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  • One More Time:Approaches to Repetition in Children's Literature
  • Susan R. Gannon (bio)

Repetition is one of the most familiar features of children's literature. It clarifies the structure of narrative for young readers, and helps them to remember what they have read. It adds rhythm and the mysterious charm of ritual to the simplest of verbal formulas. It offers the pleasure of extended suspense and delayed gratification to even the youngest audience. But repetition—whether in the sequence of events which makes up a story—or in the patterning of the textual discourse which presents that story—is also a powerful means of generating meaning in fiction. Four recent critics have developed approaches to the way meaning is conveyed by repetition in fiction. I would like to present some of their ideas here, together with a few suggestions about their potential application to the study of children's literature.

In Fiction and Repetition: Seven English Novels, J. Hillis Miller discusses the way repetition operates at the level of language in some nineteenth century novels. He urges critics to resist the temptation to force any premature or false unity upon what may be a heterogeneous work, and his own treatment of the way discourse interprets story in these novels is worked out with great respect for the integrity of each work. In Traditional Romance and Tale: How Stories Mean, and Magical Thought in Creative Writing: The Distinctive Roles of Fantasy and Imagination in Fiction, Ann Wilson explores the moral logic of story, attempting to explain why readers can accept apparently absurd or inconsistent tales as significant and satisfying imaginative experiences. Her ideas about the significance of repeated moves in story are as applicable to children's fiction with a strong romance component as they are to traditional fairy tales. Meredith Anne Skura's survey of psychological approaches to literature, The Literary Use of the Psychoanalytic Process, suggests that many similarities between literary creation and the process of coming to self-awareness through psychoanalysis. Skura also discusses the different ways reality can be repeated in daydream and in fantasy. She also reminds us that repetition in fantasy need not be limited to the progressive moves of a linear plot. In Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative, Peter Brooks studies the dynamics of plotting from a psychological perspective, and is especially interested in the way repetition acts to slow a text, and bind its energies, making their final discharge more satisfying. But he also sees such repetitions as the source of the complications which elaborate the meaning of the plot and allow it, in a sense, to reflect on itself.

In Fiction and Repetition Hillis Miller examines the various ways repetition—whether of images, metaphors, motifs, plots, characters, or events—functions to convey meaning in the novel. One particular interest of his is the way that authors repeat themselves from book to book. He observes that Hardy's novels echo each other formally and thematically, and contends that the narrative design of The Well Beloved can only be properly appreciated by noting the parallels between this novel and those other novels by Hardy to which it refers. "The fullest understanding of the novel" he says, "is achieved by moving back and forth from one of those versions of the pattern to another, interpreting each by the others" (158).

Similarly, one could make a case that sometimes the children's book which is consciously designed as part of a series can only be properly appreciated in that context. Characters, episodes, and symbols met in each of Wilder's Little House books are meant to be felt presences in the succeeding books, allowing readers to move back and forth between the books, interpreting new situations by reference to familiar ones, and reflecting on earlier developments in the light of successive ones. But of course, the way the books of a series relate to each other can vary from series to series and there is surely much work to be done by critics of children's literature on this point.

Like Dickens and Thackeray before her, P. L. Travers has demonstrated the ability to use one book as a kind of...


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