As tomorrow is Halloween, this week’s blog is exploring Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the horrifying tale of a woman who slowly goes insane under the “rest cure” prescribed by her doctor and enforced by her husband. As a short story that I love to teach, I wanted to examine if digital tools allow us to interpret the text in different ways, and whether or not that interpretation added to our understanding of the story and its context.
The first step in this process was to acquire a digital copy of “The Yellow Wallpaper” through Google Books and get a plain text version to copy and paste later into my text analysis tools. Unfortunately, there were significant differences between the image of Gilman’s text and the plain text version, resulting in the last five lines of the text being
omitted. As with most stories, the ending is, well, kind of important, so that was unfortunate. Using the text available, though, I pasted the plain text version into Voyant Tools, a “web-based reading and analysis environment for digital texts” that allows the user to view a word cloud of the most frequently used terms, average words per sentence, most-used words in context, and the relative frequency of words in different document segments. So, how would this be useful, you ask? Well, because while we often focus on the “close read” of documents in our classrooms, we also know the importance of looking at texts in their larger historical context. Voyant allows us to analyze these larger historical trends through the frequency of certain words used and comparing them across texts.
Students may not read 30 shorts stories from a certain time period or literary movement in our classes, but they could paste each of those stories into Voyant and get a sense of the language used in those texts, then analyzing what those similarities and differences may reveal. Students could use Voyant to compare texts across cultures for a certain time period as well. To that end, I located a digital copy of Guy de Maupassant’s “La Parure” (The Necklace), published about a decade before “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Pasting that document into Voyant produced a word cloud of the most frenquently used words in
Maupassant’s French classic. Even for non-French-speakers, one could define the few words that show up in the word cloud and compare them against others works from the same time. While this tool certainly has the potential to open up digital texts for study and comparison, there didn’t seem to be a way to filter your search, and knowing that “said” or “he” were the most frequently used words may not be particularly useful in every textual analysis. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” though, an early feminist work, it is quite important that this story, told from the point of view of a woman, is dominated with “John said”s, so, in that way, it could be a helpful teaching tool.
Next, I used Google N-Gram Viewer to search key terms across Google Books’ library of
texts and chart their frequency of use over decades and centuries. The user can also compare words against each other, simply by separating them with a comma. What it could not do, however, is search a key term in one corpus (“feminism” in the English language, for example) and compare its usage over time to its counterpart in another language (féminisme, in
French). If one of the goals of such tools is to provide a broader view of the language in digital texts, this seems like it would have been a useful feature.
Bookworm from Hathitrust
Bookworm, however, did have an option to compare terms across their native language corpora. Having students use Voyant to first analyze a text for key words, then searching
those key words over time (and across languages) would be an interesting project to give them a broader sense of the texts without actually having to read of them. I can’t imagine many high schoolers who would pass that up. 🙂