Academics at the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Poland put over 100 famous novels through a detailed statistical analysis and found that an “overwhelming” number of the books had a fractal structure. A fractal is a never-ending pattern that is self-similar across different scales. To determine whether the books had fractal structures, the academics looked at the variation of sentence lengths, finding that each sentence, or fragment, had a structure that resembled the whole of the book.

The paper based on the study, recently published in Information Sciences, showed that certain works were more complex than others, specifically the books written in stream-of-consciousness. These could be compared to multi-fractals, according the scientists, who explained that Finnegans Wake by James Joyce had the most complex structure of all. Professor Professor Stanisław Drożdż said: “The results of our analysis of [Finnegans Wake] are virtually indistinguishable from ideal, purely mathematical multifractals.”

finnegans wake

Image via IFJ PAN.
The horizontal axis represents the degree of singularity, while the vertical axis shows the spectrum of singularity.

graph fractals in lit

Image via IJF PAN.
Sequences of sentence lengths (as measured by number of words) in four books, representative of various degrees of cascading character.

Other books that had characteristics similar to multifractals include A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar, The USA trilogy by John Dos Passos, The Waves by Virginia Woolf, 2666 by Roberto Bolaño and Joyce’s Ulysses. The paper made sure to note that a literary text will never have the perfect fractality of the world of mathematics, where fractals can be magnified to the infinite, because of the finite nature of a work of literature. There were some surprising works in the stream-of-consciousness genre that did not have fractal characteristics, such as Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu and Ayn Rand’s Atlas ShruggedDrożdż suggested that the scientists’ work may one day help assign books to genres in a “more objective” way.

Professor Drożdż also noted that their findings could mean stream-of-consciousness writers uncovered fractals in nature before scientists, explaining: “Evidently, they had a kind of intuition, as it happens to great artists, that such a narrative mode best reflects ‘how nature works’ and they properly encoded this into their texts. Nature evolves through cascades and thus arranges fractally, and imprints of this we find in the sentence-length variability.”

11 Responses

  1. Rose

    Very interesting correlation! However, I’m not sure about any conclusion that would differentiate War and Peace from Finnigans Wake outside of the fact that James Joyce tended to write long complex sentences along with shorter ones. If the above books were put into a ‘Readability’ program, War and Peace may be ranked a 5 while Finnigans Wake may be off the charts! I’m not sure any analysis, based on writing structure would be useful beyond an English Composition course or Creative Writing course. Maybe it will become a new genre, like Haiku, which is based on structure along with content.

    Shame the writer didn’t describe a fractal ( It is a fascinating mathematical concept that has some real-world examples. Two most important examples of fractals are snowflakes and the coast of Norway. Fractal analysis is immensely useful in many fields. Cool that someone thought to apply it to writing! Of course, what it means is yet to be determined. Is it a conscious writing style that helps the writer craft the story or an unconscious writing style that is an artifact? Could an artifact be used to improve the impact of a story?

    Lots of things to think about.

  2. Martin R.

    I hasten to point out that neither Proust nor Ayn Rand are stream-of-consciousness writers. I also want to mention that the gigantic final episode of Joyce’s Ulysses contains many, many thousands of words, but only one period (and therefore, two enormous “sentences”). How this could be consistent with multi-fractals is yet another mystery deserving of a pointlessly scientific approach! Onward, yon literary empiricists!

    • Peter Kislinger

      Except, the last chapter is not just one sentence. There are simply no commas or fullstops.

  3. Fractal structures found in classic novels – Insight Publications

    […] Recent research from the Institute of Nuclear Physics in  Poland, in which over 100 literary texts were put through a series of statistical tests, suggests that many famous novels have fractal sentence structures. One of their most interesting findings, but not that surprising from a linguistic point of view, was that novels considered to be ‘stream-of-consciousness’ showed the greatest degree of complexity in their structure. Read more (and examine some fascinating visual representations of their findings) at Electric Literature. […]


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