Many critics of Christina Stead’s work note a high degree of repetition in her writing. What this repetition exactly is or what it implies, however, is variable and shifting. Repetition has been identified as a key characteristic of Stead’s narrative structures. Susan Sheridan for instance remarks that Stead’s novels are ‘characterized by a rhythm of repetition rather than a strong narrative line’ (82–83). Jennifer Gribble notes that through repetition Stead finds a way to structure her texts (83), to reject ‘narrative closure’ (9), and to reveal character (88, 100). Repetition also describes Stead’s thematic treatment of character and identity-formation. Diana Brydon, in her reading of Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, notes Louisa’s impulse to negate or resist through her repetitions: ‘In her relationship with her stepmother, Louisa rewrites the fairy tale of Snow White … Like Snow White, Louisa appears to have an evil stepmother who dislikes her. But Louisa’s story reveals that the apparent opposition of stepmother and child conceals a fundamental affinity’ (76). According to Brydon, Louisa, while identifying with Henny, is determined not to repeat her mother’s life. Joseph A. Boone argues along somewhat similar lines, as he traces Louisa’s individuation not from Henny but from her father, Sam. Louisa, according to Boone, is locked in a battle with Sam in her determination not to repeat him: ‘In a vivid example of what Luce Irigaray has identified as a masculine “logic of the same”, Sam desires … to counter [his children’s] threatening otherness by producing an infantile series of “little-me’s”, children who will seamlessly mirror his self-importance back to him’ (512–13). Sam attempts to subsume the children’s ‘identities with his own [as] a way of denying their (and the world’s) otherness by re-creating it as sameness’ (517).
Boone, moreover, notes the importance of repetition in language patterning in the novel, as Sam attempts to force all language to resemble his language: ‘The ultimate narrative effect of Sam’s verbal manipulativeness is that of an overwhelmingly monological discourse – Sam resists any openly dialogic encounter with alterity’ (521). Shirley Walker, however, identifies the proliferation of languages in the novel, each pertaining to the three main characters, and notes that ‘Henny and Sam … talk incessantly and repetitively’ (11).
While such patterns of repetition have been identified by these and other critics, the idea of repetition as it bears upon Stead’s narrative composition has not been the focus of critical attention – nor has the question of what effects are achieved by variation in the densities and scales of the material repeated across her narratives. This essay places the insistent repetition of material, in and through its variations in scale and density, at the centre of a reading of The Man Who Loved Children. I discuss repetition primarily in terms of material that is repeated in both particular and general forms. This mode of repetition is significant for the development of both content and theme in Stead’s novel, and – as I will ultimately argue – it also occasions the return of the repressed within the work.
There is abundant theory to draw on in arguing for repetition as a structuring principle within a text, and also on repetition as the return of the repressed. Theory on the repetition of material in both particular and general forms, however, is hard to find. No such theory is mentioned in Leonard Orr’s article, ‘Narrative Repetition, Repetitive Narration: A Taxonomy’, which attempts an overview of theories on narrative repetition. Orr’s article references Plato, Aristotle, Lacan, Deleuze, Foucault and others – yet attention to the repetition of the general and the particular is lacking. Peter Brooks and John Hillis Miller in their influential books on narrative repetition do not discuss this form of repetition either, although Miller approaches it briefly in his discussion of synecdochic ‘emblems’ in Wuthering Heights in his Fiction and Repetition (55–56). It would seem, then, that there is a dearth of theory on this kind of narrative repetition.
In the following, I understand repetition to mean similarity between two or more things separated in time, and assume some element of difference is inherent in repetition: ‘To repeat evidently implies resemblance,’ writes Peter Brooks, ‘yet can we speak of resemblance unless there is difference? Without difference, repetition would be identity, which would not usually appear to be the case … Repetition always includes the idea of variation in time’ (124). I argue that the tension between sameness and difference inherent in repetition produces certain reading effects, including narrative drive, in the novel.
In relation to the concept of repetition, I understand the particular as a single instance from a series of like things, which taken together form a more general category. The particular is what is considered singular, while the general is a broader classificatory category that can include various particulars by privileging their similarities over their differences.
