treats “bad objects”: malfunctioning or hindering objects, in Lawrence Sterne and others (Kreienbrock).

One of the more daring hypotheses in the field comes from Pierre Laszlo’s 1993 essay “La Leçon de Choses.” Speaking of French literature between 1870 and 1940 and its images, he asks, “Where do these images come from?” and answers, “They are rooted in the ‘lessons from things’ (leçons de choses) that the writer received in primary school; … These lessons gave our authors a talent for accurate, painstaking observation. It gave them also an enduring, pleasurable taste for naming” (Laszlo 275). I am inclined to agree with the pedagogical origin of objects as words and concepts, but this is also true of language itself.

Object theory, as it is known in these various disciplines, provide in some cases historical claims, chez Marx, Benjamin, and Mao, that modernity represents a break in our understanding of objects. Modernist literature, then, struggles with this break, and its challenges for aesthetic representation. The questions that remain, and which I will model with computational analysis, are not merely whether objects become a particular concern of modernism, or even the degree to which they do, but the how and the why: the ways in which these phenomenological / grammatical processes are enacted. In the sections below, I quantify these trends in twentieth century literature, with attention to these modes of operation. What I find is surprising.

Experiment: Quantifying Objects in Literature

This experiment quantifies the comparative presence of objects in British fiction and poetry. I want to know: what are the objects that are the most common? Which fall in and out of favor, over time? Which are incommensurate with lived experience? Of those objects, how many are natural objects, and how many are artificial? To do this, I apply techniques of word sense disambiguation to \(C_{PG}\) , \(C_{CL}\), and others, and quantify the results using the Princeton WordNet. Since the results of this experiment are so dependent on its design, it’s necessary to describe each of the elements of this algorithm, first, beginning with WordNet and word sense disambiguation.


In computational linguistics, the most-used lexical relation database is the Princeton WordNet (Miller, “WordNet”; Miller, WordNet). As its name implies, WordNet is more than a machine-readable dictionary, or thesaurus, although it is both of those, but it is a network of relations between words. In the creators’ own term, WordNet represents a particular theory of componential semantics: an agglutinative form of lexicography. “Componential semantics approaches the meaning of a word,” WordNet contributor George A. Miller writes, “in much the same way as it approaches the meaning of a sentence: the meaning of a sentence should be decomposable into the meanings of its constituents, and the meaning of a word should be similarly decomposable into certain semantic primitives, or conceptual atoms” (Miller, WordNet xvi).

The basic unit of WordNet is the synset: a “lexicalized concept of English,” or “a set of synonyms that can be used (in an appropriate context) to express that concept” (Miller, WordNet 24). Synsets are denoted in WordNet according to one of their lemmas, its part of speech, and its sense number, with the most common sense given the lowest number. So the first sense of the lemma robin, whose definition in WordNet is the “small Old World songbird with a reddish breast,” is denoted robin.n.01.

WordNet charts relations between synsets in terms of their hypernymy, hyponymy, meronymy, and more. For the purposes of this experiment, I will largely be exploring hypernymic and hyponymic relations. Hypernymy encompasses a variety of lexical supersets, of which one is taxonomic. A hypernym tree for robin.n.01, for instance, may be robin.n.01 @-> thrush.n.03 @-> oscine.n.01 @-> passerine.n.01 @-> bird.n.01 @-> vertebrate.n.01 @-> chordate.n.01 @-> animal.n.01 @-> organism.n.01 @-> living_thing.n.01 @-> whole.n.02 @-> object.n.01 @-> physical_entity.n.01 @-> entity.n.01/, where @-> denotes a hypernymic relation.

However, taxonomies like this can be technical, as the WordNet creators freely admit. An English speaker without a specialized education in biological taxonomy will likely describe a robin as a bird, but unlikely describe it as a passerine. Furthermore, taxonomy is but one of several varieties of hypernymy. As Anna Wierzbicka and others have shown, apples are not just a “kind of fruit,” but a food: nouns have telic hypernymy, as well (Wierzbicka). So hypernymic relations in WordNet are not a simple hierarchy, like those found in eighteenth century encyclopedias. Rather, they are a “tangled hierarchy,” or a directed graph of lexical relations (Miller, WordNet 35).

Taxonomies like those in WordNet are useful, even if they diverge from our intuition. If we can suspend disbelief long enough to understand that these overlapping categories are opinions, then we can apply these taxonomies to a text, to derive a picture of the text’s categories. I employ WordNet for this study, rather than, say, the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, since it is easily machine-readable, has a well-documented interface in the Python NLTK, has a long history of expansion and revision, since the 1990s, and catalogs a wide variety of semantic relations.See Heuser and Le-Khac for an example of an analysis which uses the Historical Thesaurus of the OED.

