J. Hillis Miller (1928-) - Key Figures in Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

J. Hillis Miller (1928-)
Key Figures in Literary Theory

J. Hillis Miller was born in Newport News, Virginia, and studied at Oberlin College and Harvard University, where he received his doctorate in 1952. He taught for nearly twenty years at Johns Hopkins University (1953-72), then taught at Yale University (1972-86), where he held the Frederick W. Hilles Chair in English and Comparative Literature. In 1986, he left Yale for the University of California, Irvine, where he is currently UCI Distinguished Professor.

Miller's early work, especially Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels (1958), grew out of his interest in the Geneva school of phenomenological criticism, especially the ideas of Georges Poulet. over the next ten years, Miller studied the nineteenth-century literary tradition, producing The Disappearance of God (1963) and Poets of Reality (1965), texts which examine the way God's absence and the “here and now” serve to ground literary vision. Through the late 1960s and '70s, he continued to write about the literary tradition, but also turned his attention to the problems that had arisen in the wake of Deconstruction and other poststructuralist theories. In “Ariadne's Thread” (1976), he argued that narratives do not proceed along straight lines but are rather structured like labyrinths. In “The Critic as Host” (1977), he defended Deconstruction against the charge of parasitism, and in the process deconstructed the binomial relationship of host-parasite. He followed up these extremely influential essays with Fiction and Repetition (1982), an important study of the novel that drew on Nietzschean and Deleuzean theories of DIFFERENCE and repetition to describe the two modes of repetition (unifying and differential) that construct novelistic narrative. In the 1980s, Miller began to explore a linguistically-based “ethics of reading,” arguing that our compulsion to read enabled the development of an ethical sensibility. In 1990, Miller consolidated his position on the ethics of reading with three collections of essays, Tropes, Parables, Performatives, Versions of Pygmalion, and Victorian Subjects. These texts, with their emphasis on literature as a performative act involving the reader as collaborator, confirmed his reputation as a major innovator in deconstructionist and reader-response theories. In 1992, he published Ariadne’s Thread, which explored further his earlier ideas about labyrinthine narratives in conjunction with his new performative theory of ethical reading. His work of the late 1990s tended toward studies of literature drawing on narrative theory and speech act theory. More than any other poststructuralist critic, Miller has taught us the myriad possibilities of an ethics of reading grounded in the openness of the text.


Miller, J. Hillis. Ariadne’s Thread: Story Lines. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

---- . The Ethics of Reading: Kant, de Man, Eliot, Trollope, James and Benjamin. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.

---- . Fiction and Repetition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.

---- . The J. Hillis Miller Reader. Ed. Julian Wolfreys. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005.

---- . Tropes, Parables, Performatives: Essays on Twentieth-century Literature. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990.