Surprise: The Poetics of the Unexpected from Milton to Austen

Christopher R. Miller
Copyright Date: 2015
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 280
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    Book Description:

    Today, in the era of the spoiler alert, "surprise" in fiction is primarily associated with an unexpected plot twist, but in earlier usage, the word had darker and more complex meanings. Originally denoting a military ambush or physical assault, surprise went through a major semantic shift in the eighteenth century: from violent attack to pleasurable experience, and from external event to internal feeling. InSurprise, Christopher R. Miller studies that change as it took shape in literature ranging fromParadise Lostthrough the novels of Jane Austen. Miller argues that writers of the period exploited and arbitrated the dual nature of surprise in its sinister and benign forms. Even as surprise came to be associated with pleasure, it continued to be perceived as a problem: a sign of ignorance or naïveté, an uncontrollable reflex, a paralysis of rationality, and an experience of mere novelty or diversion for its own sake. In close readings of exemplary scenes-particularly those involving astonished or petrified characters-Miller shows how novelists sought to harness the energies of surprise toward edifying or comic ends, while registering its underpinnings in violence and mortal danger.

    In the Roman poet Horace's famous axiom, poetry should instruct and delight, but in the early eighteenth century, Joseph Addison signally amended that formula to suggest that the imaginative arts should surprise and delight. Investigating the significance of that substitution, Miller traces an intellectual history of surprise, involving Aristotelian poetics, Cartesian philosophy, Enlightenment concepts of the passions, eighteenth-century literary criticism and aesthetics, and modern emotion theory. Miller goes on to offer a fresh reading of what it means to be "surprised by sin" inParadise Lost, showing how Milton's epic both harks back to the symbolic functions of violence in allegory and looks ahead to the moral contours of the novel. Subsequent chapters study the Miltonic ramifications of surprise in the novels of Defoe, Haywood, Richardson, Fielding, and Sterne, as well as in the poems of Wordsworth and Keats. By focusing on surprise in its inflections as emotion, cognition, and event, Miller's book illuminates connections between allegory and formal realism, between aesthetic discourse and prose fiction, and between novel and lyric; and it offers new ways of thinking about the aesthetic and ethical dimensions of the novel as the genre emerged in the eighteenth century.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5578-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-15)

    A twenty-first-century reader shopping for a well-known eighteenth-century novel on can dip into randomly selected pages using a search function called “Surprise me!” If this exercise produces any flicker of feeling, it is likely very far from the species of emotion registered by the title of the novel itself:The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe(1719).¹ Both forms of surprise can be understood as attention-catching techniques of print culture in its different historical manifestations, but in Daniel Defoe’s era, the word had far deeper resonance. Above all, surprise was conceived of as a fully corporeal emotion:...

  5. Chapter 1 From Aristotle to Emotion Theory
    (pp. 16-37)

    This book explores the premise that surprise is both an emotion and an element of poetics—both an object of mimesis (the situated experience of characters) and a feature of narrative (the mediated experience of readers or viewers). The first and most influential theorist of that intersection was Aristotle, and I begin this chapter by outlining the salient claims of hisPoetics. I go on to consider a series of developments in the intellectual history of surprise: the early modern rehabilitation of wonder as valuable emotional attitude; the Cartesian identification of surprise as a pivotal movement in the passions; the...

  6. Chapter 2 Being and Feeling: The Surprise Attacks of Paradise Lost
    (pp. 38-62)

    In English literary history, the violent underpinnings of surprise are nowhere more vividly explored than in John Milton’sParadise Lost. This is an inevitable effect of Milton’s attention to etymology and lexical ambiguity, but it also reflects a larger imaginative engagement with a topos of epic, the technology of modern warfare, and the poetics of the passions. Even as Milton invokes the older military sense of “surprise,” he activates—and arguably shapes—the modern denotations of cognitive response and psychological affect. In a poem signally concerned with origins, the éclat of the word reverberates; but in Milton’s vocabulary of psychic...

  7. Chapter 3 The Accidental Doctor: Physics and Metaphysics in Robinson Crusoe
    (pp. 63-88)

    Surprise is at the heart of one of the earliest English novels; from first to last, it drives the arrhythmic pulse of the narrator’s experiences. The full title of Daniel Defoe’s most famous work isThe Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner(1719).¹ Rather than merely advertising the fantastical, the word “strange” guarantees the veracity of Crusoe’s experiences; in Michael McKeon’s formula for the epistemology of seventeenth-century news ballads and early novels, they are “strange, therefore true.”² What usually gets overlooked in this phrase, however, is the peculiar role of the “surprizing”: this modifier does...

