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Surprise - Christopher R. Miller

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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: a sudden seizure, a violent physical or sexual attack, a temporary condition of muteness, a petrifaction of the body, an intimation of death. As an experience to be recovered from and articulated, it was often presumed to serve edifying purposes—as a token of providential grace, as a fleeting moment of pleasure, as a lever of moral commentary, or as a reflexive pause over the operations of the mind. At the same time, surprise was also perceived as a problem or danger: a chaotic energy, an animal reflex, a paralysis of rationality, a reaction to be stoically guarded against, and a watchword for mere novelty or diversion for its own sake.

In modern narrative media, surprise is perhaps most commonly associated with the kind of unexpected event that the spoiler alert is meant to preserve. Today, readers of novels and viewers of films and television dramas expect to be warned lest they be told of a plot development before encountering it for themselves, in real time. In this cultural framework, surprise is treated as a precious and volatile substance that can indeed be spoiled through exposure; one signally postmodern way of extending its longevity has been to watch videos of other people reacting to shocking and unexpected television scenes. This sense of surprise as plot secret figures in the literary history that I intend to trace, but it was only one in a network of meanings. This book seeks to recover those meanings and their bearing on several domains: the poetics of allegory, the emerging discourse of aesthetics, the formal realism of the novel, and the representation of experience in Romantic lyric poetry.² It focuses on the dynamic interplay between what might be called bad and good forms of surprise—between violence and enlightenment, physical attack and aesthetic pleasure. As a literary and intellectual history of an emotion, this book tells the story of how surprise in the eighteenth century became valued as an experience; and because surprise is by definition an ephemeral response that can be dulled by repetition and familiarity, it also shows how authors sought new ways of representing and eliciting that response.

In the simplest terms, I want to focus new attention on a quintessentially eighteenth-century word and its inflections across a broad spectrum of writing. Surprise overlaps with several penumbral words—astonish, amaze, wonder, startle—but none appears in writing of the period with quite the same frequency and lexical versatility. As J. Paul Hunter has noted, the dyad of the strange and surprising was common on the title pages of both fictional and nonfictional narratives, one that harked back to the seemingly miraculous coincidences and supernatural happenings of romance.³ In Hunter’s observation, the surprising denoted a form of pleasure to be found, in concentrated form, in prose fiction: the sense that life is rich with possibility and full of the unexpected. And yet surprise was not always synonymous with pleasure: at issue is the question of how the jarring or violent surprises of characters are convertible to forms of pleasure or instruction on the part of readers. I argue that surprise acquired a complex set of meanings during this time, and that a thoroughgoing attention to those meanings illuminates important concerns about the aesthetic and ethical dimensions of literature, especially the novel.

In both eighteenth-century usage and modern psychology, surprise encompasses several distinct but interpenetrating forms: an emotion (an embodied feeling, an orientation), a form of cognition (a reckoning with a subverted expectation or sudden perception), and an event in the world. It is this last sense, in its sheer contingency and physicality, that I want to emphasize. Surprise is not only a feeling but also something that happens to someone. At its most basic physiological level, it 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. Unlike other emotions such as anger, wonder, or fear, it cannot be self-willed; it is the essence of the involuntary, and it crystallizes what it means to have a vulnerable body and fallible mind in a world of unpredictable and chaotic events. At the outset, I want to define the salient features of surprise and suggest some of their formal implications.

Surprise takes both physical and cognitive form. For all of its associations with the benign or pleasurable, the word contains a history of violence, one whose reverberations persisted well into the eighteenth century. Derived from the Old French surprendre (to attack or, more literally, overtake), the English word surprise first denoted military assault, seizure, rape, or disturbance; by the late Middle Ages it began to acquire a cognitive sense. In later modern usage, the etymologically redundant term surprise attack registers that shift: the first word denotes the psychic effect of the second. (A military and political term of recent vintage, shock and awe, similarly registers those successive phases.)

The lexical history of surprise reflects the Lockean and Viconian premise that words often evolve from physical and material registers to the mental and the abstract. The beginnings of that metamorphosis can be seen in Shakespeare’s plays, where the word denotes battle maneuvers, forcible seizure or sexual assault, and figurative attacks on the senses in tropes of faculty psychology. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, to cite just one example, Boyet warns the Princess and her attendants of the suitors’ approach, in a caveat about love’s rhetoric: Love doth approach disguis’d, / Armed in arguments—you’ll be surpris’d (5.2.83–84).⁴ The beguiling paradox is that even after she has been armed with Boyet’s warning, the Princess will still be caught off guard; the statement serves as more of a prediction than a preemption. This is so because surprise is never wholly neutralized by expectation or foreknowledge.