In this first experiment, my goal is to find the objects of a literary text. What constitutes an object is difficult to define, as we have seen in the object theory section above, so to systematize this query, I identify any WordNet sense which has as one of its hypernyms, object.n.1, defined as “a tangible and visible entity; an entity that can cast a shadow” (WordNet Search - 3.1). The synset object.n.1 itself has 37 direct hyponyms, which include a number of oddly specific synsets: keepsake.n.01, curio.n.01, hoodoo.n.04, and je_ne_sais_quoi.n.01, all synsets which appear to be difficult to categorize. But there is a much larger set of hyponyms of object.n.01’s hyponym whole.n.02. The direct hyponyms of whole.n.02, shown in table 1, read as categories.

Table 1: Hyponyms of whole.n.02
Synset Definition
artifact.n.01 a man-made object taken as a whole
assembly.n.05 a unit consisting of components that have been fitted together
congener.n.03 a whole (a thing or person) of the same kind or category as another
item.n.03 a whole individual unit; especially when included in a list or collection
living_thing.n.01 a living (or once living) entity
natural_object.n.01 an object occurring naturally; not made by man
sum.n.05 the whole amount

These are not strictly categories, however, since a given synset may have more than one of these as hypernyms: a horse may be both a natural objects (“not made by man”), and a living thing. Given that assembly.n.05, congener.n.03, item.n.03, and sum.n.05 have relatively shallow hyponym trees, I will mostly be focusing on the proportions of words in literary texts with the hypernyms artifact.n.01, living_thing.n.01, and natural_object.n.01.

Word Sense Disambiguation

The problem of computationally analyzing a text’s objects requires that it can correctly identify those objects. To do that, the computer program must first be able to discern between many different senses of a word. If we are to ascertain whether a given instance of bank is a natural object (a river bank), we must first ensure that it is not a financial institution. In computational linguistics, this problem is known as word sense disambiguation, or WSD, and it has been one of the hardest problems for natural language processing over the past fifty years.

The problem is at least as old as 1949, when Warren Weaver, a computer scientist working on machine translation, wrote:

If one examines the words in a book, one at a time through an opaque mask with a hole in it one word wide, then it is obviously impossible to determine, one at a time, the meaning of words. “Fast” may mean “rapid”; or it may mean “motionless”; and there is no way of telling which. But, if one lengthens the slit in the opaque mask, until one can see not only the central word in question but also say N words on either side, then, if N is large enough one can unambiguously decide the meaning. (Weaver 20)

At various points in the twentieth century, effective WSD was considered an intractable problem. For example, referring to the phrase “the box is in the pen,” Bar-Hillel argued, in 1960, that “no existing or imaginable program will enable an electronic computer to determine that the word ‘pen’ is used in its ‘enclosure’ sense in the passage … because of the need to model, in general, all world knowledge like, for example, the relative sizes of objects” (Agirre and Edmonds 5–6).

However, the field has seen much advancement over the years. One of the first WSD algorithms is the Lesk Algorithm, developed by Michael Lesk, of Bell Communications Research, in 1987 (Lesk). In its original form, this algorithm disambiguates between senses by comparing the definitions of the context words. Lesk’s own example presents the problem of guessing whether ash refers to the tree or the remains of a fire. If it appears in the phrase coal ash, one could compare the sense definitions for coal and for ash. Since one sense of ash has the definition “the solid residue left when combustible material is fully burned,” and one sense of coal has the definition “a black or brownish solid combustible substance,” we can determine that the two senses align by their overlapping definition word combustible.

Since the 80s, there have been some minor improvements to WSD, but which are mainly variations of the Lesk algoritm: simplified Lesk, adapted Lesk, and so on (Banerjee and Pedersen). Yet only in the past couple of years have WSD algorithms attained an accuracy greater than 80%. The one I employ here is EWISER, “Enhanced WSD Integrating Synset Embeddings and Relations.” This is among the first to, as the title of their paper puts it, to “break through the 80% glass ceiling” (Bevilacqua and Navigli).

EWISER is a neural net trained on SemCor, a sense-tagged corpus, and uses glosses and examples from WordNet. Even though EWISER uses a probabilistic model, and therefore obviates the need for a Lesk-style computation, disambiguating each word in a text is an extremely expensive operation, computationally. Disambiguating a single text in \(C_{PG}\) takes around 20 minutes on an Intel i7 CPU. It runs much faster on the university’s cluster computing servers, however, and much faster on GPUs, and so I employed a node with 24 GPU cores and 96GB of RAM, which even when running in parallel across all cores, got through an analysis of \(C_{PG2}\) in about ten days.The engineering work required to complete this task was colossal. Given that humanities departments are rarely given access to supercomputing or cluster computing resources, the process of applying for compute time, learning the job submission process, scripting the parallel processing framework, and rewriting the software to run on GPUs, took several months in total.

