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


Why do we read works of literature? What do we hope to get out of reading a novel, for example? In an essay entitled ’Secrets and Narrative Sequence’, Frank Kermode writes: ’To read a novel expecting the satisfactions of closure and the receipt of a message is what most people find enough to do; they are easier with this method because it resembles the one that works for ordinary acts of communication’ (Kermode 1983, 138). Most people, according to Kermode, read novels in the hope of reading something that adds up to a complete whole — a story with a clear structure and ’message’. They are looking for a good storyline — something to get their teeth into on a long train journey, for example, something which has a strong sense of what Kermode calls ’narrative sequence’. This is what is implied by the term ’consumer-fiction’: to read a novel is to consume it. If a good novel is like a good meal, some novels are no doubt easier to chew and swallow than others. Stephen King’s The Shining would be fast food in comparison with the feast of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl. Kermode is working with a very basic model: novels can be compared with ’ordinary acts of communication’ (by which he presumably means things like successfully negotiating your order with the person behind the service counter at Burger King) and most novel-reading is as simple and as sequential as abc. There are, however, things which get in the way of narrative sequence, and these are what Kermode calls secrets: ’secrets’, he argues, ’are at odds with sequence’ (138). What he is referring to here is the idea of textual details, specific aspects of the language of a text, particular patterns of images or rhetorical figures that a reader may not even notice on a ’consumerist’ reading, but that are nevertheless present and which can provoke a sense of mystery. Thus Kermode focuses on the enigmatic, repeated but apparently superfluous references to black and white in Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes (1911).

It may be that what draws many people towards the study of literature (the desire not only to consume the novels of, say, James, Conrad or Stephen King, but also to reflect on their cultural, historical and ideological context, on how these novels work and what effects they produce) is a fascination with the possibilities of secrets. As we shall try to show in this chapter, the relationship between literature, secrecy and secrets is fundamental. Indeed, we would like to suggest that in many respects the question, ’What is literature?’ can be considered as synonymous with the question, ’What is a secret?’

A secret is what is concealed, deliberately or inadvertently hidden, kept separate and apart. (The word ’secret’ comes from the Latin secernere, where se- signifies ’apart’ and cernere is ’to separate’.) Even the most rapidly consumed of novels involve secrets, if only because narratives are linear and the contents of a work cannot be presented all at once. Every narrative can be defined as a process of unfolding and revelation. It is precisely because there are things that remain hidden from us, and because we want to know what these things are, that we continue to read. This is the point of what Roland Barthes calls the ’hermeneutic code’, in his great critical and theoretical book S/Z (Barthes 1990b; originally published in French in 1970). He distinguishes this from the ’proairetic code’, which has to do with the unfolding sequence of events in a narrative. The hermeneutic code concerns everything in a text that has to do with the creation of an enigma and its possible clarification and explanation. In this respect it is perhaps helpful to recall that etymologically the word ’enigma’ is linked to fable and storytelling. It derives from the Greek verb ainissesthai, ’to speak allusively or obscurely’, from ainos, ’a fable’. The most obvious example of enigma in the context of literary narratives is the whodunnit detective story: the question ’whodunnit?’ forms the central enigma of the text and the hermeneutic code involves ’the various (formal) terms by which an enigma can be distinguished, suggested, formulated, held in suspense, and finally disclosed’ (Barthes 1990b, 19). Why is this character doing this, for instance phoning the police or watching a letter burn on the fire? What is the significance of such and such an object, for instance the concrete-mixer in the cellar? How does this moment in the narrative throw light on the enigma of the crime? What is about to be revealed? All these questions are hermeneutic — they have to do with a work of interpretation and the hope or expectation or desire that the text will provide the answers. The mystery story or whodunnit is a particularly striking example, since (as its name indicates) it is explicitly concerned with drawing the reader into a mystery, and with manipulating her or him into asking questions, becoming watchful for ’clues’ and looking for an explanation. In this sense, the pleasure of detective stories involves reading as itself a form of detecting.

But the mystery story or whodunnit is only one example of something much more general about the relationship between narratives and secrets. For, in an important sense, Chandler’s The Little Sister (1949) or William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw (1977) or Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories (2004) are no different from, say, D.H. Lawrence’s The Virgin and the Gipsy (1930) or Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970). All of these novels involve various forms of mystery and concealment: they inevitably hold back a full revelation of what happens, releasing this information only gradually. More importantly perhaps, they generate a sense of mystery and secrecy through the very institution of the so-called omniscient narrator. The idea of such a narrator is basically magical or occult (the word ’occult’, it may be noted, literally means ’hidden’, ’secret’): such narratives are structured by powers of foresight. For it is invariably part of what is called omniscient narration (including what is known as ’realist fiction’) that the narrator ’knows’ the future and that this power of foresight is implicitly or explicitly articulated at numerous moments in a given narrative.