Some earlier critics of Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children note a relation between the particular and the general in the novel. Randall Jarrell in his introduction to the 1965 reissue of the work writes: ‘All Henny’s particularities, peculiarities, sum themselves up into a strange general representativeness’ (ix). The co-existence of the particular and the general in Stead’s novel is the leading theme of Jarrell’s introduction: ‘as we read [The Man Who Loved Children] we keep thinking: “how can anything so completely itself, so completely different from me and mine, be, somehow, me and mine?”’ (v). Joan Lidoff states, ‘One of Stead’s special skills is to render with profuse particularity individual characters and dynamics so as to make clear their universal significance’ (15). These critics describe the relation between the general and the particular in terms of its reading effect. Another critic, Graham Burns, while discussing repetition in this manner in his 1971 article, ‘The Moral Design of The Man Who Loved Children’, also analyses how the text produces the effect. Although Burns’s prime concern is how Stead constructs character and positions the reader in relation to character, in making his argument he returns repeatedly to noting and analysing how Stead’s work is structured by a relation between the general and the particular. He argues that Stead does not always effectively manage the relation between the two, and he criticises Stead’s establishment of the conflict between Sam and Henny as given, at least initially, in stereotypical generalisations: ‘oppositions are set up, in an almost clinical way, with little regard for the kind of human complexity revealed in the later dramatic scenes, so that Sam, we are told in the opening chapter, is “the tables of the law”, where Henny is “natural law”; Sam is “household Czar”, Henny “household anarchist”’ (44). According to Burns, ‘that dramatically complex characters are here continuously circumscribed in rather glib abstractions of this type makes for its failure’ (44). Nevertheless, Burns goes on to admit the technique eventually serves the novel well: ‘When these rigid schematics of description are abandoned as the book takes up its dramatic rendering of character, Sam and Henny do, in fact, come to have something of a more general, representative force’ (44). The result is that, ‘For all their … strange particularity’, Sam and Henny become ‘a generalized image’ for domestic conflict between women and men (44).
A closer examination of the relation between the particular and the general in the novel seems justified, especially as the nature of this relation appears distinctive of Stead’s writing and is repeated throughout her works. Margaret Harris wrote of criticism of Stead’s work in 1993, and I think it still holds, that ‘There are … many formal questions, to do with narrative in the broadest sense, and with particular questions of language and narrative technique, that cry out for more sustained answers … We need more strenuous examination of [Stead’s] use of various genres, and the intricacies of her narrative technique’ (164). I suggest Stead’s use of repetition is one of the more important ‘intricacies of her narrative technique’, and that a better understanding of it would help to illuminate the remarkably powerful reading effect of The Man Who Loved Children.
Stead often gives a line of development in the narrative of The Man Who Loved Children in general terms. She provides a synopsis of a character or situation, for instance. Then, at some point in the narrative, usually a future point, she demonstrates what she has presented generally in a more particular way – she creates a scene that dramatically illustrates the synopsis. Done with skill, this is not felt as dull repetition by the reader, but rather as confirmation of, and elaboration on, another part of the novel. This creates echoes and relationships between different parts of the text. It amplifies the line of development, and creates coherence and meaning (this point I extend below). To give an instance of this in the text, Henny is described early on in general terms: ‘Henny was beautifully, wholeheartedly vile; asked no quarter and gave none to the foul world’ (10–11). Here some of Henny’s dominant character traits are given in a synoptic overview before the reader has encountered any particular instance of them. Soon enough we read one of Henny’s tirades, and are shown that she can be vile; we agree with the omniscient narrator’s voice, which then gains the authority of being in agreement with the reader. This kind of repetition, then, clinches agreement with the reader, and creates and amplifies echoes.
Further narrative advantages lie in this doubled treatment of material; the particular, for instance, is effective for dramatisation, for presenting the moment hidden things surface. It has the authority of the actual; the reader is told this is what Henny actually said and did and this is what she looked like. The long tirades and the descriptions of Henny have the authority, the concreteness, of the particular. The general, in contrast, works well for generating background, for atmosphere, and for making broader connections. Stead not only presents Henny as a particular woman, but as a type of woman – the shrew, the hysteric, the termagant, and, occasionally, the nurturing mother. This generalised aspect of her characterisation draws on a more diffuse yet far-reaching authority. In generalising, it broadens out Henny into a long line of Hennies who have gone before and will be again, and connects her character with past depictions of women, or Woman. She gains mythic or legendary status, Jarrell’s ‘strange general representativeness’ (ix). The mythic, generalised Henny is filled in, given flesh and blood, by the particularity of her speech, appearance, and actions. In this process, the mythic borrows the concrete authority of the particular, and comes to life in the present. This is one way Stead combines the advantages of the particular and the general in her writing.