Results and Discussion

Texts with the most objects

Although the interactive plots above reveal which texts have the highest proportions of objects, Table 2 shows those texts in tabular form. Most of these are children’s books: Peacock Pie, Songs of Childhood, and Down-Adown-Derry, by Walter de la Mare; and Oswald Bastable, The Story of the Amulet, and The Wouldbegoods, by Edith Nesbit, and A Child’s Garden of Verses, by Robert Louis Stevenson. Here again, there is a pronounced visuality in juvenile fiction and poetry, which suggests that visual attention to the world is either known as a childlike state of mind, or in some other way expected of children’s literature.

Table 2: Texts with the highest proportions of objects
Year Title Author % Objects
1913 Peacock Pie: a Book of Rhymes Walter de la Mare 0.140294
1885 A Child’s Garden of Verses Robert Louis Stevenson 0.139886
1880 Round About a Great Estate Richard Jefferies 0.135495
1902 Songs of Childhood Walter de la Mare 0.133442
1905 Oswald Bastable and Others Edith Nesbit 0.131815
1922 Down-Adown-Derry: a Book of Fairy Poems Walter de la Mare 0.130030
1920 The Happy Foreigner Enid Bagnold 0.128426
1920 Bliss and Other Stories Katherine Mansfield 0.127254
1922 Ulysses James Joyce 0.127251
1906 The Story of the Amulet Edith Nesbit 0.124882
1922 The Garden Party and Other Stories Katherine Mansfield 0.124400
1901 The Wouldbegoods Edith Nesbit 0.123869
1922 Jacob’s Room Virginia Woolf 0.122597

Many of these are texts that have scored highly with the color imaginer of the previous chapter, and all of these were published squarely within the 1880–1930 period I am using as a proxy for literary modernism. Four, however, were published in 1922, specifically—“the year that changed literature” according to Goldstein, and “modernism year one,” according to Jackson: both subtitles of monographs about the year’s literary import (Goldstein; Jackson).

One book, Richard Jefferies’s Round About a Great Estate, is not exactly a work of fiction, but an exemplar of literary nonfiction nature writing. The presence of this book among the other works of fiction and poetry here suggests that nature writing may explain much of the object proportions here. Nature writing is not only a category of book, of course, but a writing style, and passages of ecological description, in all its forms, may certainly be found in the other works here. Notably, The Garden Party and Other Stories, whose titular story features an abundance of nature description. The other works here are canonical modernist texts: two by Katherine Mansfield, Ulysses by James Joyce, and Jacob’s Room, Virginia Woolf’s novel, from which I chose the passage that begins this dissertation’s introduction.

When we turn to the hyponyms of object.n.01, we see most of these texts, although in slightly different orders. The text with the largest proportions of the hyponym living_thing.n.01 is the Jefferies book listed above, Round About a Great Estate. Then, there are the usual suspects of children’s literature, this time also including children’s poetry from Edward Lear, and children’s stories by Rudyard Kipling. But also found here are two short works of nature writing by Mary Russell Mitford, an ecological novel from Mayne Reid, and poetry collections from the highly nature-oriented poets Thomas Hood and John Clare.

Table 3: Texts with the highest proportions of living_thing.n.01 hyponyms
Year Title Author % Living Things
1880 Round About a Great Estate Richard Jefferies 0.040316
1902 Songs of Childhood Walter de la Mare 0.040277
1922 Down-Adown-Derry: a Book of Fairy Poems Walter de la Mare 0.040238
1913 Peacock Pie: a Book of Rhymes Walter de la Mare 0.036339
1837 The Widow’s Dog Mary Russell Mitford 0.034270
1885 A Child’s Garden of Verses Robert Louis Stevenson 0.032761
1871 Nonsense Songs Edward Lear 0.030896
1902 Just So Stories Rudyard Kipling 0.030809
1824 Our Village Mary Russell Mitford 0.028447
1889 The Poetical Works of Thomas Hood Thomas Hood 0.028076
1920 Poems Chiefly from Manuscript John Clare 0.027822
1920 Collected Poems Walter de la Mare 0.027248
1861 Bruin: The Grand Bear Hunt Mayne Reid 0.027242

The hyponyms of natural_object.n.01 show a similar cast of characters. Here, we find at the lead another Kipling work, An Almanac of Twelve Sports, a very short book of light rhymes which accompany a set of illustrations from William Nicholson. Although there is not a preponderance of natural objects, the total number of words is so small as to make the meager number of occurrences a decent proportion of the total. Here, for instance, is one of the twelve poems:


Behold a parable! A fished for B.
C took her bait; her heart was set on D.
Thank Heaven, who cooled your blood and cramped your wishes,
Men and not Gods torment you, little fishes.

Although fishes is really the only word which qualifies as a natural object, the length of the poem is such that it is given more significance. With this in mind, we might want to treat with more skepticism the frequencies of objects in poems.

