An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016


In a moment, we shall say something that may be rather shocking. In the meantime, we propose to describe two kinds of suspense, resolved and unresolved. ’Resolved’ suspense is usually associated with thrillers, detective stories, Gothic novels, tales of mystery and the supernatural, and romances. The Italian novelist and literary theorist Umberto Eco uses the term ’closed texts’ for such narratives, as contrasted with ’open texts’ which leave the reader in doubt or uncertainty (Eco 1979). In closed texts, the murderer is found, the mystery resolved, the ghost exposed as a mechanical illusion, or the lovers are able to consummate their love. In these cases, suspense relies for its resolution on the revelation of a secret or secrets. Resolved suspense can also be created by delaying an event that we know will happen. This is especially clear in examples from cinema. We feel certain that the woman behind the shower curtain cannot escape the raised dagger of the psycho-killer, but for a few seemingly endless moments the fulfilment of this expectation is delayed. Similarly, in Silence of the Lambs (1991) it is only a matter of time before Hannibal the cannibal lives up to his name and gets his unjust dessert, and in The Martian (2015), you just know that (spoiler alert!) there’s no way Ridley Scott will leave handsome astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) to die alone on Mars. Here suspense is not so much created by a hermeneutic gap, by the reader’s ignorance, as by our expectation of an event which is delayed: we are pretty sure what is going to happen, we just don’t know when. These are kinds of narrative suspense, then, that can be defined in terms of expectation, delay and resolution.

One of the most notorious instances of literary suspense is Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw (1898). In this story, the reader’s expectation of an ending is screwed to an excruciating pitch of tension (the story is about suspense itself, as its title might indicate). The suspense of this haunting story rests largely on whether it is about actual ghosts and real evil, or is simply a psychological case-study of a disturbed mind. Critics have tended to argue for one reading or the other. Recently, however, critics have recognized that the choice of interpretation — the choice, finally, of which story we think we are reading — is irresolvable. As Roslyn Jolly comments, ’critics have become increasingly aware that the irresolvability of the tale’s ambiguity puts on trial their own readerly skills and assumptions about meaning in narrative’ (Jolly 1993, 102). Indeed, critics have realized that this uncanny and unsettling suspense of interpretation is itself part of what makes the story so terrifying: The Turn of the Screw is suspended between two mutually exclusive readings. While the tale builds up to an extraordinary pitch of narrative suspense, our sense of what happens at the end of the story may never finally be resolved. James manages to exploit a fundamentally ambivalent narrative structure (the story is told by the governess herself, so there is no one to tell us whether or not she is mad), and to ’end’ his story in a kind of open suspense, a suspense without end. In particular, James continually provides us with pointers or markers to a final resolution, with suggestions of ghosts, telepathy and evil on the one hand, and of madness on the other, making us wait for a final resolution of ambiguities which never arrives. In Chapter 9, for example, the governess says of the two children, Miles and Flora, ’There were moments when, by an irresistible impulse, I found myself catching them up and pressing them to my heart’ (131). The sentence foreshadows in a suspenseful and undecidable way the extraordinary ending of the story, where the governess does, literally, ’catch’ Miles: ’I caught him, yes, I held him — it may be imagined with what a passion’ (198). In both cases, however, the force of this catching — how forceful it is, and how conscious or rational, what its intention is — is suspended. Is the governess protecting Miles or smothering him? We are left, then, in a state of hermeneutic suspense, of interpretative uncertainty — unable to know, finally, how to read James’s story. Suspense, in this case, is open. Critics use various terms to describe suspenseful effects in reading: ambiguity, ambivalence, equivocality, indeterminacy, undecidability, uncertainty, aporia, gap, hiatus. All of these words may be applied to the effects of suspense achieved by James’s story.

In addition to such narrative suspense, effects of suspense can be produced on a more local and less melodramatic scale by aspects of syntax and versification, by the very language of the text. James, in fact, is famous for a peculiarly suspenseful sentence structure which complements the intensity of narrative suspense in stories such as The Turn of the Screw. The story opens in the form of a ’frame narrative’: a group of people get together to tell stories, one of which is that of the governess. Here is the opening sentence of the story:

The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child. (81)

Not only is this sentence about suspense — the suspense of being ’held’ by a story, the holding of breath and the withholding of comments — but it is also syntactically structured by suspense. The final word, ’child’, is the kernel of the sentence, its centre, but the word is withheld until the end. Before that, the sentence develops through multiple subclauses and syntactical digressions. Henry James’s prose, then, the syntax of his sentences, is highly suspenseful.