The darker side of Shakespeare’s erotic trope can be seen in Titus Andronicus, and it is apt that this most violent of Shakespearean tragedies features the word surpris’d more frequently than any other play. Titus’s cry in the first scene, Lavinia is surpris’d! (1.1.285)—in response to Bassianus’s sudden announcement of betrothal to her—is poignantly echoed when the father finds that his daughter has been raped and mutilated: Lavinia, wert thou thus surpris’d, sweet girl? (4.1.51). Here, the silence conventionally associated with astonishment reaches an Ovidian extreme, for Lavinia, like Philomel, literally cannot speak her surprise, and the father’s exclamation serves as both expression of distress and tragic ekphrasis. Shakespeare’s participle has the full force of physical attack behind it: the deictic phrase, "thus surpris’d," does not merely gesture to a facially legible emotion like sadness or fear; it incorporates the signs of irrevocable harm. As I argue, that sense of permanent change is essential to a full appreciation of what it means to be surprised by sin in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, by an uncanny Other in Robinson Crusoe, and by a would-be seducer in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela.

Samuel Johnson’s definition of the verb to surprise in his 1755 Dictionary registers the evolution from the physical to the cognitive: 1. To take unawares; to fall upon unexpectedly. 2. To astonish by something wonderful. 3. To confuse or perplex by something sudden.⁵ In the Dictionary’s series of quotations, the first sense is illustrated by Macbeth’s resolve to squelch an enemy (The castle of Macduff I will surprise), the second by a natural marvel in Roger L’Estrange’s translation of Aesop (People were not so much frighted as surprised at the bigness of the camel), and the third to Milton’s description of Satan caught by the angelic guardians of Eden (Up he starts, discover’d and surpriz’d). L’Estrange’s distinction separates fear from startlement, carving out a space for what might be called spectatorial surprise. Milton’s Janus-faced usage, with its etymological blend of Anglo-Saxon (starts) and French (surprised), plays on both the older military sense and newer cognitive sense of the word: as an erstwhile commander, Satan is literally ambushed by the enemy; as a fallible creature, he is shocked to be caught under angelic surveillance. As I argue in Chapter 2, the allegories of The Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost turn on this fulcrum between literal violence and cognitive or emotional shock; later chapters pursue the implications of those dualities.

Surprise is a brief, situated emotional response, but it can ramify into sustained states, such as wonder, fear, or indignation. In modern psychology, surprise is commonly identified as a primary affect, an emotional diode opening into stronger states of feeling.⁶ Antonio Damasio identifies it as one of six primary or universal emotions—as opposed to secondary or social emotions, such as embarrassment, guilt, and pride.⁷ Jerome Kagan has remarked that surprise often eludes more serious study because many of life’s surprises are absorbed or neutralized and thus have no behavioral consequences; and yet while the experience of surprise may be less salient than fear, it is probably one of the most frequent human emotions.⁸ In eighteenth-century terms, surprise is generally not understood as an emotion of the Sublime; and yet, in a comic mode, a mundane surprise is sometimes described as if it were an extreme state of astonishment or wonder, as in the mock-epic hyperbole of Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne. In its sheer brevity, ordinariness, and endless iterability, surprise might be called the signature emotion of the novel.

Surprise can be understood as both an involuntary response and as a socially constructed and narratively mediated feeling. In modern emotion theory, surprise takes the form of both the startle reflex and higher-order expressions of cognitive reaction or judgment. Here, Damasio’s distinction between primary and secondary emotions requires some qualification, for verbal expressions and literary representations of surprise can have obvious social constructions. Likewise, in psycholinguistics, expressions of surprise, like the expression of any emotion, can be ranked on a scale ranging from the iconic (spontaneous reactions such as raised eyebrows, or a shout of Oh!) to the conventional (syntactic constructions such as You don’t say!).⁹ In verbalized form, surprise is for the most part retroactive or revisionary—a post facto expression of a fleeting response. When we say, I am surprised, the moment has already passed, or we are using the expression as a formula of judgment rather than reporting an internal state. In this way, utterances of surprise differ from expressions of sustained passions like sadness or anger: these can be simultaneous with their verbal articulation.