Table 4: Texts with the highest proportions of natural_object.n.01 hyponyms
Year Title Author % Natural Objects
1897 An Almanac of Twelve Sports Rudyard Kipling 0.022523
1850 A Child’s Dream of a Star Charles Dickens 0.018519
1922 Down-Adown-Derry: a Book of Fairy Poems Walter de la Mare 0.015276
1905 Poems of William Blake William Blake 0.014258
1904 A Dark Month Algernon Swinburne 0.013971
1871 Nonsense Songs Edward Lear 0.013925
1902 Songs of Childhood Walter de la Mare 0.013832
1895 Elegy and Other Poems Robert Louis Stevenson 0.013570
1913 Peacock Pie: a Book of Rhymes Walter de la Mare 0.013339
1913 The Lonely Dancer and Other Poems Richard le Gallienne 0.013212
1920 The Song Book of Quong Lee of Limehouse Thomas Burke 0.013201
1880 Round About a Great Estate Richard Jefferies 0.013201
1847 The Mahogany Tree William Makepeace Thackeray 0.012987
1894 For Love of the King: A Burmese Masque Oscar Wilde 0.012987

Finally, the hyponym artifact.n.01 again shows many of the same authors, as shown in table 5. Here again, either the texts are collections children’s poems, or they are high modernist fiction.

Table 5: Texts with the highest proportions of artifact.n.01 hyponyms
Year Title Author % Natural Objects
1920 The Happy Foreigner Enid Bagnold 0.108193
1905 Oswald Bastable and Others Edith Nesbit 0.108193
1885 A Child’s Garden of Verses Robert Louis Stevenson 0.099324
1922 The Garden Party and Other Stories Katherine Mansfield 0.098977
1922 Ulysses James Joyce 0.096026
1920 Bliss and Other Stories Katherine Mansfield 0.095625
1899 The Ship of Stars Arthur Quiller-Couch 0.094220
1898 The Day’s Work Rudyard Kipling 0.093673
1922 Jacob’s Room Virginia Woolf 0.093673

Are the childrens’ poems collections just so short that they are more likely to have large proportions of objects? Or is there some affinity between children’s poetry and modernist fiction? As with color in the previous chapter, I would like to argue for a strong correlation between literary visuality and a childlike frame of mind. In this case, that visuality expresses itself in large numbers of objects.

The first work on this list, The Happy Foreigner is Enid Bagnold’s first novel, narrating her experiences of being a driver during the first world war. Consider the beginning passages of the novel:

The war had stopped.

The King of England was in Paris, and the President of the United States was hourly expected.

Humbler guests poured each night from the termini into the overflowing city, and sought anxiously for some bed, lounge-chair, or pillowed corner, in which to rest until the morning. Stretched upon the table in a branch of the Y.W.C.A. lay a young woman from England whose clothes were of brand-new khaki, and whose name was Fanny. (Bagnold)

This passage is littered with artifacts: railway termini, the city, a beg, a lounge-chair, a pillow, the corner of a room, a table, and Fanny’s clothes.

The fourth work on this list is Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party and Other Stories. Here is a passage from the story “At the Bay,” which begins the volume:

Very early morning. The sun was not yet risen, and the whole of Crescent Bay was hidden under a white sea-mist. The big bush-covered hills at the back were smothered. You could not see where they ended and the paddocks and bungalows began. The sandy road was gone and the paddocks and bungalows the other side of it; there were no white dunes covered with reddish grass beyond them; there was nothing to mark which was beach and where was the sea. A heavy dew had fallen. The grass was blue. Big drops hung on the bushes and just did not fall; the silvery, fluffy toi-toi was limp on its long stalks, and all the marigolds and the pinks in the bungalow gardens were bowed to the earth with wetness. Drenched were the cold fuchsias, round pearls of dew lay on the flat nasturtium leaves. It looked as though the sea had beaten up softly in the darkness, as though one immense wave had come rippling, rippling—how far? Perhaps if you had waked up in the middle of the night you might have seen a big fish flicking in at the window and gone again…. (Mansfield)

The sun, the sea-mist, the bush, the paddocks, the bungalows, the sand, the dunes, the grass, the beach, the sea, the dew, the grass, the bushes, the toi-toi, the marigolds, the pinks, the earth, the fuchsias, the leaves, the waves, the fish, and the window: an abundance of living things, natural objects, and artifacts.

Ulysses, the fifth work on this list, is also famous for some of its catalogs of artifacts. Told in the style of a Christian catechism, the “Ithaca” episode represents the height of this mode. Here, Leopold Bloom lists the things on his mantelpiece, all of which are wedding presents.

What homothetic objects, other than the candlestick, stood on the mantelpiece?

