In May 2023 Generative AI still disappoints in writing compelling literary analysis "from scratch." The output reads thin and lacks hard evidence.
Today I instead measure Generative AI's effectiveness in assisting with literary analysis.
I quantify any performance boosts that the service provides.
I use Generative AI to elicit themes in Stephen King's 1974 horror novel Carrie.
NOTE: This blog post includes plot spoilers
The plot follows Carrie White, an outcast who takes abuse from her peers in Chamberlain, Maine. She breaks and uses her Telekinetic powers to destroy the town.
I follow a simple approach to generate my term paper.
First, I chunk the plot into a dozen plot groupings.
Then, I find important quotes that illustrate or support those themes and form an outline.
I run this outline through Generative AI and ask the service to identify themes.
I then ask Generative AI for symbolism or analogies found in the work.
Did Stephen King, for example, use the plot of Carrie to provide social commentary on any historical movements? If so, which ones?
Carrie, a weird and ignorant outcast, faces torment at the hands of her Chamberlain peers. Her peers feel an instinctual hatred for her and gang up on her. Carrie first apologizes for the behavior of her tormenters but then decides to punish them. She discovers a lethal TK power and destroys the town. Some survivors regret their treatment of Carrie. Another TK appears after Carrie's death.
- Carrie's peers find her weird and ignorant
- Autopilot Resentment
- Chamberlain townsfolk instinctually hate her
- Gang up
- Carrie's peers bully her
- Classmates ostracize those who empathize with Carrie
- Carrie doubts her view of the bullies
- Carrie, a TK, discovers her capacity for destruction
- Carrie decides to punish Chamberlain
- Carrie destroys Chamberlain
- Chamberlain smolders in ruin
- Adults regret their treatment of Carrie
- Amelia Jenks hints at another TK
I fill the outline above with supporting quotes and summaries from the text, noting the page numbers.
I feed this outline to Generative AI and ask it to find themes and historical analogs.
You can use these quotes for your experiments with AI-assisted document writing.
- Outcast (Weird)
- Carrie finds trouble fitting in with her peers. She looks and acts weird and awkward.
- Carrie "...always miss[es] the ball, even in kickball, fall[s] on her face in Modern Dance... run[s] into the net during volleyball; wear[s] stockings that always run... always show[s] sweat stains under the arms of her blouses" (9).
- Carrie notices that her peers "always laugh" at her (17).
- Outcast (Ignorant)
- Carrie's mother suffocates her, stunts her emotional growth, and keeps her ignorant.
- Mrs. Desjardin notes, quite baffled "...It seems incredible that, as late as 1979, Carrie kn[ows] nothing of the mature woman's monthly cycle" (10).
- Autopilot Resentment
- Sue Snell points out, conformity drives her friends to torture Carrie.
- She says of "the shower thing" that "she had gone along and pitched in with high, savage glee," to adhere to the human instinct of "Conformity" (46).
- No tangible, concrete reason drives Chamberlain society to hate Carrie.
- When Tommy asks Sue "What did that sad, silly b***h ever do to you?", Susan "[does]n't answer because she [ca]n't" (48).
- Norma Watson says that she and her peers "couldn't help" laughing at Carrie's pain on prom night (168).
- The fact that she laughs feels "weird" to Norma because it seems so out of character for her (167).
- When Sue Snell throws tampons at Carrie, she feels "an odd, vexing mixture of hate, revulsion, exasperation, and pity" (6).
- After the Locker Room incident, Desjardin empathizes with Carrie's torturers and says "I understand how those girls felt. The whole thing just made me want to take the girl and shake her. Maybe [it's] some kind of instinct" (20).
- When Mrs. Desjardin "slaps Carrie smartly across the face" she acknowledges the "pleasure the act gives her..." (11).
- Gang up
- Chamberlain looks down at Carrie. They scoff at her ignorance and oddities.
- Her peers ostracize her with "laughter, disgusted, contemptuous, horrified" that seems to always inevitably "rise and bloom into something jagged and ugly" (8).
- Carrie can do no more than stand "dumbly in the center of a forming circle," the target of a malicious, tight-knit mass of humanity (7).
- Those who sympathize with Carrie lose friends.
- Sue Snell wants to help Carrie fit in. She tries to "bring her out of her shell" and make her "a part of things" (82).
- Sue Snell then discovers one-time friend Chris "hates [her] guts" for this attempt (104).
- Sue realizes that via her kind actions to Carrie she "[has] done an ungovernable, dangerous thing" (106).
- Except for Christine Hargensen and Billy Nolan, Carrie's Chamberlain peers do not have a malevolent nor evil streak.
- At the prom, Tommy points out to Carrie her peers' good and laid-back nature. Carrie consents that wisecracking George Dawson "is a good guy" and doesn't rebuke Tommy's sentiment that "there are lots of good people around" (145).
- Carrie feels lonely. She realizes that she doesn't "really have a crowd" (156), and should "stop the chocolates... fix her hair... buy pantyhose and blue and green tights..." to fit in.
- She tells her mother that "I have to start to... to try and get along with the world" (94).
- David Congress's The Shadow Exploded..., "a 'TK' potential of immense magnitude exist[s] within Carrie White" (6).
- Her mind is "filled with the huge knowledge of POWERS" (200).
- She makes her bed tremble and lifts the end "perhaps three inches" (79).
- With more practice, she lifts a bureau "Up. Down. Up. Down. Just like an elevator" (91).
- Carrie finds the "red plague circle" which sets her apart from humankind "like blood itself-- you could scrub and scrub and scrub and still it would be there, not erased, not clean" (23).