In the grammar of emotions, as Meredith Osmond points out, we say that we are surprised by rather than with something, and the distinction is based on the duration of response: one feels angry with someone because the emotion can be sustained, and its embodied cause continues to exist. But one is surprised only by the sudden or unexpected, after which the emotion vanishes or turns into something else.¹⁰ As we will see, the social and performative dimensions of surprise—as an emotion that can be exaggerated or counterfeited, as a lever of judgment—has particular relevance to the satirical commentary in the novels of Fielding and Jane Austen, among others.

Surprise denotes both an internal feeling and an external event. In the first sense, surprise exemplifies the passivity encoded within the classical concept of the passions (from Latin deponent verb patior, to suffer): it involves the sense of being acted upon or seized by an external force. In the second sense, surprise stands apart from emotion words such as anger, fear, or grief: these denote inner states but not their stimuli. All emotions can be seen as orientations toward the world, but surprise is unusual in its intertwinement of feeling and stimulus: emotions such as anger or grief can be free-floating, self-willed, or open-ended; surprise cannot. (In lexical terms, the closest relative to surprise is wonder, which denotes both marvels and the awe that they inspire.) This duality of surprise has several literary implications. In narrative terms, the word describes both a character’s or reader’s reaction and a discrete episode or development. (By contrast, we do not speak of the anger or the happiness as distinct points on a narrative timeline; we refer to them as emotions that readers or characters might feel on a specific occasion.) Surprise, then, can take two different forms: a dynamic, even ephemeral, response; and a static, structural feature of the plot. In the latter case, we can refer to the surprise in a novel long after we have lost, through familiarity, the capacity to register genuine shock at that development.

To summarize, these are the governing claims of my book with respect to the following literary domains:

Narrative poetics. Chapter 1 begins by addressing what could be called the first narratology of surprise, Aristotle’s Poetics. In essence, Aristotle posited a dramatically mediated form of shock that was related to but different from that feeling as it would be experienced outside the space of a theater. I argue that Aristotle’s claims about the intertwinement of cognitive and affective responses had significant bearing on eighteenth-century criticism and aesthetics. Especially relevant is Aristotle’s insistence that the surprises of a plot must be rationally framed, both by the artist’s design and by the characters’ reckoning. In dramatic poetry, in other words, emotion must be suffused with cognition.

The surprise of characters and readers both overlaps and diverges. On the most basic level, this is true of any emotion and its narrative mediation: through an act of sympathetic identification, the reader can participate in the represented emotions of fictional people or have strong feelings on their behalf.¹¹ The simulation of surprise is especially salient to the arts of narrative, because this emotion in particular involves the dynamics of expectation: the sudden revelation of a family relationship or a death can come as a surprise to both characters and readers at precisely the same time. And yet we can differentiate between a character’s situated experience of suddenness and a reader’s mediated engagement with that event. This is true of other emotions, but what distinguishes many kinds of surprise in eighteenth-century fiction is their sheer physicality.¹² The relationship between a character’s surprise and the reader’s experience of the surprizing can therefore pose an ethical problem in the way that a character’s suffering is received as entertainment—particularly in the case of Pamela, in which the heroine’s shocks might prove merely titillating or diverting to the reader.

Allegory. The violent and unexpected clash with an adversary serves a variety of metaphorical purposes: to represent the internal response of a character, as in forms of psychomachia; to highlight a prior state of ignorance or inattention; to motivate an act of recognition or thematic elucidation; to crystallize an experience of the passions, in the sense of being seized by a feeling as if it were an external force; to trigger an arresting or potentially disabling moment of wonder. Allegory constantly negotiates between the literal and the figurative, the physical and the cognitive, and surprise exemplifies that balance: it signifies both a fleeting emotion or thought and a permanent condition. In other words, surprise is both a passing state and, at its most extreme, a kind of metamorphosis.