A timepiece of striated Connemara marble, stopped at the hour of 4.46 a.m. on the 21 March 1896, matrimonial gift of Matthew Dillon: a dwarf tree of glacial arborescence under a transparent bellshade, matrimonial gift of Luke and Caroline Doyle: an embalmed owl, matrimonial gift of Alderman John Hooper.

What interchanges of looks took place between these three objects and Bloom?

In the mirror of the giltbordered pierglass the undecorated back of the dwarf tree regarded the upright back of the embalmed owl. Before the mirror the matrimonial gift of Alderman John Hooper with a clear melancholy wise bright motionless compassionate gaze regarded Bloom while Bloom with obscure tranquil profound motionless compassionated gaze regarded the matrimonial gift of Luke and Caroline Doyle. (Joyce 581)

The three objects, an animal (owl), a vegetable (dwarf tree), and a mineral (marble clock), are all keepsakes, souvenirs. The “interchanges of looks” personify the objects, at least two of which indeed have faces (the clock face and the owl’s face). They are not geometrically, but economically homothetic, and they serve no purpose other than to remind the couple of their marriage. This makes a stark contrast to a later list of objects, which serves to remind Bloom of his wife’s recent infidelity:

What did his limbs, when gradually extended, encounter?

New clean bedlinen, additional odours, the presence of a human form, female, hers, the imprint of a human form, male, not his, some crumbs, some flakes of potted meat, recooked, which he removed.

The trinity of objects here—the bedlinen, crumbs, and potted meat—is the inverse of the previous trinity. Instead of decorative objects with no purpose, they are all objects with a definite purpose, and they are clues which show what has been happening there just before: sex and snacking. As we have seen in the discussion of Freud and Marx, in sexual and commodity fetishism, above, textual eros exhibits a convergence of object and body.

Texts with the fewest objects

At the other end of the spectrum are texts with low proportions of objects. These are worth discussing, insofar as they illuminate what the object count here is measuring. Lady Susan, Jane Austen’s posthumously published epistolary novel, ranks as the work with the fewest hyponyms of object.n.01 (Austen, Lady Susan). Published in 1871, but probably written in 1794, it details the exploits of Lady Susan Vernon—marriage plots and otherwise—in her letters and others’. Consider the opening paragraph of the novel:

MY DEAR BROTHER,—I can no longer refuse myself the pleasure of profiting by your kind invitation when we last parted of spending some weeks with you at Churchhill, and, therefore, if quite convenient to you and Mrs. Vernon to receive me at present, I shall hope within a few days to be introduced to a sister whom I have so long desired to be acquainted with. My kind friends here are most affectionately urgent with me to prolong my stay, but their hospitable and cheerful dispositions lead them too much into society for my present situation and state of mind; and I impatiently look forward to the hour when I shall be admitted into your delightful retirement. (Austen, Lady Susan)

This epistolary fragment traffics in emotion: pleasure, profit, desire, hospitality, cheerfulness, delight; and in social relations: invitation, introduction, acquaintence, affection, friends, and society. The focus is the relation between people, rather than the relations between objects, or those between objects and people. Not a single object appears in this letter, or in the several that follow.

Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, another marriage-plot novel, appears at the twelfth spot in this list (Austen, Pride and Prejudice). Following that is Fanny Burney’s final novel, The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties (Burney), about a woman who flees the France of the Reign of Terror, only to arrive in England poor and friendless, and Kept in the Dark (Trollope), an Anthony Trollope marriage-plot novel.

The presence of so many marriage-plot novels here, and those bearing the Library of Congress subject heading “Domestic Fiction,” suggests that these narratives negatively correlate with the presence of objects. If the primary focus of a literary work is interpersonal relationships, it seems that this occludes the presence of object details, descriptions, and other correlating visual phenomena.


The human body is not only a special type of object, but in one sense, its archetype. The synonymy of body with object, in its sense of celestial bodies, hints at a lexical relation between the senses which extends beyond mere meronymy. In fact, this sense of body is defined by the OED lexicographers as “a material thing, an object” (“Body, n.”). Like celestial bodies, human bodies are of course objects, although this distinction, in English, carries with it a certain anxiety. The frequencies of bigrams like inanimate object suggest the necessity of differentiating between living bodies and other types of objects. And the use of bodies or body parts as objects, grammatically or physically, is often referred to as objectification, and carries with it an implication of dehumanization. Thus, it is unsurprising that referring to a person as “a body” generally means that the person is dead—has become a corpse, a word of course etymologically derived from corpus, body.

To say that a person is a body is to imply that they’re just a body, that is, that their mind or soul has left their body, leaving them with only part of their whole person. But since modern neuroscience now understands the mind, and indeed the soul, to be functions of the brain, they are therefore always already body. The collapse, in the science and philosophy of the nineteenth century, of the Cartesian mind/body distinction, along with other Judeo-Christian dualistic thinking, means that there is no mind, no soul, but in body. Just as Derrida famously declared that “il n’y a pas de hors-texte,” there is a sense in which, phenomenologically speaking, there is nothing outside the body.

