A (Proper) Statistical analysis of the prose works of Samuel Beckett


Content warning: If you want to get to the fun parts, the results of an analysis of Beckett’s use of language, skip to sections VII and VIII. Everything before that is navel-gazing methodology stuff.

If you want to know how I carried out my analysis, and utilise my code for your own purposes, here’s a link to my R code on my blog, with step-by-step instructions, because not enough places on the internet include that.

I: Things Wrong with my Dissertation’s Methodology

For my masters, I wrote a 20000 word dissertation, which took as its subject, an empirical analysis of the works of Samuel Beckett. I had a corpus of his entire works with the exception of his first novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women, which is a forgivable lapse, because he ended up cannibalising it for his collection of short stories, More Pricks than Kicks.

Quantitative literary analysis is generally carried out in one of two ways, through either one of the open-source programming languages Python or R. The former you’ve more likely to have heard of, being one of the few languages designed with usability in mind. The latter, R, would be more familiar to specialists, or people who work in the social sciences, as it is more obtuse than Python, doesn’t have many language cousins and has a very unfriendly learning curve. But I am attracted to difficulty, so I am using it for my PhD analysis.

I had about four months to carry out my analysis, so the idea of taking on a programming language in a self-directed learning environment was not feasible, particularly since I wanted to make a good go at the extensive body of secondary literature written on Beckett. I therefore made use of a corpus analysis tool called Voyant. This was a couple of years ago, so this was before its beta release, when it got all tricked out with some qualitative tools and a shiny new interface, which would have been helpful. Ah well. It can be run out of any browser, if you feel like giving it a look.

My analysis was also chronological, in that it looked at changes in Beckett’s use of language over time, with a view to proving the hypothesis that he used a less wide vocabulary as his career continued, in pursuit of his famed aesthetic of nothingness or deprivation. As I wanted to chart developments in his prose over time, I dated the composition of each text, and built a corpus for each year, from 1930–1987, excluding of course, years in which he just wrote drama, poetry, which wouldn’t be helpful to quantify in conjunction with one another. Which didn’t stop me doing so for my masters analysis. It was a disaster.

II: Uniqueness

Uniqueness, the measurement used to quantify the general spread of Beckett’s vocabulary, was obtained by the generally accepted formula below:

unique word tokens / total words

There is a problem with this measurement, in that it takes no account of a text’s relative length. As a text gets longer, the likelihood of each word being used approaches 1. Therefore, a text gets less unique as it gets bigger. I have the correlations to prove it:

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-12-18-03There have been various solutions proposed to this quandary, which stymies our comparative analyses, somewhat. One among them is the use of vectorised measurements, which plot the text’s declining uniqueness against its word count, so we see a more impressionistic graph, such as this one, which should allow us to compare the word counts for James Joyce’s novels, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and his short story collection, Dubliners.


All well and good for two or maybe even five texts, but one can see how, with large scale corpora, this sort of thing can get very incoherent very quickly. Furthermore, if one was to examine the numbers on the y-axis, one can see that the differences here are tiny. This is another idiosyncrasy of stylostatistical methods; because of the way syntax works, the margins of difference wouldn’t be regarded as significant by most statisticians. These issues relating to the measurement are exacerbated by the fact that ‘particles,’ the atomic structures of literary speech, (it, is, the, a, an, and, said, etc.) make up most of a text. In pursuit of greater statistical significance for their papers, digital literary critics remove these particles from their texts, which is another unforgivable that we do anyway. I did not, because I was concerned that I was complicit in the neoliberalisation of higher education. I also wrote a 4000 word chapter that outlined why what I was doing was awful.

IV: Ambiguity

The formula for ambiguity was arrived at by the following formula:

number of indefinite pronouns/total word count

I derived this measurement from Dr. Ian Lancashire’s study of the works of Agatha Christie, and counted Beckett’s use of a set of indefinite pronouns, ‘everyone,’ ‘everybody,’ ‘everywhere,’ ‘everything,’ ‘someone,’ ‘somebody,’ ‘somewhere,’ ‘something,’ ‘anyone,’ ‘anybody,’ ‘anywhere,’ ‘anything,’ ‘no one,’ ‘nobody,’ ‘nowhere,’ and ‘nothing.’ Those of you who know that there are more indefinite pronouns than just these, you are correct, I had found an incomplete list of indefinite pronouns, and I assumed that that was all. This is just one of the many things wrong with my study. My theory was that there were to be correlations to be detected in Beckett’s decreasing vocabulary, and increasing deployment of indefinite pronouns, relative to the total word count. I called the vocabulary measure ‘uniqueness,’ and the indefinite pronouns measure I called ‘ambiguity.’ This in tenuous I know, indefinite pronouns advance information as they elide the provision of information. It is, like so much else in the quantitative analysis of literature, totally unforgivable, yet we do it anyway.