Aesthetics. In the early eighteenth century, Joseph Addison’s axiom that art should surprise and delight designated surprise as an important element of aesthetic pleasure. This dyad revises Horace’s famous prescription that poetry should ideally delight and instruct. This is not to say that Addison’s substitution eliminated instruction from the equation; rather, it carried the implication that surprise could serve instructive purposes. As a sudden blow against the routine or familiar, the experience of surprise was presumed to focus the attention and leave a more indelible mnemonic impression. The aestheticization of surprise can be understood as arising within the cultural matrix that Patricia Meyer Spacks has articulated in her study of boredom: the invention and spread of new forms of popular entertainment, the idea of leisure as a differentiated psychic space, the decline in the Christian concept of acedia as moral failing, and increasing interest in the kind of private experience represented in novels.¹³ The opposite of boredom, in Spacks’s definition, is interest, and by the end of the century, the idea of the interesting changed from its older sense (that which touches or affects, that which is important) to its current denotation of that which excites curiosity or engages attention.¹⁴ In essence, the modulation of material interest into the affective realm of the interesting parallels the shift from older senses of surprise to the aesthetic category of the surprising.

Formal realism. The distinctive nature of surprise has particular relevance to the epistemological claims of the novel. Its basis in empirical truth involves the narration of two sets of facts, which might be summarized in these simple statements: this is what happened; this is how it was felt or perceived by a narrator or character. Surprise stands precisely at that intersection. In Crusoe, for instance, the surprizing encompasses several things: a concussive event, a sudden feeling or thought, a qualifier of the unexpected or unbidden, a promise of the new and the extraordinary, and a prediction of a reader’s affective response. In effect, the participle in Defoe’s title both registers a series of events in the narrator’s autobiographical account and anticipates the reader’s imaginative engagement in their recapitulation.

Eighteenth-century novels are full of descriptions of shocked or astonished people. As mimetic acts, these set pieces represent pauses in the narrative; and as lived experiences, they represent temporarily halted characters—bodies immobilized and rendered mute. I call these ekphrases of surprise, for as in the poetic evocation of an object of visual or plastic art, such descriptions speak for silent figures. Several conventional gestures and tropes mark that moment: the rapt gaze, the mea sured pause of silence (often said to last a minute or more), and the petrifaction of the body into what Fielding called a Statue of Surprize. As I show, Fielding and Sterne, in their acute consciousness of textual mediation, invented mimetic techniques to approximate the immediacy of sudden sights and sounds; and in the gothic mode, Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe developed a perceptual syntax of surprise.

Lyric poetry. As both emotion and event, surprise pertains to lyric poetry as well as to prose fiction. Recent scholarship has bridged the divide between these genres: studies of literary affect, particularly regarding the literature of sensibility, have treated emotion as a discursive formation to be found in philosophical discourse, prose fiction, and lyric; and, as G. Gabrielle Starr has demonstrated, eighteenth-century novels both absorbed lyric conventions and bestowed their own innovations on later poetry of the Romantic era.¹⁵ While surprise is everywhere in eighteenth-century novels, however, it is almost entirely absent from contemporaneous lyric poetry, such as the mid-century sublime odes of William Collins, Thomas Gray, and Thomas Warton (which favor the passion of wonder), and the late-century poetry of sensibility (which favors the mood of melancholy and tranquil reflection). It was in the Romantic era that surprise emerged as a salient lyric emotion, particularly in the poetry of William Wordsworth and John Keats. In contrast, Percy Bysshe Shelley rarely used the word, and Lord Byron professed to be immune to the feeling.¹⁶ In Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the great poet of boredom and ennui declares, I’ve taught me other tongues—and in strange eyes / Have made me not a stranger; to the mind / Which is itself, no changes bring surprise (4.8.1–3).¹⁷ Byron bases this claim on both his cosmopolitan immersion in the world and his fundamentally English, impervious mind. Wordsworth, by contrast, desired an inexhaustible accessibility to the most ordinary of surprises; and Keats, though he sometimes struck a pose of Byronic urbanity, was drawn to record the effect of first experiences, or things experienced as if for the first time. These poets, far more than their contemporaries, were signally interested in the sudden, the unexpected, and the new; and both inherited recognizable elements of the poetics of surprise from novels and romance narrative.

In focusing on surprise in the novel, I want to advance an affective corollary to prevailing critical accounts that posit the genre as arising from a tension between Romance and Realism (Ian Watt) or through a discursive dialectic between fact and fiction (Lennard Davis and Michael McKeon, inter alia).¹⁸ In eighteenth-century scholarship, recent studies of the passions have illuminated the emotional and psychological dimension that is largely missing from these earlier accounts. As Geoffrey Sill has suggested, the passions should be considered alongside McKeon’s categories of epistemology (questions of truth) and social status (questions of virtue).¹⁹ Numerous eighteenth-century writers posited emotion as a form of cognition or knowledge rather than as a purely corporeal or irrational impulse. In Adela Pinch’s argument, early modern thought treated the passions as innate, natural forces, whereas British empiricist philosophers shifted feeling from the realm of volition to the realm of understanding.²⁰ In eighteenth-century fiction, I argue, surprise occupies that crossroads.

