Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Was ist wichtig? Schlüsselstellen in der Literatur

What matters? Key passages in literary works

The goal of this exploratory project is to identify and characterize key passages in literary works.

This project entered its second phase in August 2023.

The goal of this exploratory project is to identify and characterize key passages in literary works. We understand key passages as passages that are particularly important to expert readers when interpreting texts. In a mixed-methods approach, we primarily want to investigate empirically which textual characteristics of literary genres can be revealed through patterns of citation and quotation. Secondly, we want to explore whether “communities of interpretation” (S. Fish) can be identified. The main challenges of the project are that key passages are probably characterized by complex intrinsic and extrinsic factors that are interwoven with one another, that approaches for the identification and analysis of such factors are still in their early stage, and that there is hardly any joint research in literature and computer science on that topic. We put the controversial decision on the relationship between extrinsic and intrinsic factors on hold. Instead, we will observe the practice of interpretation to explore what the “poetic and rhetorical” nature (G. Braungart) of the passages actually preferred by interpretive works is, what is conveyed about the text as a whole by the passage structure of an interpretation, and how knowledge about key passages can inform the improvement of computational methods.Starting point for the preparation of suitable corpora will be three types of collections: literary works, bibliographic metadata, and scholarly works from literary studies. For pragmatic reasons, we are focusing on the literary genres ‘narrative’, ‘novella’, and ‘drama’ from the field of modern German literature, because we can draw on existing corpora. Methods from computational literary studies have also produced viable results for these text types. From a systematic perspective, we focus on the factors style, characters, plot, and topics when characterising key passages. Genre-historical aspects will play an important role, because we will take into account canonical assumptions about the composition of narrative and dramatic texts. The work is organised in three work packages that are aligned with the three literary corpora. Each work package contains technical tasks for computer scientists and literary tasks for literary scholars. The technical tasks focus mainly on the development of methods for the extraction, enrichment, and analysis of data from the corpora. The literary tasks primarily test and develop theories from literary studies based on the harvested data, and evaluate them from a practice theoretical perspective. The goal of the project can be broken down into the following objectives: Key passages have to be identified such that a basic understanding of their properties can be acquired. Then, key passages can be characterised using intrinsic factors of text. Finally, the extrinsic factor of interpretative communities can be explored. The results will be consolidated into a conceptionalisation of key passages in theory and practice.

Project Lead

Prof. Dr. Robert Jäschke (Information Processing and Analytics)

Prof. Dr. Steffen Martus (Neuere deutsche Literatur vom 18. Jahrhundert bis zur Gegenwart)


Frederik Arnold (Information Processing and Analytics)

Michel Schwab (Information Processing and Analytics)

Benjamin Fiechter (Neuere deutsche Literatur vom 18. Jahrhundert bis zur Gegenwart)

Gregor Sanzenbacher (Neuere deutsche Literatur vom 18. Jahrhundert bis zur Gegenwart)

Nathalie Burkowski (Information Processing and Analytics)

Ira Klinkenbusch (Neuere deutsche Literatur vom 18. Jahrhundert bis zur Gegenwart)

Florian Glück (Neuere deutsche Literatur vom 18. Jahrhundert bis zur Gegenwart)






  • Frederik Arnold, Benjamin Fiechter und Robert Jaeschke presented What matters? Key passages in literary works on March 21st 2022 in the series DHLunch@GS at University of Texas at Austin.
  • Robert Jäschke presented What matters? Key passages in literary works on December 16th 2021 in the series Coffee Talks at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. A recording can be found on YouTube.



An algorithm for literal quotation detection with demo website.


A website for visualizing key passages. Currently for the following literary works:

  • Novellas
    • Die Judenbuche by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff
    • Michael Kohlhass by Heinrich von Kleist
  • Dramas
    • Emilia Galotti by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
    • Die Hermannsschlacht by Heinrich von Kleist
    • Iphigenie auf Tauris by Johann Wolfgang Goethe
    • Die Jungfrau von Orleans by Friedrich Schiller
    • Leonce und Lena by Georg Büchner
    • Maria Stuart by Friedrich Schiller
    • Nathan der Weise by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
    • Penthesilea by Heinrich von Kleist
    • Prinz Friedrich by Homburg von Heinrich von Kleist
    • Wilhelm Tell by Friedrich Schiller

Repository with template for web page to visualise literary quotations


Bluesky account with daily key passages (in German).


German Research FoundationPriority Programme 2207 "Computational Literary Studies"

Project Duration

Start: 06/2020

End: 07/2023

Research Areas

Digital Literary Studies, Digital Humanities, Computer Science