Why Dead Authors Can Thrill Modern Readers

An interesting introduction to literary Darwinism, from LiveScience.com:

Carroll hypothesized that modern readers would
gravitate toward protagonists who displayed pro-social tendencies or promoted
group cooperation — similar to how ancestral human hunter-gatherers valued such

He joined forces with another Literary Darwinist, Jonathan
Gottschall, as well as two evolutionary psychologists on the study. Their
online survey asked respondents to identify characters from classic 19th
century British novels as protagonists, antagonists, or minor characters, and
to rate character traits and emotional responses based on a psychological model
of personality.

As predicted, people rated protagonists as displaying
cooperative behavior that produced feel-good, positive responses from readers.
They rated antagonists as being motivated by desire for social dominance, which
drew negative emotional responses.

The study also found strong agreement among respondents
rating character traits, even if just two people responded regarding a certain
character. “Pride and Prejudice” had no lack of responses — 81 people
showed a familiarity with heroine Elizabeth Bennett that might have made the
Austen protagonist blush.

2 thoughts on “Why Dead Authors Can Thrill Modern Readers

  1. In these cases I am always more interested in the exceptions than the rule, such as Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights, who was mentioned in the article. The trend in modern fiction has been (I think) more Heathcliffs, particularly in postmodern fiction.
    What are the literary evolutionary implications of this trend? An unfavorable mutation in an isolated population?

  2. Interesting stuff! But the more I muse over it, the more it upsets me. Literary Darwinism is the dreamwish of taste critics. Only the strongest literary characters survive? This is dangerous thinking! Art exists to reveal alternatives to such overgeneralizing metanarratives. The study also contradicts itself. Think about it: the very notion that readers favor “cooperative behavior” over “social dominance” suggests to me that they don’t inherently favor one character over another in the first place, but are responding to the social allegory or some other wider spectrum of thematics than simply how one “dominant” character behaves. Pah!

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