More specifically, my claims about the surprising are meant to complement McKeon’s emphasis on the epistemological category of the strange. The novel’s claims to fact and historicity were generated by a productive tension that McKeon has memorably summarized in the formula, strange, therefore true.²¹ In focusing on the categories of strange/true, McKeon articulates what might be called the spatial taxonomy of the novel: the mechanism by which the uncanny outlier is brought into the realm of the possible. And yet this formula does not fully account for the temporal dimension of the surprising, nor does it encompass the thoroughly ordinary shocks or turns of event that can be deemed surprises, even after repeated exposure. Strictly speaking, the strange is the unknown or unfamiliar; the surprising is the sudden or unexpected. Whereas the strange can be assimilated, the surprising has the potential to retain its disruptive power; and it pertains more closely to the interiority or subjectivity of characters. For example, in Pamela, the decision of an aristocrat to marry a commoner can, within a horizon of class-based expectations, be classified as strange; but Mr. B’s serial sexual advances are more aptly described as surprising, both in the external fact of sexual assault and the internal experience of disturbance. In objective terms, neither the heroine, nor other characters in the novel, nor Richardson’s audience would precisely call these attacks strange; if anything, they seem all too common. One engine driving the narrative is the fact that Pamela continues to experience these sallies as surprises—as both physically jarring and cognitively unexpected. In effect, Richardson’s novel and others are often predicated on the repeatability of surprise or a character’s susceptibility to shocks both great and small.

I also want to suggest that surprise is an important adjunct to William Warner’s formulation of eighteenth-century entertainment. This is the term that Warner has advanced to encapsulate several distinctive elements of the early novel: the continuum between theatrical and textual forms of narrative, the act of drawing and sustaining the interest of readers in a train of attention, the contractual relationship between author and audience, and the project of harnessing narrative pleasure to a didactic purpose.²² Though entertainment—both word and idea—certainly had currency in the eighteenth century, it serves as more of a macro term to describe a larger discourse, an economy of consumption, and a cultural phenomenon that Warner piquantly calls a media event. The word itself, however, does not often appear within the pages of novels to denote a particular character’s experience. To explore Warner’s premise further, then, I would propose surprise as a more ubiquitous and pertinent key word, one that allows a finer-grained attention to novelistic mimesis.

My account of surprise also complements Ross Hamilton’s philosophical and literary history of the accident. As Hamilton notes, the Lockean association of ideas that goes into the formation of a self is predicated on accident, both external and internal: the randomness of experience and the vagaries of neural organization.²³ In Hamilton’s argument, this conception had significant implications for the novel, where accident functions as a site of self-transformation, and the mutable nature of accidental qualities responded to the new sense that aspects of personal identity can shift over time (134). By their very nature, accidents can be said to come as surprises, but these two terms are not exact synonyms: even if accident implies a subjective judgment about the unexpected or unintended, it still denotes an external event; but surprise, as I have observed, can denote both an event and an internal feeling.²⁴

In eighteenth-century fiction, that difference matters in a few ways. First, an intentionally caused event would not be called an accident, but it can still come as a surprise; Mr. B’s assaults on Pamela are a case in point. Second, impulses of thought and feeling in eighteenth-century fiction are typically described as surprises, not accidents. In Robinson Crusoe, for instance, frequent iterations of surprise mark the porous boundary between the internal and external. In describing events on the island, Crusoe typically frames his observation of phenomena in terms of his own affective response to them; and he observes the fluctuating inner weather of his thoughts and emotions as if they were external events. If, in Crusoe’s tentatively Calvinist theory of mind, a thought can be providentially impelled, then it can be treated as something that happens to him—like other natural phenomena that require explanation or interpretation. To put this another way, Crusoe is subject to the Cartesian astonishment that Stanley Cavell has identified in the tradition of philosophical skepticism—the sense of a world that seems to elude one’s grasp, a feeling of the surrealism of the habitual.²⁵

Before turning to prose fiction, this book begins with a chapter on the intellectual history of surprise as a dramatic, narrative, philosophical, and aesthetic concept. The next chapter examines how the physical and cognitive duality of surprise informs the moral poetics of Paradise Lost. In essence, I investigate what it means to be, in the phrase made famous by Stanley Fish, surprised by sin, and thereby arrive at a more nuanced understanding of Miltonic free will, one that limns its cognitive and affective dimensions. In particular, I mean to shift critical emphasis away from Fish’s generalized reader, who is presumed to respond in a scripted way to the poem’s surprises, and focus instead on Milton’s representations of characters’ states of surprise. Second, I identify the intersection between two forms of poetic surprise—the reversal and recognition at the heart of Aristotelian drama and the plot of unknowing and discovery essential to allegory.