By combining and applying the particular and the general to any line of development, then, a writer can simultaneously make the most of the general, and the most of the particular – and they offer very different advantages. The general, for instance, has a different sense of time than the particular. When both are brought into close relation in the narrative, two time frames are brought into relation. The particular occupies an ongoing present. The general, in contrast, is filled with the past, but it is a past that is at work in the present. In The Man Who Loved Children, the blending of the particular and the general, and their different time structures, can be observed most easily at the beginning. In the opening pages, the text repeatedly tacks between giving a generalised past and a particular present. The novel starts with Henny coming home from the shops one day – that is a particular present. But before Henny can sit down, have a cup of tea, and start telling the children about her shopping adventures, a passage is inserted that places this particular episode in a more general, broader context. Henny’s recount of her day to her children is only given after being placed in relation to similar episodes that have occurred in the past, a past often indicated in the text by the word ‘would’. This usage of ‘would’ expresses habitual action. On the fifth page, for instance, after we have been told Henny has just got home and sat down in her favourite chair, and the children are beginning to gather, Stead writes, ‘visitors to the house would always be attracted to the chair’; and, a few sentences later, ‘The children would line up … and hang entranced on the visitor’s life story’; Stead follows this with the sentence, ‘Henny would sit there, near the kitchen where she could get her cups of tea hot’, and then we are told, ‘At other times [the children] would find her, ugly, with her hair pushed back and her spectacles on’ (emphases added).
The resulting reading effect is that by the time Henny starts talking about that particular day on which the action of the novel starts, narrative echoes are already abounding. This creates a sense of space in the text, and of long stretches of time opening up. It also generates irony, as the present episode can be juxtaposed with past episodes. It creates other forms of humour, too; the humour involved in Henny telling the children about the monstrous characters she has met on the tram that day derives partly from her having said similar things so many times before. This is Henny’s trick, her routine, the children know it, and Henny’s repeat performance is thrilling.
The tacking back and forth between the particular and the general recurs throughout the novel. This process creates in the work a sense of a deeper past, which then can be brought to bear on the narrative present. From the first few pages of the novel, Stead immerses the reader in this deeper past. The reader is plunged into Pollitry, and after only a few pages feels they already know a lot about the Pollits. The general forms a backdrop against which the rest of the novel is viewed. It gives depth to the picture, an atmosphere. The particular that follows, and repeats or fills out the general, can draw on this background to create a foreground that is already echoing. This is one way Stead invents a resounding world in The Man Who Loved Children: she generates a sense of the present repeating what has already often happened and will continue to happen.
The dramatic advantage of the particular is used by Stead in the series of climactic scenes that comprise the novel’s last quarter. I count no fewer than fourteen climactic scenes in the last one hundred and thirty pages of the novel, beginning with the scene in which Sam orders Ernest to clear his room of his lead collection (394) and ending with Louisa leaving home (525). In between are a dozen crises in the text, including the staging of Louisa’s play, ‘Tragedy: The Snake-Man’; Ernest discovering his mother has stolen his savings; the visit of Louisa’s teacher, Miss Aiden, to the family; Sam’s discovery and mockery of Louisa’s Miss Aiden poem cycle; the anonymous letter to Sam disclosing Henny’s debts and adultery, and the fight that follows; Louisa telling her story, ‘Hawkins the North Wind’; Ernest being beaten by Henny while he is getting ready for school one morning; the boiling of the marlin scene; and Henny’s death. Fourteen climactic scenes occur in a row, with little lull between any of them. Each of these scenes makes particular, through dramatising, a general concern or theme of the novel. With each crisis, that which has been kept general is made particular – very particular indeed when your mother tries to strangle you before school (as Henny does to Ernest), or the carcass of a marlin is thrown over you (as Sam does to Little-Sam).
