‘This, reader, is no fiction’: Examining the Rhetorical Uses of Direct Address Across the Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Novel

Gabrielle Kirilloff (gkirilloff@gmail.com), University of Nebraska-Lincoln, United States of America

Though directly addressing the reader in fiction is often associated with cloying sentimentality, many different forms of direct address are employed across nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels. Upton Sinclair’s use of address in
The Jungle engulfs the reader in a tactile, fictional world, “your knife is slippery, and you are toiling like mad, when somebody happens to speak to you, or you strike a bone” (12). While Harriet Beecher Stowe’s
Uncle Tom’s Cabin uses address to implicate the reader in systems of oppression, “And now, men and women of America, is this [slavery] a thing to be trifled with, apologized for, and passed over in silence?” (578). What is fascinating about address, is not only that it can be put to such a variety of purposes, but that these purposes are often antithetical, and have drastically different effects on real readers.

This project seeks to answer questions about the historical usage of address by employing computational methods to detect and extract instances of address from a corpus of 2,000 nineteenth- and early twentieth-century novels.


I examine how the frequency of address changes over time and among different groups of authors (such as female authors and African-American authors). In order to detect address I utilize a pattern matching approach that uses regular expressions to match sentences outside of dialogue that contain certain keywords, such as “reader,” “you,” and “this story.” To remove dialogue from the corpus, I developed a pattern matching approach that eliminates quotations. This method accounts for various typographical inconsistencies, including missing quotation marks, embedded quotations, and quotations that extend across paragraphs. In order to learn more about the different types of address that authors have employed, I then used the Stanford Dependency Parser on the sentences extracted from each novel. The Parser is a tool that provides a representation of grammatical relations between words in a sentence. This allowed me to examine the adjectives used to describe the reader or the verbs the reader performs in moments of address. In addition, I performed sentiment analysis on the sentences extracted from each novel using the Syuzhet package in R in order to track the emotional valence of address.

The results from the study indicate the prevalence of address across literary periods. Notably, the mean number of sentences containing address in each novel remains steady over time. Of the 2,000 novels examined, 1,864 contain address, with each novel on average containing 49 instances of address. These results are unexpected given the hypothesis put forward by Garett Stewart in
Dear Reader: “outlawed in modernism, address went underground [at the beginning of the twentieth-century]” (33). The frequency of address and its prevalence across time push against the critical association (noted by Robyn Warhol in
Gendered Interventions) of address with mid-nineteenth-century Victorian sentimentality. While the frequency of address remains relatively constant, the form of address radically fluctuates: authors decreasingly use “reader” to address their public in favor of addressing readers as “you.”

Address is also correlated with author gender: male authors address their readers more frequently than female authors. Overall, address authored my female writers has a more “positive” emotional valence than address authored by male writers. In addition, male authors are more likely than female authors to use the word “reader” (rather than “you”) in moments of address. Although there are notable exceptions, the distribution of “you” and “reader” maintains its correlation with author gender across time and nationality. These results intersect with Robyn Warhol’s argument that female authors, more so than male authors, employ the intimate and personal “you” to foster a sense of connection with their readers in order to evoke sympathy for social causes.

Appendix A

  1. Stowe, Harriet Beecher. (2009).
    Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  2. Sinclair, Upton. (2005).
    The Jungle. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
  3. Stewart, Garett. (1996).
    Dear Reader: The Conscripted Audience in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  4. Warhol, Robyn. (1989).
    Gendered Interventions: Narrative discourse in the Victorian Novel. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

The corpus is 70% male and 30% female authored; 70% American and 30% British. The texts come from freely available sources. The texts were written between 1800 and 1923.

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