The Turn of the Screw turns on suspense — indeed turns, self-reflexively, on the very idea of ’turns’. Chapter 9, again, is exemplary. The governess is reading Henry Fielding’s Amelia alone at night: ’I found myself, at the turn of a page and with his spell all scattered, looking straight up…’ (133). She leaves her room and walks into the hall, where at ’the great turn of the staircase’ (134) she sees, for the third time, the ghost of Peter Quint. The chapter ends with a description of this ghost disappearing into ’the silence itself’: ’I definitely saw it turn, as I might have seen the low wretch to which it had once belonged turn on receipt of an order’ as it disappears ’into the darkness in which the next bend was lost’ (135). The ’next bend’ may be in the darkness of the staircase, but it is also the next chapter of the story, the dark bend or turn of narrative. It is not only the governess, then, who sees or hallucinates a ghostly presence in the turns: our own reading is suspended on the turns of the narrative.

Verse also relies on turns. The fact that the word ’verse’ comes from the Latin vertere, ’to turn’, might alert us to the way in which verse is wedded to the turns of line endings, suspenseful places of ghostly pausation. In addition to the suspense as we turn from one line to the next, verse produces its own forms of suspense through the exploitation of the possibilities of rhythm. Comparatively rudimentary verse-forms, such as those of nursery rhymes and ballads, for example, are notable for the way in which they generate suspense through rhythmical repetition, by building into the poetry the expectation of a repetition. The opening to the traditional Scottish ballad ’Sir Patrick Spens’ is one such example:

The King sits in Dumferling toune,

Drinking the blude-reid wine:

O whar will I get a guid sailor,

To sail this schip of mine?

Much of the force of this powerfully haunting poem (one that, in many ways, anticipates such pseudo-medieval ballads as Coleridge’s ’The Ancient Mariner’ and Keats’s ’La Belle Dame sans Merci’) is achieved through the regularity of its metrical arrangement (the regular four-beat first line and three-beat second line, which continues throughout the poem). Together with the regular rhyming of lines two and four of each stanza, the prosody of the poem adds up — in the expectation and fulfilment of rhythmical suspense — to one of the most compelling of its pleasures.

Effects of rhythmical suspense are also explored in more intricate ways by poets such as Thomas Hardy. Hardy’s poetry is notable not least for the wide range of its verse-forms. ’Neutral Tones’ (written in 1867, first published in 1898) enacts various effects of suspense through rhythm:

We stood by a pond that winter day,

And the sun was white, as though chidden of God,

And a few leaves lay on the starving sod;

—They had fallen from an ash, and were gray.

5 Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove

Over tedious riddles of years ago;

And some words played between us to and fro

On which lost the more by our love.

The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing

10 Alive enough to have strength to die;

And a grin of bitterness swept thereby

Like an ominous bird a-wing…

Since then, keen lessons that love deceives,

And wrings with wrong, have shaped to me

15 Your face, and the God-curst sun, and a tree,

And a pond edged with grayish leaves.

While not strictly regular, the rhythm of the first three lines of each stanza is more or less regular, consisting of iambic tetrameters (four sets of one or two weak (or ’short’) [.] stresses followed by one strong (or long) one [—]): Ẇe stōōd | bẏ ȧ pōnd | thȧt wīn | tėr dāy. The final line of each stanza, however, lacks one ’foot’, having only three combinations of weak and strong stress (anapestic tetrameter): Thėy hȧd fallēṅ | froȯm ȧn as¯h, | ȧnd wėre grāy. The regularity of the first three lines of each stanza is disappointed. This gives an effect of blankness, of something missing, of incomplete suspense. This effect is related to the theme of the poem, its sense of blank hopelessness: the poem is concerned with something missing, a lack, a loss, which is inexpressible. This, then, is just one example of the many ways in which poetry is able to create effects of suspense in rhythm such that the form of the poem is inseparable from its content.

