Sunday, January 18, 2009

novels make us better people

Bela Lugosi as Dracula (1931). Bram Stoker's character embodied the worst excesses of aristocratic dominance. Photograph: Kobal

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.

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