Theses Doctoral

Smart Characters: Psychometrics and the Twentieth-Century Novel

Michalowicz, Naomi

This dissertation examines how the trait of intelligence is portrayed in novels of twentieth-century Britain, and how this portrayal grapples with the quantitative revolution in the conception of intelligence, brought on by the invention of IQ testing in the 1900s. I trace the construction of characters’ intelligence across different genres, starting with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, through the modernist Bildungsromane of Henry James, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf, to Iris Murdoch’s realism, and finally to Lee Child’s late twentieth- century serial thrillers featuring Jack Reacher. I posit that the IQ model of intelligence as abstracted, quantified, and statistically measurable is profoundly at odds with the novelistic investment in the unique individual subject.

This project traces the narratological strategies of characterization through which intelligence—or cleverness, or smartness, or brightness—are conveyed to the reader. Novels, generally speaking, do not provide the IQ scores of their characters; and though we might occasionally encounter an explicit narratorial characterization of some fictional being or other as “remarkably clever,” most often we must rely on perceptions of behavior, speech, and thought in order to assess characters’ intelligence, much as we do in real life.

As the psychometric paradigm gained prominence in the psychological circles in the United States, England, and Europe, and as more people were exposed—and subjected—to intelligence testing, its values and assumptions gained more cultural traction. Attributes like mathematical facility, logical and systemic thinking, or a large vocabulary, are likely to yield a high score on an IQ test, as well as a favorable judgment in an informal, casual assessment, such as that of a date or a new acquaintance at a party. This dissertation, therefore, explores how this permeation of the psychometric paradigm into general culture affect the novelistic construction of smartness.

Ultimately, I argue that against the IQ model, the novels I am reading construct a conception of intelligence as a coherent set of cognitive abilities, remarkably consistent across genres, which overlaps, yet reconfigures, the priorities and epistemological frameworks of psychometrics. This model centers on the notion of observation, i.e., a mix of sensory susceptibility to impressions and the cognitive skill of taking notice of the world and of other people. It is both anchored to the body by connoting a sensory experience, and divorced from it in conveying a more purely cognitive process, one of directing attention and processing information, thus renegotiating psychometric assumptions regarding embodiment and sensory experience—as well as the relationship between the individual’s intelligence, the world, and the minds of others.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Hart, Matthew
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 5, 2023