As we have already suggested, poetry can also exploit line endings for effects of suspense. The neoclassical poetry of Alexander Pope, for example, plays on the suspenseful formalities of rhyming couplets. The following lines from Pope’s poem ’An Essay on Criticism’ (1711) generate suspense through rhyme, rhythm and antithesis:

True wit is Nature to Advantage drest,

What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest…

(lines 297—8)

The fact that the whole of Pope’s long poem is in the form of rhyming couplets means that the first line creates the expectation of a second line which will end in the rhyme ’est’. And we are not disappointed. The second line both develops and explains the first, creating an analogy between thought and nature on the one hand, and clothing and expression on the other, to define ’true wit’. Owing to the regularity of the verse-form, the first line creates an expectation of such an answering line and, although the lines are end-stopped (they do not continue syntactically from one line to the next), they produce the expectation of such an answer: the sense of the first line is suspended until its completion in the next.

Writing almost a century later, William Wordsworth also exploits the suspenseful effects of verse, in particular of line endings, but does so very differently. Consider, for example, ’A Slumber did my Spirit Seal’ (1800):

A slumber did my spirit seal;

I had no human fears:

She seemed a thing that could not feel

The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;

She neither hears nor sees,

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course

With rocks and stones and trees.

This poem is usually understood to be about a young girl who has died, and critics usually relate it to other poems which were written by Wordsworth at about the same time and which concern a girl named Lucy. The speaker appears to be lamenting not only the girl’s death, but also his own ignorance, the fact that he remained unaware that she might die when she was alive. Unlike Pope’s poem in almost every other respect, Wordsworth’s is similar in that most of its lines are end-stopped. Crucially, however, line three is run on or enjambed: there is no punctuation after the word ’feel’, and the next line is required for syntactical completion. In fact, the end of this line exploits not only syntactical but also hermeneutic suspense. After all, it would be possible to read line three as syntactically complete: ’She seemed a thing that could not feel’. But this produces a very different meaning from what we find if we continue to the next line — ’She seemed a thing that could not feel / The touch of earthly years.’ There is a significant difference between not being able to feel, and not being able to feel ’the touch of earthly years’. The first possibility gives us the sense that she — like, apparently, the speaker, in line one — is anaesthetized, closed off, to all sensation and all emotion. The second possibility gives us the sense that this was a young girl who seemed as if she would never grow old or die. What the poem achieves with this line-break, this turn, is to generate and hold both meanings in suspense. While the latter is no doubt the ’correct’ reading — we cannot simply ignore line four, once we have read it — the apparent completion offered by line three in isolation remains to haunt this latter sense.

As with our discussion of Henry James, we find that examples of resolved or closed suspense can in fact be read as open — as examples of the unresolved. Wordsworth’s poem prompts a number of suspenseful questions. In the very opening line of the poem, for example, it is not clear whether ’my spirit’ sealed a slumber or a slumber sealed ’my spirit’: in any case it is very difficult to know what the three words (’slumber’, ’spirit’, ’seal’), either separately or together, are referring to. Likewise, while we have assumed that the referent of ’she’ in line three is a girl, Lucy, the word can also be understood to refer back to ’my spirit’ in line one. There is, in fact, no final way of determining which reading is ’correct’. While we may want to choose one reading over the other, we have no way to justify such a choice: the point is undecidable or equivocal. And the difference has significant implications for any reading of the poem. In the first place, while the poem appears to be about the relationship between the speaker and a girl, the equivocal reference of ’she’ means that we can no longer be sure that the object of the speaker’s interest is a person outside of himself, rather than his own ’spirit’. As Paul de Man comments in his reading of this poem in his essay ’The Rhetoric of Temporality’, ’Wordsworth is one of the few poets who can write proleptically about their own death and speak, as it were, from beyond their own graves. The “she” in the poem is in fact large enough to encompass Wordsworth as well’ (de Man 1983, 225). Rather differently, it may be that this equivocal reference suggests something very important about mourning itself — that in mourning, the object of our grief is neither simply inside nor simply outside the one who mourns. The suspense of reference in this context might be connected to another of the themes of the poem — closure. The speaker talks of his spirit being ’sealed’, of ’she’ being untouchable in the first stanza, and in the second of ’she’ being without motion, force or sensory perception, ’rolled round’ with the earth as if sealed in a grave. This sense of closure may even be reinforced by the end-stopped rhymes of each stanza. In all of these ways, the poem is ’about’ a sense of closure — being sealed, enclosed, finished, dead. And yet the closure that the poem so intensively suggests is in dynamic tension with the undecidable suspense of reference — with, indeed, the poem’s meaning. Far from being closed, in fact, the poem is undecidably suspended. Once we recognize the central importance of the tension between what we have called closed and open suspense in the poem, it becomes available as a means with which to map many of the poem’s features. In particular, we might recognize that the poem is suspended by the uncanny gap of time between stanza one and stanza two, that moment outside the poem when ’she’ dies, the unspoken, perhaps unspeakable event of a death which at once haunts and generates the poem. Wordsworth’s poem thus enacts a drama of suspense, an allegory of closure and undecidability.