V: Hapax Richness

I initially wanted to take into account another phenomenon known as the hapax score, which charts occurrences of words that appear only once in a text or corpus. The formula to obtain it would be the following:

number of words that appear once/total word count

I believe that the hapax count would be of significance to a Beckett analysis because of the points at which his normally incompetent narrators have sudden bursts of loquaciousness, like when Molloy says something like ‘digital emunction and the peripatetic piss,’ before lapsing back into his ‘normal’ tone of voice. Once again, because I was often working with a pen and paper, this became impossible, but now that I know how to code, I plan to go over my masters analysis, and do it properly. The hapax score will form a part of this new analysis.

VI: Code & Software

A much more accurate way of analysing vocabulary, for the purposes of comparative analysis when your texts are of different lengths, therefore, would be to randomly sample it. Obviously not very easy when you’re working with a corpus analysis tool online, but far more straightforward when working through a programming language. A formula for representative sampling was found, and integrated into the code. My script is essentially a series of nested loops and if/else statements, that randomly and sequentially sample a text, calculate the uniqueness, indefiniteness and hapax density ten times, store the results in a variable, and then calculate the mean value for each by dividing the result by ten, the number of times that the first loop runs. I inputted each value into the statistical analysis program SPSS, because it makes pretty graphs with less effort than R requires.

VII: Results

I used SPSS’ box plot function first to identify any outliers for uniqueness, hapax density and ambiguity. 1981 was the only year which scored particularly high for relative usage of indefinite pronouns.


It should be said that this measure too, is correlated to the length of the text, which only stands to reason; as a text gets longer the relative incidence of a particular set of words will decrease. Therefore, as the only texts Beckett wrote this year, ‘The Way’ and ‘Ceiling,’ both add up to about 582 words (the fifth lowest year for prose output in his life), one would expect indefiniteness to be somewhat higher in comparison to other years. However, this doesn’t wholly account for its status as an outlier value. Towards the end of his life Beckett wrote increasingly short prose pieces. Comment C’est (How It Is) was his last novel, and was written almost thirty years before he died. This probably has a lot to do with his concentration on writing and directing his plays, but in his letters he attributed it to a failure to progress beyond the third novel in his so-called trilogy of Molloy, Malone meurt (Malone Dies) and L’innomable (The Unnamable). It is in the year 1950, the year in which L’inno was completed, that Beckett began writing the Textes pour rien (Texts for Nothing), scrappy, disjointed pieces, many of which seem to be taking up from where L’inno left off, similarly the Fizzles and the Faux Départs. ‘The Way,’ I think, is an outgrowth of a later phase in Beckett’s prose writing, which dispenses the peripatetic loquaciousness and the understated lyricism of the trilogy and replaces it with a more brute and staccato syntax, one which is often dependent on the repetition of monosyllables:

No knowledge of where gone from. Nor of how. Nor of whom. None of whence come to. Partly to. Nor of how. Nor of whom. None of anything. Save dimly of having come to. Partly to. With dread of being again. Partly again. Somewhere again. Somehow again. Someone again.

Note also the prevalence of particle words, that will have been stripped out for the analysis, and the ways in which words with a ‘some’ prefix are repeated as a sort of refrain. This essential structure persists in the work, or at least the artefact of the work that the code produces, and hence of it, the outlier that it is.


From plotting all the values together at once, we can see that uniqueness is partially dependent on hapax density; the words that appear only once in a particular corpus would be important in driving up the score for uniqueness. While there could said to be a case for the hypothesis that Beckett’s texts get less unique, more ambiguous up until 1944, when he completed his novel Watt, and if we’re feeling particularly risky, up until 1960 when Comment C’est was completed, it would be wholly disingenuous to advance it beyond this point, when his style becomes far too erratic to categorise definitively. Comment C’est is Beckett’s most uncompromising prose work. It has no punctuation, no capitalisation, and narrates the story of two characters, in a kind of love, who communicate with one another by banging kitchen implements off another:

as it comes bits and scraps all sorts not so many and to conclude happy end cut thrust DO YOU LOVE ME no or nails armpit and little song to conclude happy end of part two leaving only part three and last the day comes I come to the day Bom comes YOU BOM me Bom ME BOM you Bom we Bom

