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  • For (Against) a Theory of Rereading
  • Thomas M. Leitch (bio)

My contradictory title is explained by my contention that literary theory needs to take account of the ways an audience's experience changes when we reread a work of literature or watch a film for the second or tenth time but that a general theory of rereading is impossible. Even so, given the observation that no one ever reads the same work twice in quite the same way, it is important to attempt some theoretical account of the process of rereading, especially because virtually all criticism is based on readings that are actually rereadings—one might plausibly define literature as that which is rereadable—and because our experience of a given work changes with each subsequent rereading.

A theory of rereading would seem necessary to all discourse analysis. How does our eighth reading of a sonnet or a soup recipe differ from our first, and which reading, if any, is normative? Such questions may be posed for any repeatable utterance in any discursive mode. The problems raised by rereading are particularly acute, however, in narrative theory, because although the leading features of narrative, and indeed the only aspects of narrative many readers notice—that is, the plot and the characters—are presumably available on a first reading, the interpretation of narrative, especially in the classroom, is typically based on features unavailable, or available to only a few readers, except in rereading. In other words, the difference between the first reading of a story and subsequent readings is likely to be more complete, and more completely regulated by generic rules, than the difference between the first reading and subsequent readings of an essay or lyric poem. This difference depends [End Page 491] partly on the fact that in stories, the principals and their adventures provide an armature of meaning that is assumed by authors and readers alike to be universally available. Narratives illustrate better than any other mode of discourse T. S. Eliot's well-known remark about how the ostensible meaning of a poem serves mainly to placate the reader "while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house-dog" (151).

It is true, of course, that the distinction between readers who are concerned only with plot and characters and readers who are concerned additionally with tone, rhetorical figures, patterns of imagery, and other less obvious features of discourse does not correspond to a difference between reading and rereading, because an audience can still enjoy the plot and characters of Casablanca the fiftieth time around and (more significantly) because many audiences can detect and interpret, for example, ironies and ambiguities even on a first reading. But such readers might fairly be called first-time rereaders—that is, readers who have trained themselves, in effect, to reread a story the first time they read it1—because interpretation is not always consonant with the pleasure of a first reading. Particular narrative genres such as the detective story not only provide a different kind of pleasure on rereading but depend on providing a kind of pleasure (seeing a mystery solved after undergoing a period of bewilderment) that is by definition unavailable on rereading; a first-time rereader, one who picked up every clue and saw through every ruse, would lose an essential pleasure of detective stories and probably would have little reason to read them. It therefore makes sense to distinguish, at least for the sake of argument, between the pleasures of reading and the pleasures of rereading, in addition to distinguishing between more and less perceptive readers. Slapstick comedy can no longer surprise us or horror films shock us in the same way the second time around. In fact, the theoretical problems involved in rereading are raised most urgently by the analysis of narrative film, the movies most of us watch without much awareness of analysis of any sort.

For many years teachers have told students that Hamlet yields new depths, or at least new aspects, each time it is read.2 Such injunctions carry the implication that repeated readings provide the best way of...


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