- Carrie considers retreating and decides against it. She contemplates "sneak[ing] home by the back streets, keeping to the shadows in case someone came looking for her, find Momma, admit[ing] she ha[s] been wrong," but responds to such a reflection with a resounding "(NO!!)" (185).
- She can't admit she's wrong. She instead says "I want them to know me" (134).
- She says to her mother: "Things are going to change around here, Momma. They better understand it too" (97).
- Carry decides "[it's] time to teach them lesson. Time to show them a thing or two" (186).
- The weight of the decision strains her. "It would be all too possible for her heart to literally burst with the strain" (125).
- Carrie asserts her power and emancipates herself through violence.
- When Carrie unleashes her latent ability, violence ensues. She causes "a violent flash" (172), and men "burst into flames" (204).
- Carrie lets her peers escape from the gym. "She w[ill] get them later. She w[ill] get all of them. Every last one" (189). No one can escape her wrath.
- The Chamberlains fight back. "Three Chamberlain fire trucks, dispatched earlier to fight a blaze at the gymnasium where a school prom was taking place... have arrived to no avail" (174).
- Carrie causes a "mortal" wound to "this small western Maine town" (238)
- She takes the "guts out of Chamberlain" (240) which "will simply never again be" (241)
- She reduces Chamberlain to a "disaster area" (240).
- Carrie enters the slang dictionary (243).
- Carrie strikes the world's "ordered notions of the way the natural world is supposed to act and react," like an "earthquake" (50).
- Besjardin says "Late at night I keep thinking: If I had only reached out to that girl, if only, if only..." (242).
- Henry Grayle says "Such a tragedy might have been averted if had only had more foresight" (242).
- Some people do not sympathize with Carrie. One person spray painted: "CARRIE WHITE IS BURNING FOR HER SINS" (242)
- The Shadow Exploded writes that Carrie ushered in a new order. The writer writes "While something had ended, something else had been irrevocably set in motion, for good or ill" (87).
- The Amelia Jenks letter hints at a new TK (245).
I ask ChatGPT for the themes of Carrie and it produces:
Themes of Stephen King's "Carrie":
- Bullying and social ostracism
- Isolation and loneliness
- Repression and suppression
- Religious fanaticism
- Power and abuse
I then paste in the outline and prompt:
Below I provide the plot of Carrie, with quotes. Based on this, provide the main theme of the book
The destructive power of isolation, bullying, and repression.
The theme explores the devastating effects of social ostracism, ignorance, and the consequences of suppressing one's true self. It highlights the dangers of unchecked conformity, the damaging impact of bullying on an individual's psyche, and the potential for explosive reactions when someone is pushed to their breaking point.
Ultimately, the theme emphasizes the importance of empathy, understanding, and acceptance in creating a more compassionate society and preventing tragic outcomes like those portrayed in the novel.
I then prompt
Based on the above response, can you think of any historical social-political movements that mirror the themes?
- Civil Rights Movement
- LGBTQ+ Rights Movement
- Women's Suffrage Movement
- Anti-Apartheid Movement
- Disability Rights Movement
These do present underdog stories, with outsiders overcoming isolation, bullying and repression. These movements, however, followed peaceful means. Carrie, however, uses violence to overcome the bullying and repression.
Carrie includes extreme violence. What historical political movement follows these themes but also unfortunately includes violence, casualty and death at a massive scale?
ChatGPT replies with the underwhelming answer of World War II.
I tune further:
What political or historical event used violence to overcome isolation, ignorance, ostracism and repression?
I see the limits of the current state of Generative AI. Chat GPT replies:
The American Revolution. The revolutionaries faced isolation from the British Empire, ignorance of their grievances, ostracism from loyalists, and repression of their rights.
I would not call American settlers ignorant or outcasts, so I disagree with Chat GPT's remark.
I tune it more:
What weak, ostracized group of people, forced into ignorance by others gained freedom through violence?
Chat GPT strikes gold.
One example of a weak, ostracized group of people who gained freedom through violence, after being forced into ignorance by others, is:
The Haitian Revolution: The Haitian Revolution, which took place from 1791 to 1804, was a successful slave revolt in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, leading to the establishment of Haiti as an independent nation. The enslaved Africans, who were oppressed, isolated, and kept in ignorance by their colonial masters, rose against their oppressors in a violent struggle for freedom. Through armed resistance, battles, and a protracted conflict, the enslaved population fought for their rights and independence, ultimately defeating the French forces and securing their freedom. The Haitian Revolution stands as a significant historical event where a marginalized and enslaved group used violence as a means to overthrow their oppressors and achieve liberation.
I see some promise in this. I would take my outline above and then frame it in the context of the Haitian Revolution, with Carrie in the role of the Haitian Revolutionaries. To me, that could produce an interesting and novel paper.
I prompt once more:
Use this outline and quotes to write a term paper that compares the themes of Carrie against the Haitian Revolution, with Carrie in the role of the Haitian Revolutionaries and the Chamberlain townspeople in the role of the French colonists.
Stephen King's novel Carrie and the historical event of the Haitian Revolution may appear disparate at first glance, but a deeper exploration reveals intriguing parallels in their themes. This term paper aims to compare the themes of Carrie against the Haitian Revolution, with Carrie symbolizing the Haitian revolutionaries and the Chamberlain townspeople representing the French colonists. The themes of outcast, ostracism, resentment, gang-up, doubt, power, decision, violence, aftermath, regret, and epilogue will be examined in both contexts, highlighting the similarities and contrasting elements between the two narratives.
With effective prompts, ChatGPT provides a soundboard for term paper thesis ideation. It removes friction and roadblocks in term paper writing but still requires the student to read a book and extract salient quotes.
- King, Stephen. Carrie. Signet, 1975.