When literary scholars analyze narrative personhood historically, they typically see periods, explained as an effect of deeper psychosocial mutations. Thus the dominant first person of the eighteenth century is the counterpart to a new bourgeois subject, while the third-person omniscience of the nineteenth might reflect an age of increasing state control. The article argues that only our impressionistic use of mostly canonical examples permits such sweeping statements and that the very notion of the period (never mind episteme or paradigm) is undermined by a quantitative examination of the literary archive and its evolution. Based on a systematic sample of French novels over twenty-three decades, this study concludes that narrative forms such as the memoir novel and the epistolary novel behave as successful artifacts. As they spread, they achieve a recognizable form that peaks at a certain point, after which use steadily declines. Because the novel as a whole is composed of multiple forms in constant flux, it becomes impossible to isolate periods of homogeneous practice that could be said to operate according to some deeper sociocultural logic.

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