  8. Chapter 4 The Purification of Surprise in Pamela
    (pp. 89-114)

    To be surprised by sin is not merely to be astonished to find sinful behavior in the world; it is to be thoroughly engulfed and irrevocably changed by it. That Miltonic peril drives the narrative of Samuel Richardson’sPamela; Or, Virtue Rewarded(1740) with particular urgency. To describe the heroine as being “surprised” is to suggest several things: that her would-be seducer Mr. B physically attacks her; that she is so guileless that she fails to anticipate Mr. B’s sexual interest; that even after suffering one unwanted advance, she is astonished to find herself the victim of another. On a...

  9. Chapter 5 Fielding’s Statues of Surprize
    (pp. 115-140)

    Both Daniel Defoe’sRobinson Crusoeand Samuel Richardson’s Pamela reflect the eighteenth-century understanding of surprise as a momentarily debilitating or even life-threatening experience; the first-person reports of its eruptions necessarily reconstruct a sudden halt in the flow of perception and thought. In the Protestant poetics of both novels, such moments reiterate the protagonist’s lack of confident expectation and accessibility to providential hints. Surprise serves, in short, as an index of authenticity, an indispensable element in the emotional vocabulary of formal realism. All of this changes in the famously self-conscious and hyperliterary realism of Henry Fielding’s novels. Surprise here becomes a...

  10. Chapter 6 Northanger Abbey and Gothic Perception: Austen’s Aesthetics and Ethics of Surprise
    (pp. 141-170)

    “Surprizes,” George Knightley curtly declares in Jane Austen’sEmma(1815), “are foolish things.”¹ He is referring to a specific incident, but nearly a century after the publication ofRobinson Crusoeand several decades after the first flush of gothic romance, his comment carries a larger metafictional implication: that the project of plotting surprises is frivolous, and that the readerly susceptibility to them reflects a childish naïveté or delight in passing sensation. Austen’s novels are full of surprising incidents, but they conspicuously lack several familiar eighteenth-century elements: the romance tropes of foundlings and hidden family relationships; the sexual menace and violence...

  11. Chapter 7 Wordsworthian Shocks, Gentle and Otherwise
    (pp. 171-198)

    William Wordsworth has long been recognized as a poet who wrote about experiences that seemed trivial to many of his contemporary readers but later came to be seen as quintessentially lyric moments. In the poet’s terms, they take the form of either a “strange fit of passion” or a “whirl-blast from behind the hill”—a spontaneous feeling or a natural phenomenon, or often a combination of the two. With respect to lyric tradition, they represent a major revision of the archetypal form of astonishment invented in Dante’s vision of Beatrice in theVita Novaand Petrarch’s first arresting sight of...

  12. Chapter 8 “Fine Suddenness”: Keats’s Sense of a Beginning
    (pp. 199-222)

    “Nothing,” John Keats once declared in a letter to his friend Benjamin Bailey, “startles me beyond the Moment.”¹ Of course: the experience of being startled can only last a moment; indeed, it defines a particular kind of moment. Beyond that tautology, Keats is claiming a capacity to steel himself against surprise, or at least to absorb its effects quickly. Elsewhere, he counsels another friend to adopt that stance: “Why don’t you, as I do, look unconcerned at what may be called more particularly Heart-vexations? They never surprize me—lord!” For all of his assumed defenses against the world’s shocks, however,...

  13. Epilogue
    (pp. 223-232)

    When Henry Fielding likened Lady Booby to a “Statue of Surprize,” he was invoking a conventional trope of astonishment; but his phrase inadvertently conjures an allegorical figure by the name of Surprize. Among the vast family of personified abstractions hailed by poets of the period, it is a pity that Surprize never got its own cultic hymn. As I have hoped to show, if such a deity did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it as the presiding spirit of eighteenth-century prose fiction and aesthetic discourse. In fact, it would take a nineteenth-century prose fiction and aesthetic discourse....

  14. Notes
    (pp. 233-266)
  15. Index
    (pp. 267-269)