Body, as with object, implies a unity which is not found in matter or substance. To cut up the body into its constituent parts, conceptually or grammatically, is to dissociate it from the holistic self. Attention or fixation on individual body parts, then, with disregard for the holistic body, often connotes a sexual fixation which ignores the whole person. In Binet’s foundational work on sexual fetishism, quoted above, he provides a taxonomy of paraphilias as “1. l’amant de l’œil; 2. l’amant de la main; 3. l’amant des cheveux; 4. l’amant de l’odeur” (Binet 146). The first three of these are body parts. Binet understandably treats these paraphilias as mental illnesses, but a focus on body parts is a necessary effect of language. Despite the deep interdependence of each bodily organ, and the impossibility of organs to live apart from the body (a severed arm is never called “Jim”), the division of a body into parts is a necessary topography, and taxonomy, which aids medicine, aids our understanding of ourselves, and of course allows us to speak about our bodies, and those of others, using words.

In this way, we cannot escape the anxiety caused by the objectification / lexicalization of body parts. I may say that I have an eye in just the same way that I have a book, but with my eye, it’s different: I am the eye, just as I am the rest of my body. I have two arms, yet what I am includes two arms. So the boundary between has and is begins to dissolve on the level of the body part or organ.

Freud’s psychology, which builds off of Binet’s, expands the fetishism of the body to include sexual predilections for clothes and other para-corporeal accoutrements. His 1899 Interpretation of Dreams relies heavily on lexical ambiguity to show how bodily anxieties of various kinds manifest themselves in dreams. In one case, one of Freud’s patients asks her husband whether they should have the piano tuned, but concludes “it is not worth while” (Freud et al. 250). She later calls the piano a “disgusting chest” and grasps at her jacket, which was missing a button. Freud explains that this means she is ashamed of her own chest (breasts), and thinks of her own chest “don’t look, it is not worth while.” The ambiguity in chest, then, both an artifact and a body part, is the fulcrum at which, for Freud, one’s sexual embarrassments are encoded.

So the human body is an object, in more than one sense, but is rarely discussed in critical studies of objects in modernism. Instead, a rich body of critical work concerns “the body in literature.” And in those corporeal studies, inanimate objects are rarely discussed. So bodies and objects are sometimes synonyms, sometimes antonyms, and only rarely part-meronyms.

In the introduction to their 2015 Cambridge Companion to the Body in Literature, editors David Hillman and Ulrika Maude trace an intellectual history of literary corporeality which begins with Michel Foucault, is threaded through feminist theorists like Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, and is dealt with in the cultural theories of Frederic Jameson and Jean Baudrillard, as well as the socio-cultural anthropology of Pierre Bourdieu and Marcel Mauss (Hillman and Maude 2). The body in literature is, in these lenses, discursively produced through institutional power, gendered concepts, and images of the body. The essays in this volume deal with disability, obesity, maternality, sexuality, pain, violence, death, and other aspects of the body in literature.

These subfields of body studies carry significant traditions of scholarship, as well. There is a tradition which deals with pain, torture, and the political subjection of bodies: Foucault’s Discipline and Punish charts a history of torture, and arrives at a theory of prisons and panopticism and Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain deals with the inexpressability of pain, and the difficulties that arise from it (Foucault; Scarry). Studies of maternal bodies are also becoming common: Cristina Mazzoni’s 2002 Maternal Impressions, for instance (Mazzoni).

In modernist studies, as well, the body has become an increasing axis of inquiry, as well as with objects. Peter Brooks’s Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative connects the intimacies of novels, and the experiences of reading them, through conditions such as privacy. It begins, “the rise of the novel is closely tied to the rise of the idea of privacy. The condition of privacy characterizes the reading and writing of novels. Perhaps as a consequence of this private production and consumption, private life was from the inception of the genre the novel’s subject matter as well—or perhaps it was the other way around: the need to explore the relatively new concept of private experience entailed the invention of the novel” (Brooks 28).

This interest in the body is shared by the modernists themselves. James Joyce, as a young man, briefly attended medical school with aspirations to become a doctor (R. Ellmann 105–07). The schemata for Ulysses, in which Joyce explains the structure of the novel, ex post facto, to his friends and aspiring reviewers, includes a column for organ correspondences: each chapter, beginning with the fourth, has a corresponding organ of the human body. “Calypso,” the fourth episode, has “kidney” listed as the corresponding organ, and it is there that we find Leopold Bloom, who “ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls,” preparing to eat a kidney (Joyce 45). “Aeolus,” named after the god of the wind, takes place at a windy newspaper office, and has as its organ the lungs. And “Nausicaa,” the chapter which arguably got Ulysses banned, in which Bloom stares at Gertie Mcdowell and pleasures himself, has as its dual organs the eye and the nose.