Ambiguity and undecidability have been central to Anglo-American literary criticism and theory in the twentieth century. One of the most influential works has been William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930; 3rd edn 1953). In the middle decades of the century, partly as a response to Empson’s book, the so-called new critics focused on ambiguity as a major concern of literary texts. More recently, poststructuralist critics have emphasized the notion of undecidability. The difference between new critical ambiguity and poststructuralist undecidability, while apparently minimal, is fundamental. For the new critics, ambiguity produces a complex but organic whole, a unity wherein ambiguity brings together disparate elements. For poststructuralist critics, by contrast, undecidability opens up a gap, a rift in the text which can never be fully sealed. Undecidability opens the text to multiple readings, it destabilizes the reader’s sense of the certainty of any particular reading, and ultimately threatens to undermine the very stability of any reading position, the very identity of any reader (as Søren Kierkegaard remarks, ’the moment of decision is madness’ (Kierkegaard 1985, 52; translation modified)). Suspensions of meaning bypass the reductive and constricting determination of what is now recognized to be the illusion of a single, final, determined ’meaning’. To think in terms of undecidability, however, is not to advocate the equal legitimacy of any and every interpretation: to acknowledge and explore aporias or suspensions of meaning involves the responsibilities of the most thoughtful and scrupulous kinds of reading.

Readers tend to want to resolve suspense: like foreplay, suspense carried on beyond a certain point seems to be undesirable, indeed intolerable. We want answers, and we want them soon. And there are all sorts of ways of terminating suspense, of closing it or resolving it. We can appeal to the notion of authorial intention and try to argue that Wordsworth ’meant’ this or that, or we can appeal to ’historical evidence’ and try to establish whether Lucy ’really is’ the referent of this poem, or in line with the dentistry school of literary criticism to which we referred in Chapter 2, we can simply argue for a single extractable molar of meaning for the text. Rather than immediately attempting to resolve suspense, though, we might think about literary texts as themselves sites of suspense, places where suspense can occur without being closed off, without being finished (in this context we might appeal to Jacques Derrida’s idea that ’[t]here is no literature without a suspended relation to meaning and reference’ (Derrida 1992a, 48)). We might consider that it is the function of literary texts to go beyond the trite, the comforting, the easy resolution of suspense, to take us to imagined places where suspense cannot be resolved, where questions are more complex and more challenging than can be reduced to a single determined meaning. In this respect, there are reasons to welcome undecidability, this challenge to our desire to master the text.

Further reading

For a brilliant exploration of Wordsworth’s line endings, see Christopher Ricks’s ’William Wordsworth 1’ (1984). For two fine introductory works on rhythm and metre, see Derek Attridge’s Poetic Rhythm (1992) and Thomas Carper and Derek Attridge’s Meter and Meaning (2003). An excellent and imaginative exploration of prosody in terms of the sounds of English poetry is John Hollander’s Vision and Resonance (1985). On suspense in the sense of ambiguity or undecidability, there is, perhaps, no better place to start than William Empson’s classic Seven Types of Ambiguity (1953), first published in 1930. On the idea of literature as suspended in relation to meaning and reference, see the interview with Jacques Derrida in his Acts of Literature (1992a). A classic argument concerning the ’undecidability’ of contending meanings in literary texts is J. Hillis Miller’s ’The Figure in the Carpet’ (1980). For a rather different approach, see D.A. Miller, ’ “Cage aux folles”: Sensation and Gender in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White’ (1989), which offers a fascinating consideration of the physiological effects of suspense fiction on readers. Caroline Levine’s The Serious Pleasures of Suspense: Victorian Realism and Narrative Doubt (2003) and The Voices of Suspense and Their Translation in Thrillers, eds, Susanne M. Cadera and Anita Pavic´ Pintaric´ (2014) both contain interesting material, especially on suspense (in) fiction. In terms of a different kind of suspense — the particularly excruciating suspense that is involved in waiting — Harold Schweizer’s On Waiting (2008) is of interest. But nothing beats the real thing: try Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953) or J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980).