VIII: Conclusion

I would love to say that the general tone is what my model is being attentive to, which is why it identified Watt and How It Is as nadirs in Beckett’s career but I think their presence on the chart is more a product of their relative length, as novels, versus the shorter pieces which he moved towards in his later career. Clearly, Beckett’s decision to write shorter texts, make this means of summing up his oeuvre in general, insufficient. Whatever changes Beckett made to his aesthetic over time, we might not need to have such complicated graphs to map, and I could have just used a word processor to find it — length. Bom and Pim aside, for whatever reason after having written L’inno none of Beckett’s creatures presented themselves to him in novelistic form again. The partiality of vision and modal tone which pervades the post-L’inno works demonstrates, I think far more effectively what is was that Beckett was ‘pitching’ for, a new conceptual aspect to his prose, which re-emphasised its bibliographic aspects, the most fundamental of which was their brevity, or the appearance of an incompleteness, by virtue of being honed to sometimes less than five hundred words.

The quantification of differing categories of words seems like a radical, and the most fun, thing to quantify in the analysis of literary texts, as the words are what we came for, but the problem is similar to one that overtakes one who attempts to read a literary text word by word by word, and unpack its significance as one goes: overdetermination. Words are kaleidoscopic, and the longer you look at them, the more threatening their darkbloom becomes, the more they swallow, excrete, the more alive they are, all round. Which is fine. Letting new things into your life is what it should be about, until their attendant drawbacks become clear, and you start to become ambivalent about all the fat and living things you have in your head. You start to wish you read poems instead, rather than novels, which make you go mad, and worse, start to write them. The point is words breed words, and their connections are too easily traced by computer. There’s something else about knowing that their exact correlations to a decimal point. They seem so obvious now.

Seán O’Casey’s ‘Juno and the Paycock,’ Easter 1916 and re-invention

sean-ocaseyHistorian Roy Foster recently gave a lecture in Trinity College entitled: “”An Inheritance From Our Forefathers”? Historians and the Memory of the Irish Revolution.” In his speech, Foster proposed a radically different reading on the events surrounding 1916. For most people, 1916 marks the ostensible beginning of the modern Irish independence movement moving beyond the cultural sphere, events which follow neatly through to the War of Independence, the civil war, the declaration of the Republic and the establishment of partition as a political framework. In this decade of commemoration, already a cliché, a more unified, or retrospectively conscious perspective may be welcome in buckling existing narratives. They’ll help to assuage to tedium of an apparently endless sequence of vapid panel discussions on radio that rarely seem to move beyond a Leaving Certificate level of historical analysis, window-dressing Republicanism to keep Sinn Féin out of government, or worst of all, newspaper supplements.

Rather than seeing the Rising as the beginning, Foster proposes viewing it as an end-point or termination of pre-revolutionary trends, a marker of a generational crisis. For Foster, the real revolution was the series of land acts of the late-nineteenth century which incentivised English landlords to sell their land to Irish farmers, who in many cases, turned out to be more draconian in extracting rents from  their tenants than their English counterparts. This massive transfer of capital and establishment of a native land-owning class could explain why Ireland was capable of ‘settling’ so (relatively) quickly after its revolution and consequent political convulsions, why its quite radical rising became conservatised with such rapidity. Those who were most involved the rising and inculcated its participants were members of a radical, educated middle class and Foster frames them as somewhat immature angsty young people, rebelling against their parents and fashioning their own values in opposition to forces that they regarded as oppressive.

This notion of Easter 1916 as an exercise in re-invention or the formulation of a novel identity interests me as I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on a trilogy of novels, in which identity and the re-invention thereof forms a substantial part of its subject matter, namely Roddy Doyle’s The Last Round-up Trilogy, in the three novels,  A Star Called Henry, Oh, Play That Thing and The Dead Republic, we see the protagonist, Henry Smart conceptualise himself as a mythic figure from out the Celtic mists, a working class hero, linchpin of the IRA, self-conscious exile, self-made man, immigrant hero, inveterate capitalist and finally, a family man, of a sort. I should add, that while he’s doing all this gallivanting, he’s abandoned his wife, daughter and son.

One also thinks of Johnny’s line in Sean O’Casey’s play Juno and the Paycock, probably the only point in the play when he isn’t complaining about noise, (a potential gesture towards his fairly obvious PTSD, a result of his role in fighting for Ireland during the War of Independence) when it is made known that the Boyle family is to inherit a small fortune. Johnny’s immediate contribution is: “We’ll be able to get out o’ this place now, an’ go somewhere we’re not known,” perhaps indicating how closely related re-invention and revolt was in the mind of the revolutionary generation.

This is all covered more thoroughly in Foster’s recent study, Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923. At least, I imagine it is. I haven’t actually read it.