Maud Ellman has catalogued many of these correspondences in Ulysses, which she calls, following Joyce’s pronouncement, “the epic of the human body” (M. Ellmann, “Ulysses”). In “More Kicks Than Pricks: Modernist Body Parts,” she argues that “a continuation of war by other means, art explodes the illusion of bodily integrity, reducing it to splintered body-parts” (M. Ellmann, “More Kicks Than Pricks” 254). We might take this even further, and say that language itself splinters the body into parts.

Christine Froula, in Modernisms’s Body: Sex, Culture, and Joyce, argues that Joyce uses his “resisting artists’ suffering, transgressions, symptoms, masquerade, parody, creativity, and play,” often along sexual or somatic axes, to “turn the perversity of which he is often accused into a daring critique of his culture” (Froula xi).

Most of these studies, as with the modernist object studies above, in some way suggest that the modern period shows a renewed attention to the body, and to embodied experiences, whether via changing social mores surrounding representations of sex, as evidenced by the obscenity trials of Ulysses and Lady Chatterly’s Lover, or through more complex changes in the climate of thought which recast experience as necessarily embodied. I argue that the scholars cited above do not go far enough: it is not enough to say that there is a newfound fascination with the body in literary modernism. Rather, we must look to the symptom of this fascination: the sight of the body. It is how modernism sees the body that matters. To prove this, I design the following computational experiment.

Experiment: Bodies in Literature

How, and to what extent, does the literature of the early twentieth century become corporeal? Do the bodies of literary characters become more legible, at the turn of the century, or less? How, precisely, do these bodies appear in fiction? What body parts are the foci of character descriptions? To answer these questions, I turn again to word sense disambiguation, with EWISER and WordNet, but search for hyponyms of body_part.n.01. This largely filters out any use of body parts as metaphors, which could, in more naive analyses, have accounted for most of the instances of given words. For instance, heart as center should not be considered synonymous with heart, the organ, just as hand, help, as in, to give one a hand, should not be considered the same as the body part. I then aggregate the results, and divide by the total number of words in a text.

Fig. 5 shows the proportions of body parts per text, by year of publication, along with a line representing the ordinary least squares, modeling the chronological trend. Between 1800 and 1920, there is a 63% increase in the proportions of body parts in these texts.

Figure 5: Body parts by year of publication, C_{PG2}

The Most and Least Corporeal Texts

The texts with the highest proportions of body_part.n.01 hyponyms are shown in table 6. At the top of the list is the Victorian erotic novel The Romance of Lust, published anonymously, but rumored to have been written by William Simpson Potter and others of his coterie. Lisa Sigel describes it as “one of the most expensive pieces of Victorian pornography, costing upward of £10 in 1892, one of the longest at over 600 pages, and one of the best-known pieces of the period (running second place to My Secret Life in all categories)” (Sigel 1048).

Table 6: Texts with the highest proportions of body_part.n.01 hyponyms
Year Title Author % Body Parts
1873 The Romance of Lust Anonymous 0.015285
1921 Leonie of the Jungle Joan Conquest 0.014817
1915 The Dreamer of Dreams Marie, Queen of Roumania 0.012865
1896 The Were Wolf Clemence Housman 0.011674
1922 The Hawk of Egypt Joan Conquest 0.011454
1906 The Fifth Queen and How She Came to Court Ford Madox Ford 0.011236
1920 Desert Love Joan Conquest 0.011103
1907 Privy Seal, His Last Venture Ford Madox Ford 0.010192
1898 Bob, Son of Battle Alfred Ollivant 0.009757
1915 Beltane the Smith Jeffery Farnol 0.009569
1922 The Return of Blue Pete Luke Allan 0.009509
1906 Gaspar Ruiz Joseph Conrad 0.009438
1916 The Return of Dr. Fu-Manchu Sax Rohmer 0.009395
1897 The Nigger of the Narcissus Joseph Conrad 0.009242

Following that are three works by Joan Conquest, a largely forgotten novelist of the early twentieth century, formerly a nurse during the first world war, who writes chiefly in the genre of fantasy romance. Set in India and Egypt, these are novels which use their Eastern locales as means towards rich description, of bodies and setting. Here again, we see socio-cultural distance as a correlation with the presence of objects and bodies.