The Virgin and the Gipsy, for example, opens as follows:

When the vicar’s wife went off with a young and penniless man the scandal knew no bounds. Her two little girls were only seven and nine years old respectively. And the vicar was such a good husband. True, his hair was grey. But his moustache was dark, he was handsome, and still full of furtive passion for his unrestrained and beautiful wife.

Why did she go? Why did she burst away with such an éclat of revulsion, like a touch of madness?

Nobody gave any answer. Only the pious said she was a bad woman. While some of the good women kept silent. They knew.

The two little girls never knew. (167)

This passage not only plays on the idea of secrecy as something related to a particular character (the vicar’s ’furtive passion’) but, through its apparent omniscient narration, sets up various kinds of secret knowledge. The ’good women kept silent’ because they ’knew’: ’knew what?’ we ask ourselves. ’The two little girls never knew’: this, too, the narrator knows though does not, at least for the moment, reveal to us. What is it that the narrator knows? What is it that the two little girls ’never knew’? The ’never’, in particular, is a subtle and eerie word, suggesting that the perspective from which the narrator speaks is in fact posthumous as regards the girls themselves. On rereading — that is to say, with the benefits of readerly hindsight — we may find this word ’never’ even more peculiar, since the two girls who ’never knew’ do not die, in fact, in the course of the narrative. In this context one might want to ask: What planet, or fictional world, does this narrator come from?

Of course, narrators are just linguistic fabrications, textual creatures. Nevertheless, we are drawn into their worlds and a crucial part of the magic, sorcery or ’occultism’ of literary narratives has to do with the mysterious but seductive ’reality’ of the narrator. An omniscient narrator is a strange figure, by its very nature. The strangeness consists not only in the basic idea of omniscience itself, but also in what is concealed or glossed over within that omniscience. Omniscience is itself a fiction, a strange invention of literary critics drawing on the obviously problematic identification between an author or narrator and the Christian God. (As the OED makes clear, the word ’omniscient’ originally referred specifically to ’the omniscient Being, the Deity’.) Omniscient narrators may appear to be all-knowing, or at least to know a lot; but they are certainly not all-telling. A narrator is always secretive, in other words, and this secretiveness concerns both the notion of storytelling-as-gradual-revelation and the question of what we do not and perhaps can never know about this narrator. Thus one of the most secretive or enigmatic aspects of a literary narrative may very well concern the character of its narrator (so-called omniscient or not): what, for example, are we to make of the narrator of Henry James’s Washington Square, or Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway?

Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, on the other hand, involves the final revelation that the two primary narrators (a so-called omniscient narrator and one of the characters, Claudia) are apparently the same: such a revelation does not serve to clarify or rationalize the nature of the storytelling but, on the contrary, exacerbates the reader’s sense of the narrator-as-enigma. The Bluest Eye indeed begins with mystery — with the enigmatic presentation (and equally enigmatic repetition or re-presentation) of the text of what appears to be a US school primer: ’Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family’ (7). In a forcefully disjunctive way this opening switches, without any explanation, to a passage of italicized text which starts: ’Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow’ (9). There is a sense here of a narrator speaking knowledgeably from a position of hindsight (’We thought, at the time’), of someone who knows things which may or may not be revealed as the narrative unfolds. More provocatively, however, we are left with the mysteriousness of the first four words, ’Quiet as it’s kept’. What is ’it’, Who or what is keeping quiet? Why are we being alerted to what appears to be secret and why should it be kept quiet? Is the narrator imparting information to the reader or keeping quiet about it?

If a logic of secrecy, concealment and revelation is crucial to the workings of any novel, it is also evident in less obviously narrative texts such as lyric poetry. Consider the following poem (No. 180), written around 1859, by Emily Dickinson:

Our lives are Swiss—

So still—so Cool—

Till some odd afternoon

The Alps neglect their Curtains

And we look farther on!

Italy stands the other side!

While like a guard between—

The solemn Alps—

The siren Alps—

Forever intervene!

This poem is about what is concealed or hidden from us: it gestures towards something secret. It suggests that there are moments of revelation or epiphany (’some odd afternoon’) when we are able to ’look farther on’ — beyond the Alps. These moments, or this moment (since technically only one ’odd afternoon’ is mentioned), might be compared to what Wordsworth calls ’spots of time’ or Hardy ’moments of vision’. Dickinson’s poem appears, at least on one level, to describe or relate such a moment and to attribute great significance to it. But if there is a revelation, if the secret and perhaps the meaning of our lives is being referred to here, what is it? The poem says only that ’we look farther on’ and that ’Italy stands the other side’: it remains unclear what it is that is being revealed at this moment when ’The Alps neglect their Curtains’. Is it ’Italy’ simply? But what does ’Italy’ mean? The word ’Forever’ in the final line of the poem underlines the strangeness of what is going on here and the continuing or unresolved enigma of what the poem has to tell us. The definiteness and absoluteness of ’forever’ confirms, in effect, the sense that this poem at once reveals and can never reveal its secret.

