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Victorian Novels Provide Timeless Psychological Insights

A new look at classic 19th-century novels reveals an understanding of behavior that largely mirrors the findings of modern psychological research.
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Over the past century, countless theories purporting to explain human behavior have been proposed, only to ultimately be modified or discarded. But as it turns out, there was one set of 19th-century writers whose insights into human nature were so nuanced and profound, they still ring true today.

Paging Dr. Austen. And Dr. Bronte. And, of course, Dr. Dickens.

“Victorian authors do seem to be good intuitive psychologists,” concludes a research team led by psychologist John Johnson of Pennsylvania State University, DuBois. According to a large-scale study published in the Journal of Research in Personality, the authors’ depiction of the personality traits, mating strategies and goal-oriented behavior of their characters “largely mirrors the view of those variables as revealed by modern research.”

After sending invitations to hundreds of English departments and individuals interested in Victorian-era literature, Johnson and his colleagues recruited 519 “raters,” each of whom agreed to assess at least one character. (About half the characters were assessed by more than one rater.) The researchers ultimately collected data on 432 characters from 143 canonical novels published between the early 19th and early 20th centuries — essentially, from Jane Austen to E.M. Forster.

The raters ranked the degree to which the character accomplished his or her primary goals. They then assessed the character’s underlying motivations, working from a list that included “finding or keeping a spouse,” “gaining or keeping wealth,” “making friends and forming alliances” and “building, creating or discovering something.”

If a character is engaged in one or more romantic relationships during the course of the novel, the raters assessed the qualities he or she finds attractive in a potential mate, differentiating between long-term and short-term attachments. These variables include physical attractiveness, power, prestige, intelligence and kindness.

Finally, the raters assessed the degree to which the character reflects five essential personality traits, including “extraverted, enthusiastic,” “critical, quarrelsome,” “dependable, self-disciplined” and “calm, emotionally stable.”

By crunching this data, the researchers created psychological profiles of these fictional characters. For example, the title character in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre scored “very low on extraversion, well above average on agreeableness and emotional stability, and high on conscientiousness and openness to experience.”

All in all, the novels depict a somewhat gentler society than our own (although whether that reflects the reality of the day or the authors’ idealized version of reality is open to question). “Male and female characters are portrayed as more alike than different, more as cooperative, equal partners than competitive rivals,” Johnson and his colleagues conclude.

“In today’s world, women are more agreeable than men, while men show higher levels of assertive, dominant behavior,” the researchers write. “Yet in Victorian novels, these differences are statistically nonsignificant. Furthermore, fictional male characters did not show the greater predilection for short-term mating that men show in today’s world.”

While that suggests a disconnect between the world of the novels and the one we live in, other behaviors were completely in line with the insights of modern evolutionary psychology.

“For a long-term mate, female characters valued extrinsic attributes more than male characters,” while “male characters valued physical attractiveness more than female characters,” the researchers report. Also as predicted, “Female characters showed a greater interest in long-term mating.”

A certain incongruity was found in the arena of personal success and how it is obtained. Today’s research suggests conscientiousness is the personality trait most associated with overall achievement. By contrast, “In Victorian novels, conscientiousness certainly plays an important role, but seems to be overshadowed in some ways by agreeableness.”

Agreeableness? In today’s self-centered society, a personality trait marked by altruism and compassion isn’t automatically associated with achievement. But the good-hearted often get rewarded in these classic novels.

“What could Victorian authors be accomplishing, whether intentionally or not, by giving agreeableness a more prominent role in strivings and achievement than conscientiousness?” Johnson and his colleagues ask. “One possibility is that authors at this time were trying to promote an egalitarian, communitarian ethos by emphasizing getting along over getting ahead.”

The antagonists of these novels are often depicted as “striving to get ahead by dominating others, refusing to engage in constructive group efforts, and behaving in a disagreeable fashion,” the researchers write. “Such behavior triggers off feelings of disapproval in readers. If these feelings carry over into real life, they may inhibit selfish strivings and motivate the suppression of selfish strivings in others.”

That’s a bit removed from the ethos of, say, Cormac McCarthy. Perhaps the continuing popularity of these literary works reflects not only their psychological acuity, but also the fact they soften some of the less appealing aspects of the masculine mindset. Book club discussion, anyone?