Also present here are two novels by Ford Madox Ford, The Fifth Queen and Privy Seal, which belong, with The Fifth Queen Crowned to a trilogy of historical romances based on the life of Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of Henry VIII. The novels, which Conrad called “the swan song of Historical Romance,” contain rich bodily descriptions (Ford v). The introduction by A.S. Byatt, in a 1984 edition of the novel, cites its impressionistic style, and calls it “highly visual” (Ford vii). Consider this passage, describing Lady Mary:

The lady stood, rigid and straight, her hands clasped before her. Her face, pale so that not even a touch of red showed above the cheekbones and hardly any in the tightly-pursed lips, was as if framed in her black hood that fastened beneath the chin. The high, narrow forehead had the hair tightly drawn back so that none was visible, and the coif that showed beneath the hood was white, like a nun’s; the temples were hollowed so that she looked careworn inexpressibly, and her lips had hard lines around them. Above her head all sounds in that dim room seemed to whisper for a long time among the rafters as if here dwelt something mysterious, sepulchral, a great grief or a great passion. (Ford)

Here, Ford describes Lady Mary’s demeanor using her posture—her body language—rather than abstractions, or emotion words. She is “rigid” and “tight” in her personality, as we later learn, but the “tightly” we find twice in this description, is in her lips and hair.

Ford’s friend Joseph Conrad also makes this list, with the novels Gaspar Ruiz and The Nigger of the Narcissus. The titular character of Gaspar Ruiz is a strongman, often described bodily:

That voice, senores, proceeded from the head of Gaspar Ruiz. Of his body I could see nothing. Some of his fellow-captives had clambered upon his back. He was holding them up. His eyes blinked without looking at me. That and the moving of his lips was all he seemed able to manage in his overloaded state. And when I turned round, this head, that seemed more than human size resting on its chin under a multitude of other heads, asked me whether I really desired to quench the thirst of the captives. (Conrad)

Here, we learn of Gaspar’s strong back, unblinking eyes, lips, oversized head, and chin. It is not Gaspar himself that looks, but “his eyes.” And it is not Gaspar who speaks to this chapter’s narrator, General Santierra, but “this head.” As in “Solid Objects,” where the two men first appear as “one small black spot,” the visuality of bodily descriptions comes first.

The texts with the least hyponyms of body_part.n.01, shown in table 7, is similar to that of other objects. After removing non-fiction works erroneously categorized here, the result is largely a list of Victorian romances. Jane Austen figures heavily here, where again Lady Susan is a low-ranking text, as it was for other objects. Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma follow.

Table 7: Texts with the lowest proportions of body_part.n.01 hyponyms
Year Title Author % Body Parts
1871 Lady Susan Jane Austen 0.000914
1813 Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen 0.000971
1918 Meccania, the Super-State Owen Gregory 0.001096
1904 Reginald Saki 0.001138
1897 An Almanac of Twelve Sports Rudyard Kipling 0.001148
1879 Dr Wortle’s School Anthony Trollope 0.001167
1814 Mansfield Park Jane Austen 0.001185
1913 Old Friends and New Fancies Sybil Brenton 0.001189
1815 Emma Jane Austen 0.001282
1911 The Feast of St. Friend Arnold Bennett 0.001284

To better understand the comparative acorporeality of an Austen novel, consider this physical character description of Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice, one of its more corporeal passages:

Occupied in observing Mr. Bingley’s attentions to her sister, Elizabeth was far from suspecting that she was herself becoming an object of some interest in the eyes of his friend. Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticise. But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying. Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing; and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness. Of this she was perfectly unaware;—to her he was only the man who made himself agreeable no where, and who had not thought her handsome enough to dance with. (Austen, Pride and Prejudice)

While there are some body parts present here, “face” and “eyes” are the only explicit ones, and it is only “her dark eyes” that are the real body parts, since “eyes” means instead “opinion,” in the expression “in the eyes of his friend.” Similarly, “form” and “figure,” while describing her body, are more abstract bodily attributes. So where there is a description of Elizabeth’s body, it is rather a means, a vehicle, for describing her “uncommonly intelligent” appearance. For Austen, the body is a mode of perceiving character and personality. Unlike in Conrad and Ford, Austen’s bodily descriptions are merely waystaytions to abstractions and emotions.

Distribution of Body Parts

Next, I wanted to measure which body parts are the most common in the fiction and poetry of this period. Fig. 6 shows the total proportions of various body parts, as they appear in \(C_{PG2}\). Again, what is shown here is not the original word forms, but their synsets. The synset hand.n.01 is by far the most common, at 20% of the total number of body parts; eye.n.01 is next most common, at almost 12%; and the subsequent body parts are all smaller by degrees: face.n.01 at almost 7%, head.n.01 at around 5%, arm.n.01 and shoulder.n.01 at around 3%, and finger.n.01, lip.n.01, back.n.01, and foot.n.01 around 2%. These numbers will come of use later, as I compare them to neurological findings, in the section below.

Figure 6: Body part sums, C_{PG2}

Fig. 7 shows those same proportions mapped to an image of a human body, to better illustrate the attention given to each, in fiction and poetry of this period. The larger the dot on this image of a body, the larger the proportion of the corresponding body part’s appearances. The conclusion one draws from this visualization is that the hand and the face are undoubtedly the centra of attention, while the torso and leg are comparatively neglected.