To take the scene in which Sam orders Ernest to clear his bedroom of the lead he has been saving: resisting Sam, Ernest begins dragging the lead back towards his bedroom from outside the house where it has been deposited (394–97). This scene dramatises and brings to crisis themes introduced early in the novel, and developed throughout – Ernest’s love of money, Sam’s desire to dominate Ernest, and Ernest’s desire to be independent. The scene in which Ernest discovers Henny has been stealing his savings dramatises the close relationship between Ernest and Henny, the economic aspect of that relationship, and the extent of Henny’s inner collapse; the themes are crystallised in the particular action of Ernest emptying his piggybank, to find only worthless currency (410–15).
A controlled progression is evident, then, throughout The Man Who Loved Children, from the more general to the increasingly particular. This simultaneous deployment of the general and the particular is made powerful when the advantages of both are brought to bear on the text, contributing to the unforgettable effect of the scene in which Louisa tells the younger children her story, ‘Hawkins the North Wind’ (428–32). In this scene, the use of the particular and the general as narrative technique is shown in miniature in the text itself. This storytelling scene acts in a general, representative way, by demonstrating how a storyteller works, and how story deals with trauma and traumatic subjects by representing them in an allegoric manner. The scene is also a very particular instance of an imaginative child’s strategy to deal with an extremely stressful situation. While the parents scream at each other in the kitchen below, Louisa tells the five younger children a story, a fantastic and horrific story, about a man who literally consumes that which sustains him, his horse. The storytelling helps the younger children not only by distracting them, but by giving them a metaphor – a generalised version – of the very particular hell they are experiencing. Louisa gives the children a means to cope with the trauma by presenting them in her story with a metaphor of what is happening to them; this distances the children from the events unfolding around them. Her story re-presents the traumatic events they are experiencing within a form that is recessed from the events. Louisa does for the children what Stead, in relation to the autobiographical material on which she draws, does for herself in writing the novel. It is also what Stead does with and for her character, Louisa, as Brydon suggests when arguing the novel is in part a rewriting of Snow White.
Brooks states that repetition works in storytelling by ‘shaping energy, giving it perceptible form, form that the text and the reader can work with in the construction of thematic wholes and narrative orders’ (123). Repetition thus involves the reader, and gives form and meaning: ‘a novel is interpreted,’ writes Miller, ‘through the identification of recurrences and of meanings generated through recurrences’ (1). Repetition is one way The Man Who Loved Children demonstrates how patriarchy, capitalism, and a model of the family work, and how these structures are reproduced. The Man Who Loved Children is structured by repetition to an extent unusual even for a long prose work, and it shows many forms of repetition in content; these repetitions give the work ‘perceptible form’, they are the ‘recurrences’ that point to the novel’s concerns. Repetition is most obvious in the novel’s language; as mentioned, Sam and Henny are repetitive in their monologues, and their monologues are long and frequent. The text contains a large number of rhymes, songs, and chants, which often adhere to one of the many family ceremonies that incorporate stock language. Repetition occurs, too, in the characterisation in the novel. Sam and Henny’s children closely repeat the adult world in their play, and some of the children appear destined to repeat the lives of their mother and father. Evie, the family’s second daughter, is forever playing mothers and fathers, rehearsing various scenarios to do with adult life, particularly the perpetuation of the family. In turn, Henny and Sam seem bound to repeat in their children the damage done to them in their own childhoods and in their marriage. ‘You are myself,’ Sam says to Louisa at one point (136). Henny is sickened by the process of repetition, ‘panting’ to Louisa, ‘Louie, don’t you ever let a man do that,’ meaning what Sam has done to her (497). Repetition of content begins to shade into repetition as technique when it is considered how variously aspects of plot and characterisation in The Man Who Loved Children are doubled. Stead provides two contrasting versions of marital infidelity, for example, in Sam’s relationship to Gillian, and Henny’s affair with Bert. There are a great many pairings of characters in the book’s structure, whether in likeness or opposition, the most obvious being Henny and Sam, but also among the children (the twins), and between the children and the adults (Sam is paired with Louisa, his only child with his first wife, and Henny with Ernest, her first child with Sam).