In subsequent chapters, I trace the Miltonic permutations of surprise in eighteenth-century novels: the intersection of Aristotelian anagnorisis and allegorical interpretation; the association of surprise with the postlapsarian condition; the adjacency of surprise and wonder, along with the overlap between mere shock and divine miracle; the suddenness and seeming involuntariness of thought and feeling; and the cognitive dynamics of inattention and awareness, forgetfulness and repetition. In this way, I mean to elucidate the allegorical structures of realist fiction, and I pay particular attention to the uncomfortably close juxtapositions of surprise as access of providential grace or pleasure and surprise as postlapsarian assault—variously manifest in the technology of modern warfare, the threat of rape, the specter of sudden death, the malicious practical joke, and the gothic conspiracy. I also show how various novelists are concerned with theorizing, overtly or implicitly, the poetics of surprise: in Robinson Crusoe and Pamela, this effort appears in the artfully spontaneous musings and accidental philosophies of their titular diarists; in Joseph Andrews, it takes the form of a neo-Aristotelian defense of ridicule, as well as numerous narrative winks and asides; and in Northanger Abbey, it appears in both the obvious satirical allusions to gothic conventions and in characters’ conversations about the intertwined issues of morality and aesthetics.

I argue that novelists including Eliza Haywood, Richardson, and Fielding deliberately mediated between the violent and pleasurable senses of surprise. I wish to articulate the ways that they addressed the Aristotelian question of how a character’s unpleasant or traumatic experiences are converted into a reader’s pleasurable or edifying engagement—how surprise (as assault, seizure, or radical jolt) becomes the Addisonian aesthetic value of the surprizing. I show how these and other authors, acutely aware of the mediated nature of their relation to an audience,²⁶ both solicited surprise in their readers and represented it as an embodied state in their characters; how they understood it as both a passing emotion and a lasting condition; how they developed mimetic techniques for representing the experience; how they overtly theorized about it and implicitly reflected contemporary critical discussions on the subject; and how they engaged with its sexual politics.

Surprise is deeply inflected by gender: with respect to female characters, it is almost always attended by connotations of sexual assault or moral compromise, and with respect to male characters, it is something to be stoically absorbed or defended against. Consider a midcentury poem in Hudibrastics entitled The Surprize: Or,The Gentleman Turn’dApothecary (1739).²⁷ The surprize of the title refers chiefly to a sexual liberty taken by the male protagonist, but it has several related forms. In what amounts to a dirtier version of The Rape of the Lock, the London spark Timante happens upon Araminta while she is waiting for her maid to administer a routine enema; wonder-struck by the unauthorized sight, he seizes the opportunity to perform the service himself. This is the foundational set of surprises in the story: Timante’s sudden sight and Araminta’s unwitting submission to her visitor’s treatment.

The rest of the narrative concerns the embarrassing aftermath of the incident as it unfolds in the town’s gossip and in Araminta’s resentment; but the poem ends with a rapprochement between the accidental apothecary and his patient. In the prefatory address To Our Fair Readers, the narrator offers a telling assurance about that outcome: A Fair-one, tho’ surpriz’d, you’ll see / Preserve good Sense and Modesty. The qualification about Araminta’s surprise has two meanings, one chiefly physical, the other mental: 1) Although she was inappropriately touched by Timante, she could not have known that the hands administering the clyster were unlicensed ones. 2) Although she was later startled to discover Timante’s stratagem, she ultimately maintained her composure and rationality—the good humour that eluded the principal figures in Pope’s mock epic about furtive liberty taking.