Reading Lessons from Martin Heidegger

martin-heidegger-2Trying to derive an aesthetic system or outlook from Martin Heidegger’s writings on art in Poetry, Language, Thought is an errand for fools; Heidegger explicitly rules out the idea that his hermeneutic philosophy, or at least, his philosophy which inclines itself towards hermeneutics, is concerned with aisthesis, or the apprehension of an artwork. Instead, he subsumes it within his wider philosophical task, to get to the nature of Being, note the capital B.

For Heidegger, Western philosophy has insufficiently grappled with ontology. René Descartes made a mistake in trying to determine what is, Heidegger thinks he should have thought a bit more about what is is. What exactly we mean by Being is complicated by the alienating processes of industrialisation, mercantilism and urbanisation, which have left us with an increasingly utilitarian sense of things in the world. Instead of enquiring into the nature of what something is, we define it relative to its use-value. Heidegger writes that art is also part of this wider enquiry into Being, that this is the primary function of ‘poets’ – which I decide to extend as a catch-all term for artists in a more general sense – to do exactly what it is that Heidegger is doing, and reach a more nuanced definition of Being. This might seem like a self-involved or solipsistic manoeuvrer, but if you came from a national literary tradition as philosophically inclined as Heidegger (Rilke, Goethe) you might well agree with him.

So how would one read a text in a Heideggerian way? Well, Heidegger was always more interested in the posing of further questions than in proposing resolutions. There’s very little in Poetry, Language, Thought that one could hope to derive a positive methodology from, unless saying something like ‘The answer to this has six primary components,’ and providing a long digression on said components is your notion of pragmatism. Interestingly, one of his students, more invested in heremeneutic philosophy as an autonomous branch of philosophical enquiry, Hans Georg-Gadamer, is similarly anti-systematic, perceiving the work of art as something that makes you subject to its meaning-makings. In this schema, the process of interpretation is something that leaves the putative reader behind, meaning overtakes your agency as it establishes itself. Which I think could be productively linked with the writings of Heidegger which attempt to justify National Socialism. Digression for another time.

Rather than describe how the work of art works on us, Heidegger divvies it up into increasingly thin components, the allegory of the form/content binary, within which there is the form-matter, which is distinct in itself, the process of ‘worlding’ that a work of art inaugurates, ‘the earth’ on which the work dwells and many, many other features which contemporary literary critics would probably understand, rightly or wrongly, as relating to a work’s context.

There is a tendency in the wake of Jacques Derrida, particularly when he seemed to be such an attentive reader of these philosophers supposedly foundational to post-structuralism, such as Heidegger, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, that within these philosopher’s works are the germs of Derrida’s system of thought. Therefore Heidegger’s insistence on the context being made up of these manifold sections, interdependently and intricately linked, may create a sense that this structure is about to be deconstructed, and lapse into its own angst. In fact, Heidegger is very clear that these sections retain their formal integrity, each may be articulated relative to and within the other, as is the case in Derrida’s re-formulation of Ferdinand de Saussure’s differential networks of meaning, but within this mutual articulation, they remain solid. This comes across in a very interesting passage that describes the process of building a bridge:

“It does not just connect banks that are already there. The banks emerge as banks only as the bridge lies across the stream. The bridge designedly causes them to lie across from each other. One side is set off against the other by the bridge…With the banks, the bridge belongs to the stream the one and the other expanse of the landscape around the stream.”

By coming to an understanding of what is outlined in this perhaps wilfully obtuse paragraph, Heidegger hopes that we may come to an understanding of art which will provide a place of dwelling rather than merely a refuge, a place that we can authentically ‘live’ within, rather than merely taking refuge. Hear, hear, I say, probably.

Deleuze and Guattari’s Geology of Literary Style

rhizomeWhen I was drafting my PhD proposal, I read a few sources on literary style, in order to come to a working definition of style, or an academic consensus on the matter to rail against. I didn’t want something simplistically formalistic that referred to vehicles, tenors, modes or what have you, but I also didn’t want a post-Derridean account, that described style as a limit-case/fault line/discourse rupture, an everything and nothing at once. These kind of critical stymieings, excessive nuancing to the point of inertia have gotten a bit wearying after five years of seeing them deployed, so I was hoping to get to some kind of working definition. Emphasis on ‘working’ considering I would be carrying out pragmatic actual tasks, via computation, which were to be finalised once I had my definition.

