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'This, Reader, Is No Fiction': Examining the Rhetorical Uses of Reader Address across the Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Novel

Gabi Kirilloff, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


As a rhetorical device, reader address can be put to a variety of seemingly contradictory purposes; address can both pull the reader into the story (“you feel yourself sinking, sinking, down into bottomless abysses”) and draw attention to discourse (“With the reader's permission I beg, at this point of my narrative, to indulge in one or two extrinsic observations”). The use of address is tied to specific rhetorical goals: authors can use address to foster sympathy, implicate readers, and incite fear. Though address has been discussed within the context of individual narratives (for example, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre), this dissertation takes a broader approach by combining “distant” and close reading techniques to look at the historical trends in the usage of address across the nineteenth century. I ask questions such as: do male and female authors tend to address their readers differently? Does address diminish over the course of the nineteenth century? In order to examine address at a broad scale, I employ a series of computational tools to automate the detection and extraction of address from a large corpus of 2,000 Anglophone novels. I also use computational methods and natural language processing techniques such as dependency parsing and sentiment analysis to analyze address. These methods have proven largely successful: of the sentences of address detected by the model in a thirty novel test corpus, 80% were correctly classified. The results from this work point toward the prevalence of address across literary periods, genres, and authors. In addition, the results raise several interesting questions such as: why, contrary to popular belief, does address not diminish at the turn of the century? Why do African-American authors use different forms of address than their contemporaries? In engaging these questions, I examine texts as distinct as Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! , Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and Frank J. Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends. I argue that through examining address, we can learn more about the novel as a genre. I also posit that the combination of conventional and computational literary scholarship that I employ offers a productive model for future work.

Subject Area

American literature|British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Kirilloff, Gabi, "'This, Reader, Is No Fiction': Examining the Rhetorical Uses of Reader Address across the Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Novel" (2018). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI10840949.