With respect to Araminta and other female characters of the period, surprise denotes both a transitory state of feeling (regulated by good sense) and a permanent state of affairs (the physical preservation or loss of modesty). From the male admirer’s perspective, however, surprise has an entirely different meaning, evident in the poetic encomium that Timante writes about his beloved’s posterior: So neat, so plump, so gently rising, / Its Symmetry thro’out surprising (121–22). In effect, the participle surprising both recapitulates Timante’s first ephemeral sight of Araminta’s body and suggests a sustained attitude of connoisseurship, implied by the winking references to proportion and symmetry. Here, Timante gets to speak the emerging language of aesthetics; Araminta does not. Araminta’s and Timante’s experiences of surprise thus differ markedly, but the narrative strives to reconcile them: in its revisionary shift from assault to aesthetic appreciation, the poem gives itself moral permission to convert an embarrassing and predatory surprize into a surprizing tale. This, I argue, exemplifies a crucial eighteenth-century transformation—what I describe in my chapter on Pamela as a purification of surprise.

Surprise, then, has different connotations for men and women of the period; and in elaboration of that premise, I begin Chapter 4 by considering the work of Haywood, whose romances include one entitled, simply, The Surprize. My point here is to show how Haywood deliberately managed surprize as both an erotic energy and an instrument of moral instruction in ways that point to the troubled poetics of Pamela. Richardson’s heroine is constantly vulnerable to shock, and the sheer frequency and descriptive abundance of these instances opens the author to the charge of mimetic excess. As his correspondence attests, Richardson was mindful of this pitfall, and I show how these repetitive instances of surprise serve a deeper ethical design: as index of naïveté, as lever of moral expectation and judgment, as providential opportunity for sympathy, as reflection of a fundamentally meliorative faith, and as element of spontaneity in allegorical interpretation. In essence, I argue that the moral rehabilitation of Mr. B and his courtship of Pamela in the second half of the novel accomplishes the transformation of physical shocks into cognitive ones.

A related set of transformations is at work in Fielding’s fiction, which I take up in Chapter 5. I make several claims about Fielding’s poetics: that surprise is an essential element in the author’s rationale for comic ridicule; that the author’s ethical defense of ridicule is bound up with an aesthetic justification for surprise; that the two basic forms of surprise—the physical and the cognitive—are interrelated and inflected by differences of class and gender; that Fielding is interested not only in the narrative mechanism of surprise but also its rhetoric, the ways that extreme emotional states are performed; and that in representing moments of astonishment, Fielding nostalgically harks back to the instantaneity of theatrical spectacle, even as he develops techniques that anticipate the narrative innovations of Tristram Shandy and gothic romance.

Austen was among these heirs, and after an examination of several key moments and tropes of astonishment in gothic fiction, I explore her complex relation to her predecessors. My purpose here is twofold: first, to argue that while the most proximate target of satire in Northanger Abbey is the vogue for gothic shock, the novel should be more properly situated within the longer eighteenth-century discourse of surprise, manifest in both novels and critical prose; second, to show the subtler ways that Austen synthesizes the techniques and concerns of gothic narrative. The heroine of Northanger Abbey is the most easily astonished character in all of Austen’s fiction; and in reading the novel through this lens, I wish to challenge critical accounts that either dismiss surprise as a symptom of the young heroine’s naïveté or overlook it in favor of its stronger relative, alarm; and thus to identify in the novel a powerful eighteenth-century idea and narrative device.

My final two chapters turn from prose fiction to poetry. Wordsworth’s anecdotes of sudden moods, encounters, and realizations have often been called, in the poet’s own phrase, spots of time and, in the terms of modernist aesthetics, epiphanies. I argue that they should also be understood in the eighteenth-century context of surprise. I seek to shed new light on Wordsworth’s poetry through reference to the affective vocabulary of Paradise Lost, aesthetic and philosophical discourse, the novel, and latter-day emotion theory. I begin Chapter 8 by showing how Keats in his early poems borrows the perceptual pattern that structures so many of Wordsworth’s Poems of the Imagination: a state of inattention or dreaminess punctuated by a sudden sound or gleam. For Wordsworth, these anecdotes were meant primarily to illustrate universal principles of mental operation; but for Keats, experiences of surprise served more explicitly as allegories for awakened poetic ambition.

Typically, the Keatsian surprise involves an unexpected thing that is somehow expected, an accessibility to novelty grounded in repetition and familiarity. I conclude this chapter with readings of the Ode to Psyche and the Ode on Melancholy, both of which conceive of surprise—and emotion more generally—in mythological terms. These poems originate in an experience of surprise