- Surprise: The Poetics of the Unexpected from Milton to Austen by Christopher R. Miller
In an age when discussion of films and television dramas dominates online and offline communications, the phrase "spoiler alert" has become a well-known warning against narrative revelation, more commonly known as "surprise." Yet the modern understanding of surprise in relation to fiction is a relatively new one that changed from its classical meaning to a more modern definition in the eighteenth century, argues Christopher R. Miller. Offering a detailed analysis of the shifting focus of surprise as it relates to reader expectation, Miller studies the shift in surprise from John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667) to popular novels at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Miller states that his book deals with "the dynamic interplay between what might be called 'bad' and 'good' forms of surprise—between violence and enlightenment, physical attack and aesthetic pleasure" (2). Miller wants to tell "the story of how surprise in the eighteenth century became valued as an experience; and … [his book] also shows how authors sought new ways of representing and eliciting that response" (2). Observing that little has been written on this topic, Miller delves into the historical progress of surprise that begins to take a modern form in the eighteenth century. The result of his research is a rigorous and thoughtful critical interpretation about the changes in taste and aesthetics as fiction developed throughout the long eighteenth century.
In the introduction to Surprise, Miller notes that surprise "is a reflex common to a wide variety of sensate creatures; and in its higher-order human functions, it can be artfully manipulated and socially performed, enthusiastically courted and stoically guarded against—though never entirely prevented" (3). Miller's study begins with the chapter "From Aristotle to Emotion Theory," on the origins of the notion of surprise found in Aristotle's Poetics. Miller examines how Aristotle approached a type of shock administrated through the dramatic arts that was similar to what one would experience elsewhere. Miller argues that Aristotle's claim had importance for those readers, writers, and scholars in the eighteenth century who were concerned with literary aesthetics; he notes the relevance of "Aristotle's insistence that the surprises of a plot must be rationally framed, both by the artist's design and by the characters' reckoning" (6). This chapter concludes with a discussion of the theories of Rene Descartes, Charles Le Brun, and Paul Ekman as they relate to the emotions, specifically with how the mind reacts to the notion of surprise. [End Page 150]
In chapter 2, "Being and Feeling: The Surprise Attacks of Paradise Lost," Miller turns to Milton's great opus as an example wherein "the violent underpinnings of surprise are nowhere more vividly explored" (38). Throughout this chapter, Miller discusses the surprised state found in many of Milton's characters and how this informs the notion of Miltonic free will. This chapter also considers how Milton implements the idea of Aristotelian drama as it relates to discovery of the unknown as demanded by allegory. Following this discussion of Milton, Miller turns to one of the great novels of the early eighteenth century in chapter 3, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719). Observing that "surprise in Defoe's novel—in its potent sense of violence, its nexus between gunfire and the satanic, and in its haunted reminders of fallenness—harks back to the world of Paradise Lost" (63), Miller reviews the strangeness and surprise that continuously assail Crusoe throughout the narrative. For Defoe, surprise is the same as experience, and as people become more experienced in the world, then they will also be faced with surprise time after time. Miller concludes this chapter by noting how surprise, for Defoe, has become "an attenuated, reflexive formula" (88) that is necessary for maintaining narrative interest, with profound implications for the reader.
Chapters 4–6 investigate the further development of surprise as found in a sampling of major novelists of the...