According to an article in the Guardian, Victorian novels helped us evolve into better people. Classic novels like Dracula and Middlemarch ‘instilled the values of cooperation and the suppression of hunger for power’.
The despicable acts of Count Dracula, the unending selflessness of Dorothea in Middlemarch and Mr Darcy’s personal transformation in Pride and Prejudice helped to uphold social order and encouraged altruistic genes to spread through Victorian society, according to an analysis by evolutionary psychologists.
Their research suggests that classic British novels from the 19th century not only reflect the values of Victorian society, they also shaped them. Archetypal novels from the period extolled the virtues of an egalitarian society and pitted cooperation and affability against individuals’ hunger for power and dominance. For example in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Dorothea Brooke turns her back on wealth to help the poor, while Bram Stoker’s nocturnal menace, Count Dracula, comes to represent the worst excesses of aristocratic dominance.
The team of evolutionary psychologists, led by Joseph Carroll at the University of Missouri in St Louis, applied Darwin’s theory of evolution to literature by asking 500 academics to fill in questionnaires on characters from 201 classic Victorian novels. The respondents were asked to define characters as protagonists or antagonists, rate their personality traits, and comment on their emotional response to the characters.
This, of course, is old news to anyone who reads this blog. I’ve said over and over again: story teaches us who we are, both severally and collectively.
Novels are stories. Story helps us figure out who we are as individuals. Story helps us understand our culture, how it works, and how we fit in it. Novels are a reflection of our best selves, and a guide. Really good novels do this really well, by taking us there, helping us live a life we’ve never actually experienced. We should all read more of them.
16 thoughts on “novels make us better people”
Amen to that.
I’m all for it. Oppressive governments censor or ban literature because it can change us. What I read and whom I choose to love have been the most powerful influences in my life. In a very basic way, books have kept me alive.
i hope what you write is true! i am allergic to books…LOL and i am hoping to pick up the reading habit
maybe reading this site is like an on going encouragement for me to keep reading …LOL
Books are as necessary as beer to me.>><>pepito<>, make sure you pick a good story. The story is more important than the ‘beautiful prose’. Though if you get both at once, it’s gold.
I absolutely agree, but – I can’t help wondering if “we” (ie Western society) haven’t become a little too obsessed with fictional worlds of all kinds. Stories might be like food; some is essential, but too much is unhealthy, and there’s way too much easily available junk out there. (And even too much otherwise healthy food is bad for you…)
<>nicola,<> thanks for sharing this article. I won’t be so reluctant to enroll in the Victoria Lit course I must take over the summer. I can now look at it from an evolutionist perspective. >>And beer being as necessary as books… never thought of it that way. For me, it would be caffeine. I’m pretty sure that if we were forced to pick just one of those needs, books would come out victorious. >><>barbara,<> ditto. >><>Jon,<> I get your point, but of <>all the available junk out there<>, IMO, fiction—even the trashy kind—is the least harmful option from both a sociological and ecological perspective. It doesn’t piss me off to think of legions of gamers lusting after World of Warcraft quests and epic weapons and armor, only to discard them for better ones after a week. But it makes my mouth foam when people expect to be able to trade in their cellphones every three months, their cars every three years, and do so cheaply. I think the difference, in my head, is that fiction and virtual worlds do not rely on bullying China, India, Mexico, and so on into using up their natural resources and slave labor to make junk available and disposable to the First World. I’d much rather have an economy built around the compulsive consumption of fiction and virtual goods, plus food and basic needs, than one that depends on producing ton after ton of tangible trash. >>Eek! It seems I’m on rant mode these days. Also, this is a general rant, not directed at you, Jon. You novelist; you good. And I enjoyed your open letter to Mexico City. I agree with most of your criticism—not the point about mango Gatorade, I think that’s an okay flavor and that God approves of it, too. ;-)
I can’t remember who it was, but I read somewhere that novels were opportunities to try on different ways of being. They allow a reader to slip into the skin of another person and experience the world through another lens. Ideally, you gain some perspective but also make value judgments about what kind of person you are, or aspire to be, in contrast. Anyway, it poses an interesting challenge to a writer, to create the kind of skin that a reader would want to try on.
<>karina, jon<>, I think bad story can be bad, if it encourages cliche and comfort with cliches. But story is relative. What is cliche to me may be a blinding revelation to someone else, and vice versa.>><>whiteskye<>, well, I’ve said that fairly often, but also Ann Patchett said something similar recently in the < HREF="http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123214794600191819.html" REL="nofollow">Wall Street Journal<>. It’s the mirror neuron thing.
Well, it’s certainly possible this was where I read that. In which case I’ve just quoted you to you ::cringe:: how embarrassing!
I’m sorry you’re embarrassed but it makes me feel pretty clever to be quoted :)
I’m just glad to know where the idea comes from. It’s stuck with me (obviously) and I preface things waaay too often with “I don’t remember where I read this, but…” One less now. I like it because it’s true, but also evocative and a little confrontational. Worth embarrassing myself for.
I’m like that with visuals. I have all kinds of images snatched from the web over the last dozen years that I don’t know who they’re by or where they’re from. I’ve learnt to label them immediately now, but that doesn’t help with the ones from long ago. I’m looking forward to Google making their image search image based, instead of text based.
You might like < HREF="http://tineye.com/login" REL="nofollow">this<> Nicola. It’s an image search engine.
Wow, thank you! I found that picture of Bamburgh Castle I’ve been looking for for ages. Oh, this has really pleased me.
Cool! I’m glad it works. I heard about it recently as a way for photographers to track their work, but I’ve never tried it.
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