Dickinson’s poem could in fact be described as exemplary of literary texts in general. In particular, it dramatizes the fact that the notion of a secret is paradoxical. Jacques Derrida has formulated the paradox as follows: ’There is something secret. But it does not conceal itself’ (Derrida 1992b, 21). In an essay called ’Derrida’s Topographies’, J. Hillis Miller offers a helpful account of this paradox. On the one hand, Miller points out, ’We normally think of a secret as in principle discoverable’ (Miller 1994, 16): Kermode’s ’satisfactions of closure’ and ’the receipt of a message’ and Barthes’s ’hermeneutic code’ make sense only if we accept this principle. There is closure and there is a message to the extent that ’All is revealed’. There is a valid hermeneutic effort or labour of interpretation because there is something to be interpreted, seized, comprehended. On the other hand, however, there is the question of what Miller calls a ’true secret’. He notes that ’a true secret, if there is such a thing, cannot ever, by any means, be revealed’ (17). And Miller then elaborates on the Derridean paradox: ’A true secret … is not hidden somewhere … A true secret is all on the surface. This superficiality cannot by any hermeneutic procedures, material or linguistic, be gone behind. A literary text (and any text may be taken as literary) says what it says’ (17). Thus, in Dickinson’s poem, there would be the enigmatic, perhaps ultimately cryptic status of ’Italy’: there is nothing ’within’ or ’behind’ this appositely italicized ’Italy’. The text says (only) what it says: ’Italy stands the other side!’ It does not say that ’Italy’ symbolizes ’romance’ or that it represents ’revolution’ or even that it can be taken as a synonym for ’the secret’. However superficial or profound or elliptical, it simply says what it says. In these terms, then, it is not only a question of literature as involving secrets that are concealed and that are gradually or finally brought to light. It is also — and perhaps more enigmatically — a matter of a secrecy that does not involve any kind of concealment at all.

A literary text ’says what it says’: it says, for example, that ’we look farther on!’ Or it says, at the very outset, what its title is. Perhaps the secrecy of literary works begins with titles themselves. Perhaps what makes a work ’literary’ is in part that its title remains enigmatic. A literary text says that it is called ’The Virgin and the Gipsy’ or ’The Bluest Eye’ or, say, ’The Shining’. What do these titles refer to? Does Lawrence’s text, for example, finally and clearly establish what is to be understood by ’the dark, tremulous potent secret of … virginity’ (207), or what is meant by the idea of a gipsy, of a figure that is apparently outside ’the vast and gruesome clutch of our law’ (236)? And what is the status and significance of the conjunctive (’and’) in the title of this Lawrence text? What does ’and’ mean? Conversely, what is signified by ’the bluest eye’ and in the eyes of which reader or beholder? Or again, what do those two words ’the shining’ have to tell us? Each of these examples, in fact, resists what Kermode refers to as ’the satisfactions of closure’ and ’the receipt of a message’. It is their readability and their resistance to being read that makes them ’literary’, in Hillis Miller’s terms. This is in part at least why the question ’What is literature?’ is inseparable from the question ’What is a secret?’

It has been traditional to think of meaning as something behind or within the words of a text. Reading has conventionally been thought of on the basis of a surface-depth model, with the words of the text as the surface and the meaning lurking somewhere inside or underneath. The text has secrets and often explicitly conveys and exploits the idea that it has the power to disclose or preserve these secrets. With postmodern and poststructuralist accounts of literature, however, there has been an important shift away from this surface-depth model. This is not to say that the surface-depth model is no longer relevant. Indeed, it is very difficult to think about meaning or about reading without relying to a considerable extent on the values and assumptions of this model. Moreover, as we have been trying to suggest, virtually every literary text can be seen to work with this model. This is, in short, the theory and practice of secrets as (in principle) discoverable. Poststructuralism, however, is generally suspicious about any reading of a literary text that would equate a secret with the ’complete’ or ’ultimate’ meaning. Poststructuralism pays particular attention to the paradoxical nature of secrets — to the fact that secrets can be undiscoverable and yet at the same time unconcealed. In this sense the secrets of a literary text may be right in front of our eyes and yet they remain secret, like ’the purloined letter’ on the mantelpiece in Edgar Allan Poe’s story of that title, or like the solemn, siren Alps, some odd afternoon.

