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  • The Critic’s Tact
  • Henry Sussman
J. Hillis Miller. Literature as Conduct: Speech Acts in Henry James. New York: Fordham UP, 2005. ix–xii + 343 pages.

J. Hillis Miller's nuanced, precise, and detailed elaboration of speech acts in literature has encompassed, in addition to a volume of the same title (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2001), at least The Ethics of Literature (New York: Columbia UP, 1987), Versions of Pygmalion (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990), and Topographies (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1995). The long-awaited appearance of Literature as Conduct is notable as a current update and consummation of certain theoretical issues into which he has delved over a significant stretch of his remarkably generative career, questions relating to the conceptual, rhetorical, representational, and ethical conditions under which literature is at once possible, felicitous, and impossible.

The volume at the same time orchestrates a meticulous and multi-tiered encounter with Henry James's mature fiction in all the exasperations, rewards, ethical quandaries, communications blackouts, confirmations of existential predicaments, and literary and theoretical educations encrypted in its astute reading. Each reading with which Miller emerges is authoritative. Major novelists, of which James is a particularly daunting and compelling, but by no means exclusive example, will never again be readable in obliviousness to the play of speech-acts and performatives on which the credibility of their simulated worlds depends. In the wake of Literature as Conduct, the [End Page 1262] literature on Henry James gains a framework and focus of which it was largely unaware.

Miller explains the persistence of his interest in speech acts and performatives in some of the following introductory phrases:

The author's act of writing is a doing that takes the form of putting things in this way or that. . . . The narrators and characters in a work of fiction may utter speech acts that are a way of doing things with words—promises, declarations, excuses, denials, acts of bearing witness, lies, decisions publicly attested, and the like. Such speech acts make up crucial moments in the narrator's or in the characters' conduct of life. . . . The reader, in his or her turn, in acts of reading, criticism, or informal comment, may do things by putting a reading into words. Doing that may have an effect on students, readers, or acquaintances. . . . My title, "Literature as Conduct," can refer to the way writing literature is a form of conduct, or to the representation of conduct within literary fictions, or, using conduct as a verb, to the way literature may conduct readers to believe or behave in new ways.


Acts of readership, criticism, commentary, and rhetoric, in and around literary works, are not without their repercussions. These preoccupations are anything but hopelessly derivative teapot tempests at an outrageous remove from the scenes of deliberation and action. They are the very paradigms of the tangible, often cataclysmic aftershocks, in the full socio-political sense, ensuing from the collaborative speech acts in which actual people as well as literary characters regularly engage. As Miller puts it, with respect to one of the major Jamesian novels in his sights:

Society in The Wings of the Dove is a reciprocal system of working and being worked. . . . The whole system of relative valuations is based on nothing of substantial worth as foundation, at least not on any insight into that, nor on an objectively valid method of measuring value. Another more hyperbolic way to put this is to say that this social system is based on a set of lies that everyone knows are lies and yet agrees to pretend to believe. The whole airy fabric of giving and taking, of exchange, substitution, and appropriation, has no substance and is suspended over nothing.


In comparison to earlier studies, Miller demonstrates even greater confidence and fluidity in linking interrelated phenomena of narration, characterology, rhetoric, and ethics while at the same time bringing certain persistent theoretical inquiries—into the nature of speech acts and their decisiveness to social relations in and out of literary works—to some resolution, however provisional. His commentary achieves new authenticity not by dint of any relaxation of discipline or by giving in to broad generalizations. [End Page 1263]

With regard to the...


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