David M. Miller (essay date 1980)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4868

SOURCE: "Dune," in Frank Herbert, Starmont House, 1985, pp. 15-26.

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[Miller is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt from his study of Herbert that was originally published in 1980, Miller examines Dune's complex structure, its literary devices, and its characters and themes.]

Most of Herbert's novels seem designed to be read once; hence, story lines are clear, there is little parallel action, genre markers are unequivocal, and proleptic clues are relatively obvious. Such is not the case with Dune, for Herbert's masterpiece is essentially a series of overlays. The first page tells us that we are entering a gothic novel: "Castle Caladan … the ancient pile of stone … bore the cooled-sweat feeling it acquired before a change in the weather." And sure enough, down a "vaulted passage" comes an "old woman," "a witch shadow—hair like matted spiderwebs … eyes like glittering jewels." But the gothic "half-light" is cast by a science-fiction "suspensor lamp." Paul is trained in weapons suitable to a young Lancelot, but he duels an automated opponent and wears a force shield. The "gom jabbar" is an ancient poisoned needle, but the device that tortures his hand is a technological marvel, quite literally a black-box. Sword-and-sorcery clues mix with gothic clues and science-fiction clues. Yet the background is as cleanly lighted as Hemingway's fiction. The "mysticism" of Hesse merges with the meticulous combats of C. S. Forester. The exposition required to establish the fictional world is ponderous, yet excitement and suspense seldom lag. Much of Dune is overtly didactic, yet the "lessons" arise from plot, character, and action. The satirical applications to our primary world are obvious, but only on reflection. Allegorical conflicts between reason and intuition, between masculine and feminine, between good and evil, between earth-rapers and ecologists, between individual desires and social imperatives, between morality and politics are at the service of character, plot, and action. All this is to say that Dune is a novel that invites the reader in, rather than a novel that intrudes upon the reader. In this sense, it is "escapist." If we must label it, "epic fantasy" is perhaps least misleading; but it is epic fantasy without a god, the tale of a hero who unwillingly devours his helpers, a conquering of time and place by a superman who is but the tool of genetic diaspora. We may more profitably acknowledge that Dune really fits none of our categories, although it has the markers of many.

The primary narrative voice never breaks from the dramatic present, never seems to know more than either the characters or the reader; hence, the tales unfold without a hitch because the narrator is as interested as are we in what will happen next. Paul may not survive the gom jabbar, may smother in the sand, may be killed by Jamis, may die in the melange trance, may be killed by Feyd-Rautha. But the head-notes to each section tip the hand. The opening paragraph tells us that the Harkonnens are ultimately symbiotic; the biographical head-note on Yueh tells us that he will successfully betray Duke Leto, and so on throughout the book. Clearly Paul is going to make it to the end or there would have been no head-notes.

An illuminating exception to this practice occurs as we return to the Harkonnen heir, Feyd-Rautha. Princess Irulan's headnote, rather than being narratively proleptic, is grandly sententious: "The concept of progress acts as a protective mechanism to shield us from the terrors of the future ." The chapter that follows is a "bull fight" with an Atreides' captive playing the bull to Feyd-Rautha's matador. The bull almost wins, would have won had Feyd played according to the Atreides Code. Yet the suspense yields to fate, for Herbert's primary...

(The entire section contains 29288 words.)

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