To conclude, we could briefly consider secrets in two further ways. At the beginning of this chapter we put forward the hypothesis that what attracts many people to the study of literature is a fascination with the idea of secrets. We have sought to elaborate on this by considering some of the many respects in which literary texts are bound up with the enigmatic, mysterious, secret and (in a double sense) occult. And we have attempted to emphasize the important paradox whereby secrets can be discoverable but that a ’true secret’, if there is such a thing, can never be discovered. Our focus has been on texts and on how they compel, manipulate and fascinate their readers. But there is also another perspective from which to think about literature and secrets. This would be from that of the reader rather than the text, and in particular as regards the notion of a reader who is interested not so much in the idea of secrets in the text (whodunnit? what is going to happen next? and so on) but rather in the possibilities of secrets within herself or within himself, secrets that may have to do with dreams, memories, fantasies, speculations, apprehensions and desires set off by the text, thoughts and feelings that may never have been experienced before — that is to say, in a surprising way, secret thoughts and feelings. It is in this context that literary texts can be acknowledged as having uncanny powers, including an ability to alter people’s very sense of themselves, of their identity and ’place’.

Second, we might try to think about the possibility of a ’true secret’ within ourselves, about the paradox of what a ’true secret’ might be. This touches on what we refer to in the following chapter as ’the unpresentable’. The name which is sometimes given to this notion of a true secret is ’death’. The Ghost of Hamlet’s father comes to Hamlet and says:

But that I am forbid

To tell the secrets of my prison-house,

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word

Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,

Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres,

Thy knotted and combinèd locks to part,

And each particular hair to stand on end

Like quills upon the fretful porcupine.

But this eternal blazon must not be

To ears of flesh and blood. (Hamlet, 1.5.13—22)

The Ghost at once tells and does not tell. The Ghost keeps the secrets of its prison-house even as it evokes the effects of their disclosure. This is another way of talking about the enigma of literature: whether in the form of Shakespearean tragedy or a contemporary whodunnit, literature is about what cannot be told, and in particular about that impossible package holiday which Hamlet refers to as that ’undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveller returns’ (3.1.81—2). This undiscovered country is neither inside us nor outside us. It is a secret that does not conceal itself: the fact that we are going to die but that, as Freud puts it, ’It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death; and whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators’ (Freud 1985a, 77).

Further reading

Besides the readable and stimulating essay on ’Secrets and Narrative Sequence’ (1983), Frank Kermode has written an important study entitled The Genesis of Secrecy (1979) which deals with various questions about, for example, ’why narratives are obscure’, why we prefer an enigma to ’a muddle’, and so on. Barthes’s S/Z (1990b) contains brilliant insights into senses of secrecy and enigma in reading. Especially in its focus on silence and the unspoken, Pierre Macherey’s A Theory of Literary Production (1978) is a powerful account of literary secrets in relation to politics and ideology. On literary fiction and the omniscient narrator, see Royle’s ’The “Telepathy Effect”: Notes toward a Reconsideration of Narrative Fiction’ (in Royle 2003) and Jonathan Culler, ’Omniscience’ in The Literary in Theory (2007). From a quite different, intensively psychoanalytic perspective, Esther Rashkin’s Family Secrets (1992) is a thought-provoking study of secrets and crypts in mainly nineteenth-century literary works. Jacques Derrida has written numerous essays about secrets: see, in particular, the fascinating but difficult ’Fors’ (Derrida 1986b) and ’Passions’ (Derrida 1992b), as well as the highly illuminating discussions in A Taste for the Secret (Derrida and Ferraris, 2001). In his essay on ’Derrida’s Topographies’ (1994), on the other hand, J. Hillis Miller provides an excellent account of Derrida’s work on secrets (especially ’Fors’) and more generally a rich and accessible introduction to ’Derrida and literature’. For a more difficult but also valuable study, Esther Rashkin’s Unspeakable Secrets and the Psychoanalysis of Culture (2008) looks at examples of film and literature in relation to Abraham and Torok’s notions of cryptonymy. We could perhaps readily imagine, for every author who ever existed, a critical study on his or her ’secrets’, but for two engaging recent examples, see Robert Hampson’s Conrad’s Secrets (2012) and Tom McCarthy’s Tintin and the Secret of Literature (2011). With a somewhat broader focus, David Wyatt’s Secret Histories (2010) explores twentieth-century American literature. Finally, for two quite different but stimulating related studies, see Sarah Dillon’s fine book on The Palimpsest (2007) and Theodore Ziolkowski’s intriguing The Lure of the Arcane (2013).