The Man Who Loved Children is not only intricately structured by repetition, in many ways it is about repetition. The novel shows how families repeat themselves through generations, by language, ceremonies, imitation, family folklore, and so on. It also shows repetition in societal terms, as it demonstrates how the family unit works in a machine-like way to copy, repeat, and reproduce larger society. Capitalism and patriarchy – but also a type of free-thinking in Sam’s case – are replicated in and by the Pollit family. Taboos, behaviours, expectations, beliefs, patterns of thinking, all are instilled and engrained by the family. Stead shows the Pollit family as a machine not only producing more Pollits, but also stamping out more capitalists, more children of patriarchy. As Boone argues, Sam spends a great deal of energy trying to ensure his children repeat his views, and see the world as he does.
Sam’s investment in this replication is most obvious, however, when the children resist it. There is narrative tension in these scenes, a tension that drives the narrative almost as surely and consistently as the conflict between Sam and Henny. The children, some more than others, try to differentiate themselves from Sam. At these moments in the narrative, there is a sense something has gone wrong with the machine of repetition that is the Pollit family; the children are not correctly replicating. In these scenes, Stead harnesses the tension inherent in repetition between its contraries of sameness and difference.
Fairly early in the novel, Little-Sam suddenly and unexpectedly shouts abuse at his father. The scene bursts between the two Sams in the middle of a long passage of skylarking between Sam and his children during the highly choreographed Pollit routine that is ‘Sunday Funday’. In the midst of the horseplay, Little-Sam, who is seven or so, abruptly yells at his father, ‘Shut up you fool! … I’m tired of you … you make me sick! … You’re an old gasbag.’ At this, ‘Sam began to chant softly, a song about Little-Sam’s schoolteacher, “Ole Miss Jones, rattles her bones, over the stones: she’s only a porpoise that nobody owns”’ (66–67). Eventually the episode blows over, once Little-Sam lies crushed and humiliated, but it shows repetition in the family is not straightforward, since Little-Sam is not smoothly replicating Big-Sam. These points in the novel, when the workings of replication falter, and the children find the words to defy Sam, are moments that eventually lead to something new being created. Taken together, they are the ‘quantitative moments’ referred to by Jarrell, the accumulation of which is one of the ‘structural processes’ used to organise the novel: ‘A series of quantitative changes that leads to a qualitative change’ (xxxi). Repetition falters, and there is mutation, and hence variety, in the Pollit species.
A similar but more complex scene occurs when Louisa insists on dancing while Aunt Jo, Sam’s sister, plays the piano. Sam, watching Louisa dance, is repelled to see the expression of his daughter’s physical self, and through it her inner being. He abuses Louisa’s looks, complains he can see too much of her leg, and insists she stop: ‘With a sort of sacred horror he looked aghast at her fat thighs half revealed. Louie flushed and, moving down the room, towards the south window, did a few steps to herself, hesitating and quiet as a meditation’ (117). Louisa goes on dancing, exercising her family right to express herself through dance. Her aunts – Jo at the piano, and another of Sam’s sisters, Bonnie – encourage Louisa to keep going, for it is part of a family ritual, a ceremony, in which the children dance while an aunt plays the piano. Here again is difference in repetition, which reveals that the Pollits are not homogeneous.
These kinds of scenes, Darwinian moments of mutation within the family, recur in The Man Who Loved Children, and dramatise repetition going awry. In showing the faltering of the repetition process, they reveal the structures of repetition-making. Louisa’s dancing, and Little-Sam’s outburst, in varying ways, calibrate sameness and difference within repetition.
To return to the idea of repetition giving form and meaning, repetition not only produces meaning, it can also destroy meaning. If something is repeated ad nauseum, it becomes meaningless, or, in Donald P. Spence’s phrase, it ‘very quickly loses its explanatory force’ (189). This is one reason Sam fails to reproduce his thinking in Louisa, despite his ongoing attempts to instil in her his worldview. He repeats himself too often, and she cannot abide listening to him anymore, as shown in the scene in which Sam lectures Louisa in his lengthy and complacent way, not realising that as he talks, she is writing, ‘Shut up, shut up, shut up’ (363). Louisa nullifies Sam’s repetition with repetition of her own. Repetition can also unsettle or stymie meaning when used as parody, travesty, or to lampoon. This often happens in The Man Who Loved Children. Sam, for instance, makes a travesty of Louisa’s poetry by reading it mockingly (424–26), and by parodying her use of quotation (275–76). Sam repeats in travestied form anything he does not understand or that challenges him.
