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Dracula and the Tangled Web He Weaves: Character Networks as Close Reading Tools

Here at UWGB our Literary Themes course has adopted a digital humanities approach to examining the texts we read. As mentioned in my previous posting we have recently completed our "project suite," a culmination of various digital humanities projects (6 different projects by 6 groups of students), that explores Bram Stoker's Dracula. One of the projects my peers completed really caught my eye: Dracula's Character and Text Network. 

A character network is a text visualization project that, in its most basic form, tracks the number of times that characters within a text interact. The process of recording the data is quite simple. A student, our in our case a group of students, simply keeps track of the number of character interactions. The work can be broken up by chapter, character, etc... 

A character network can, however, be adapted to examine more than just character interactions. In the example from our reading of Dracula the group of students thought it might be revealing, as it is an epistolary novel, to record the interactions within the different diaries, letters, journals, and recordings that make up the novel, and differentiate in which character's record the interactions appear. Or, as with our current novel, Glen Duncan's, The Last Werewolf, our (it is my group's turn to tackle the project) network will examine many types of interaction: human to wolf, positive or negative, phone or face to face, etc... The possibilities are really endless. The significance here is that students can tailor the network to answer specific questions about the text in question. 

Once the data has been gathered it is entered into a program like Gephi, an open source data visualization tool, that converts it into a visualization (look for an upcoming post about the use of Gephi). The visualization then represents the data as a network comprised of "nodes" (points that represent the characters, types of interaction, etc..) and "edges" (links that connect the nodes, and depict the number of interactions in terms of weight--thinner being a smaller number of interactions, and thicker a larger number).

"But why?" one may ask, do we need to represent the text visually when we can read it closely and glean, possibly, the same information.

I don't know about you but when I am reading a lengthy novel, even closely, my brain can only retain so much information. I may not recall, when on page 436, which character interacted with another early in the text, or how much over the course of the text. In this way the character network is a visual annotation of the text's interactions, and can show the level of connection between characters. When the student adapts the project to track more than just interactions these visual annotations can be applied to larger questions asked of the text. The student may end up literally seeing connections that, even when read closely, get lost in the grand scope of a text. 

I am personally drawn to this project as I am a a very spatial/visual learner, and appreciate being able to see the connections within a text represented visually. As a future educator I can certainly see this form of text visualization as a useful tool, in conjunction with traditional methods, for reaching students who are spatial/visual learners. For example, I remember my first encounter with Beowulf when I was in middle school, and having a difficult time keeping characters and interactions straight in my head (some of the character names are so similar!). A character network of Beowulf would have been very useful to me at the time. Though my example here is basic one can see the value text visualizations might have in the classroom.

In higher education there is also value to text visualization, and our digital humanities project, the character network; as a brief case study, the Dracula Character and Text Network

Dracula never transforms into a spider in Bram Stoker's novel but this is certainly a tangled "web," and a revealing character network. Without opening the book we can see the novel is comprised of at least 5 different "journals." Perhaps one might conclude from the network that language, record, collaboration, and communication are themes worth exploring. We also see that one of the "journals" is a phonograph (in the time of the novel, a new technology). Technology might be another theme. The character network also reveals that the networks within the male's "journals" (lots of connection, male characters interacting in tight groups) and the female's "journals" (much more open, one on one interaction, less connectivity) are very different. Gender might be a big theme here. Dr. Seward's record comprises much of the text. His character being a doctor, a psychiatrist, and quite learned might say something about "institutions" playing a large role in the text. Quite clearly this character network reveals some important aspects of the text, and can help point students in the right direction, or result in worthwhile questions 

               Viewed before reading a character network might beg questions of the reader. Viewed after the reading the network might spark discussion of certain aspects of a text, result in further questions, or present answers in a visual form. I am of the belief that text visualizations, and character networks, when combined with traditional methods can be an extremely valuable digital tool for exploring literature and the humanities.

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