Math has so much to offer readers. It can open up wonderfully new ways to enjoy literature. But we must first allow ourselves to reject the idea that science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are somehow incompatible with the humanities. Recently, I permitted myself precisely such a rejection while reviewing a young adult literature book called The Duke of Bannerman Prep modeled off a well-known classic The Great Gatsby.
What I found warmed my literary heart.
Two Books to Compare
When I read The Duke of Bannerman Prep by Katie A. Nelson, I did so with The Great Gatsby in mind. As the promotional materials made clear, the Duke was written as a “re-telling” of the Gatsby. With that in mind, it is hard not to read the former without frequent comparisons to the latter–especially as it relates to the books’ characters.
|Characters in Gatsby
|Characters in Bannerman
The characters in the two books line up pretty neatly. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, Gatsby befriends Nick (who crushes hard on Jordan) so he can get close to Nick’s cousin Daisy who happens to be married to Tom. In Nelson’s novel, the Duke befriends Tanner (who crushes hard on Kelsey) so he can get close to Tanner’s cousin Abby who happens to be dating Blake.
Correlation Coefficients of Character Names in Gatsby and Bannerman
In order to gain greater insight, I analyzed the literary data for the two books. Each dataset contained the frequency with which every word in the book was used per chapter. Then, I used a common formula to determine the correlation coefficient for key characters’ names. A correlation coefficient provides a kind of score for the way data points relate to each other. When Fitzgerald writes Gatsby’s name, for instance, how often is the name Daisy also used? Are they always used similarly together, or do they diverge? The scores range from -1 (indicating very weak correlation) to 1 (indicating very strong correlation). And a 0 indicates a neutral relationship.
Character Correlations in Gatsby
A look at the word frequency data from Fitzgerald’s novel reveals two interesting observations. First, the names Daisy and Tom are strongly correlated with a coefficient of 0.86. This makes sense, given the fact that they are husband and wife. But one would be remiss to forget that Daisy spends significant narrative time with Gatsby, yet Gatsby’s correlation with Daisy’s name is 0.66. To be clear, 0.66 is still a strong correlation, but it is 23% less than Tom’s name.
Seeing the numbers, for me, makes Gatsby’s love for Daisy all the more heartbreaking. Quantitatively speaking, did Gatsby ever really have a chance?
My second observation focuses on the correlation between the book’s narrator, Nick, and Gatsby. The coefficient is the lowest of the main characters at 0.17. Not quite neutral (which would be 0), but low.
Recalling the story, a low correlation between Nick and Gatsby does make sense. Nick’s voice might be ubiquitous throughout the novel, but his name is not. Fitzgerald chooses a first person narrator for his tale, which means that when Nick speaks it is often with an “I” rather than a “Nick.” Nick maintains a narrative (and statistical) distance from the characters whose story he is telling. That is not to say he is necessarily reliable, mind you, but distant. This observation is important, less so for one’s reading of The Great Gatsby alone, but certainly when comparing it with The Duke of Bannerman Prep.
Correlating Characters in Bannerman
When comparing correlation coefficients in The Duke of Bannerman Prep with The Great Gatsby, we see an unsurprising similarity and a significant distinction.
First, the similarity. Just as the names Daisy and Tom were strongly correlated in Gatsby, in Bannerman Prep we see a strong correlation between Abby and Blake with a coefficient of 0.70. It’s the strongest correlation of the main characters’ names by far. On the one hand, this correlation makes sense because Abby is also the Duke’s love interest and the tension with Blake creates the love triangle upon which a key storyline rests. On the other hand, seeing Blake’s coefficient this strong might misrepresent his character: his role in a love triangle and high coefficient score doesn’t change the fact that his character hardly evolves beyond that of a blunt instrumental oaf.
Next, a distinction. When I said that the correlation coefficient for Nick and Gatsby was only interesting when compared to Bannerman Prep, this is what I meant: Whereas Nick and Gatsby had a measly correlation coefficient of 0.17, Tanner and Duke have a correlation coefficient of 0.42! Why does that matter?
It matters because Tanner is a far more present and blatant narrator than Nick. Whereas Nick hid mostly in the narrative shadows of Gatsby’s story, Tanner puts himself right there in the story, often. I wondered at times whether the title of the book should be reconsidered. Something like The Duke of Bannerman Prep’s Friend, Tanner, Whom this Book is Really About.
Coefficients Don’t Lie
Exploring these books via literary data opened up new kinds of observations and insights for me. While I knew there was something bothering me about Tanner’s narration of the story, I couldn’t clearly articulate what it was until I saw the data. Ultimately, the data quantitatively validated the qualitative distaste I experienced as I got to know Tanner as a narrator.
As a result of Tanner leaning into the story he is telling, readers get shortchanged. Readers never get to really know the other characters very well. That’s not to say the characters aren’t enjoyable to read or even heartbreaking. Far from it: the Duke’s hidden past and Kelsey’s uncertain future had me eagerly awaiting their names’ appearances on pages.
But the richness of other characters was always filtered through Tanner’s perspective, his own motivations and storyline superseding most else. And Tanner just never interested me very much, in part because my narrative experience with Nick in reading Gatsby set my expectations perhaps too high. As with Gatsby, I expected to be led through Bannerman Prep by an understated narrator whom I trusted to put his own needs second to those of his titular friend.
Instead we get Tanner, who couldn’t get out of the Duke’s way if he tried. Nor would he want to. You can count on that.