Brooks, who theorises on the links between Sigmund Freud’s ideas on the return of the repressed and repetition in narrative, notes how repetitions in a text are ‘both returns to and returns of’ (125). In the context of Stead’s novels, Gribble mentions how repetition often both signals the return of the repressed, and acts to repress (101, 103). Instances abound in The Man Who Loved Children of repetition as an active tool of repression. In the scene discussed in which Little-Sam defies Big-Sam, it will be noted that Big-Sam deflects his son’s mutinous outburst by immediately starting a chant. The chant distracts the other children from the little mutiny, unites them as one voice against Little-Sam, re-establishes the dominance of Big-Sam as the initiator and leader of the chant, and overrides the child’s defiance. Big-Sam’s dominance is doubly underscored by the chant mocking another figure of authority in the boy’s life, his female school teacher, a figure who has the potential to provide a point-of-view outside the family, and who is beyond Sam’s control. Big-Sam often cheers up the children and himself by leading them in a song or a chant, in order to forget whatever has been upsetting him or them: this is a form of repression. Louisa does something similar, if in a less self-serving sense, in her storytelling to the younger children.
Repetition, then, does not only repress, it also betrays the presence of the repressed. Sam’s ditty about Little-Sam’s teacher has a sexual connotation (‘she’s only a porpoise that nobody owns’), and Louisa’s stories to the children always address the surfacing of their deepest fears. The process of repetition revealing the repressed is most evident in the material gathered in the series of climactic scenes arranged in the work’s last quarter, in which all the seething things that have been – more or less – kept below the surface for the novel’s first three hundred and ninety pages burst into view. In this long series of crises, repetition works to accumulate ‘the construction of thematic wholes’, in Brooks’s terms, as theme after theme reaches its highest dramatic expression. The deeper past, intimated in the text from the start of the novel, breaks into the narrative present.
Exploring the relationship between the general and the particular not only throws light on the ways Stead structures her texts and on their effects, it could contribute to the discussion on the genre of her works, including that of The Man Who Loved Children. Fairy tales, myths, legends, allegories incline towards the general – by general I here mean that time and place are usually fairly unspecific and unimportant, and the names given are more about representing ideas rather than identifying any individual (such as in ‘Hawkins the North Wind’); realist writing inclines more towards the particular in its accumulation of detail pertinent to a specific time and place. The Man Who Loved Children is usually read as a realist novel. I have been arguing that the novel’s material is often given in ways more general than might be expected in a realist novel. Conversely, in its insistence on so many details, the novel might also present material in ways more particular than expected in a realist novel.
This movement between extremes of generality and particularity beyond those customarily associated with realist works occurs throughout Stead’s writing. In regard the generalising tendency, in the early The Beauties and Furies (1936) Marpurgo is more a magical or changeling figure than a realistic figure. Cotters’ England (1966) is not only a satire of a particular political movement at a particular time in English history – it is equally a kind of fable about how the demonic and the repressed can surface and impinge upon the conscious and the material. Narrative drive is in part generated in Cotters’ England by its form being subtly poised between the realistic and the allegorical.
The tacking between the general and the particular, on which I have focussed in this reading of The Man Who Loved Children, could be extended to readings of Stead’s other works, including readings of her short stories, autobiographical essays, and novellas. The relation between the general and the particular might also be extended to Stead’s use of imagery and synecdoche, as these forms use a particular thing or instance to indicate something more general. Allusion is another form of repetition that remains to be more fully explored in Stead’s writing, although Robin Dizard touches on imagery, synecdoche and allusion in her reading of House of All Nations. The high degree of repetition in Stead’s works might also be read in terms of variation; as Anne Holden Rönning writes, ‘Just as in music, where variations on a theme provide vastly differing approaches, so the same may be said of Stead’s work’ (110).