Fiction and Repetition

Perhaps the maturity of a particular style or system of criticism may be measured by its level of comprehensibility. A critical approach need not always be lucid or simple, but to be a vital intellectual force it must nevertheless, at least sometimes, show itself as explicable and useful to more than a tiny band of true believers. Like many others before it, the most recent critical rage, loosely called “Deconstruction,” has aroused a tremendous amount of hostility in the traditional literary-critical establishment, in part because of its apparently willful opacity and disinterest in clarifying its major premises, intentions, and modes. If J. Hillis Miller’s new study, Fiction and Repetition: Seven English Novels, is any indication, this work of self-clarification is under way. Miller’s essays contained herein are Deconstructive, yet reasonably accessible and provocative even to those who are not well versed in the writings of Jacques Derrida, the father of Deconstruction, or who cannot—or perhaps choose not to—follow the nuances of interminable critical debate in such journals as New Literary History, Critical Inquiry, and Diacritics.

Miller acknowledges from the beginning that his book “is not a work of theory as such, but a series of readings of important nineteenth- and twentieth-century English novels.” Indeed, the individual chapters on Lord Jim (1900), Wuthering Heights (1847), Henry Esmond (1852), Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), The Well-Beloved (1897), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), and Between the Acts (1941)—a curious mixture of classic and neglected novels—give his work a much-welcomed specificity and focus. As disarming as this may be, Miller is nevertheless an extremely sophisticated critic, and Fiction and Repetition elaborates a number of sustained theoretical arguments regarding the nature of the text and the responsibilities of the critic and/or reader in arriving at meaning (or, as he might insist, meanings). Summarizing a few of these arguments inevitably disrupts the balance and blend of theoretical and practical criticism that is one of the great achievements of this book, but may also help outline Miller’s debt to and graceful restatement of basic principles of Deconstructive analysis.

First and foremost, as the title suggests, Miller is concerned with showing how various modes of repetition function in the novel. There is nothing at all startling in his preliminary suggestion that the “identification of recurrences and of meanings generated through recurrences” forms an important part of the reader’s work, as he traces throughout a novel repeated verbal elements, events or scenes, images, motifs from one character appearing also in another, and so on. It soon becomes clear, however, that Miller’s definition of repetition is meant to be somewhat unsettling. In addition to the familiar kind of “Platonic” repetition, in which an original model is copied by other examples similar to it, Miller describes “Nietzschean” repetition, paradoxically based not on similarity but on difference. Nietzschean repetitions involve “ungrounded doublings,” in which “It seems that X repeats Y, but in fact it does not, or at least not in the firmly anchored way of the first sort of repetition.” Platonic repetitions seem to establish a “figure in the carpet” of the novel, a general ordering structure; Nietzschean repetitions, on the other hand, complicate or “unravel” simple patterns of order. Though he stops just short of making a sweeping generalization about all novels, Miller states quite boldly that at least all of the novels he will discuss are characterized by the simultaneous presence of Platonic and Nietzschean modes of repetition.

The consequences of this premise are everywhere visible in the way a text is defined, approached, and interpreted in Fiction and Repetition. In the very least, as Miller points out about each novel he treats in his study, a text invites a reader to decipher its meaning, and at the same time continually frustrates any attempt to arrive at one unified but still comprehensive meaning. Perhaps the most distinctive and telling quality of a literary work for Miller is that “the text is over-rich,” filled with details that may support a great number of interpretations, not...

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Antioch Review. XL, Summer, 1982, p. 361.

Choice. XIX, May, 1982, p. 1242.

Library Journal. CVII, June 1, 1982, p. 1098.

New Statesman. CIV, December 31, 1982, p. 24.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, April 18, 1982, p. 15.

Times Literary Supplement. September 10, 1982, p. 975.