It was surprisingly challenging to track one down, and more often than not I was thrown back onto my own reflections on literary style, and what we talk about when we talk about it. Here, I think we stumble across its primary shortcoming as a delineator. People talk about Virginia Woolf’s interior, lyrical style, Jorge Luis Borges’ staid, cold style and Ernest Hemmingway’s staccato, pared back style. The difficulty with these simplistic accounts is that an author’s style generally encapsulates what it is that makes them unique in literary discourse in general. This isn’t necessarily surprising; most of what we detect in a writer’s style is what throws us out of our reading habits. When Foster Wallace frenetically re-instates the subject of a clause at its end, a technique he becomes increasingly reliant on asInfinite Jest proceeds, we notice it, and it becomes increasingly to the fore in our sense of his style.  But, in the grand scheme of the one-thousand some page novel, the extent to which this technique is made use of is statistically speaking, insignificant. Sentences like “She tied the tapes,” in Between the Acts, for instance, pass our awareness by because of their pedestrian qualities, much like many other sentences that contain words such as ‘said,’ because of the extent to which any text’s fabric is predominantly composed of such “filler.”

This dearth of attention directed to the ‘particles’ of literary materials, is a lot of what digital humanities projects present themselves as a corrective to, by looking at the macroeconomic, we can transcend our human fixation on shiny objects (read: pretty sentences), and gain a fuller understanding of a text’s style, liberated from the shortcomings of our usual reading habits.

Of course, this newfound command over an entire text does not prevent the critic from mounting flawed arguments; many digital humanities projects from its earlier experiments in literary analysis too frequently gave into Rubik’s cube thinking, attempting to tame indeterminacy, by solving a text via enumerative techniques. This is exactly the kind of objective approach I didn’t want to fall into when visualising and narrating data trends.

Franco Moretti’s work in the Stanford Lit Lab proved beneficial in opening me up to more diffuse and multi-perspectival digital methodologies; by visualising a text on a number of different textual levels. Moretti’s contention that the data shows the activation of different stylistic features scale is directly correlated to the differentiation of textual functions is positively invigorating, as it is as far removed from the Rubik’s cube mentality as is possible to get; it essentially concedes that what we see when we look at a text depends on the way that we’re looking at it. Yes, Moretti is talking about topic modelling rather than style, but for my purposes I’ll ignore that. I also enjoy that it seems to be a computational analogue to the psychedelic nature of literary criticism – the longer we look at a text, even a shorter one, perhaps even especially a shorter one, the more we see. Diversifying our means of approach therefore provides the critic with a disparate sequence of differentiated visualisations, Enright may be meaningfully analogous to, dunno, Proust from the perspective of the entire text, but on a word to word, sentence to sentence, chapter to chapter, etc. comparison, we may turn up more unexpected results.

I still lacked a conceptual, theoretical system to connect this approach with, until I read the third chapter of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, ’10, 000 BC: The Geology of Morals (Who Does the Earth Think It Is?)’ In this chapter, Deleuze and Guattari make use of the discipline of geology in order to outline a number of theories concerning form, content, ideology and the articulations thereof.  The unorthodox appropriation of geology is part of Deleuze and Guattari’s wider usage of theories and concepts outside of traditional philosophy, in order to subvert the staid formula of normative philosophical argumentation, wherein a summary is given of problem 1, why the solution A posited by philosopher z is insufficient and why solution B posited by philosopher y is even more so, and how both (and every other philosophy in the history of the discipline, by extension) have overlooked a solution that I alone have realised. This is all beside the point and I mention it only to indicate how smart I am.

In any case, the earth, and, for my purposes, a literary text is composed of a number of strata, differing layers, which contain, compose and construct otherwise transitory particles, making them subject to more macroeconomic structures of order. In this way, they simplify their contents, as particles move between these strata erratically. One should think of strata as totalising senses of an author’s style, whereas the particles are more subtle, granular features that disappear and re-appear in and outside of particular strata. Form and content are singularly intermingled on the level of the stratum, and are merely a function of primary and secondary articulation.

Strata in turn are composed of epistrata and parastrata, which further undermines any attempt someone, like a mad person, would make to get a stable grasp on exactly what it is Deleuze and Guattari mean when they lay out this seemingly intractable schema. The strata model is a challenge to systematic modes of thought, such as structuralism, so it offers no stability, but for me, this is precisely its appeal. Any interpretation on a particular textual level, such as stratum d, which we could equate to word choice, for instance, samples one among many protean strata, composed of other strata, made relative to a machinic assemblage, itself a stratified metastratum, which becomes involved in its, the strata’s dual articulations along the lines of form and content. Simple.

The key here is that it avoids closure, it is a theoretical construct that is anathema to pragmatists, and on that basis, even if my numbers add up, any conclusions I reach with them will be, by virtue of association,  strictly provisional.