Literature and Surprise

Nigel Fabb, University of Strathclyde

Theory of Surprise

In this article, I look at ways in which literary texts can cause surprise.  I suggest that there are specific devices which can produce surprise, and also that there are general aspects of literary texts which are continuously mildly surprising.  Surprise can in some cases result in various kinds of arousal, and can have epistemic effects, including the feeling of coming to know something not just new but also profound and perhaps ineffable.  The psychology of surprise is probably a human universal.  The characteristics of literary texts which can produce surprise are also found in many different literatures.

Surprise is a person’s response to a perception which deviates significantly from their expectations, where the perception can be of something external or internal (e.g., a new thought in this sense is counted as a ‘perception’).  There are different psychological theories of surprise, and here I use the approach particularly associated with Reisenzein, Meyer and Schützwohl, who say that ‘surprise is elicited by events that deviate from a schema’.  In this approach, much of what we know is in the form of generalized knowledge, formulated as schemata, which we bring to our perceptions in order to shape them, and to which we match the actual objects, events, and sequences of events which we perceive.  Schemata can also be thought of as types, to which we match these perceived tokens. There has to be some built-in tolerance for variation, such that the tokens do not exactly match the types, and tokenings of the same types are not identical. No cat is the perfect instantiation of a cat and no two cats are identical (in principle, but I return to this).  So, surprise is elicited by events (and sequences of events, and objects) which significantly deviate from a schema. 


The Consequences of Surprise and Their Relevance to Aesthetic Experience

Surprise is a response to something unexpected, and what is unexpected can be dangerous, and so surprise can potentially trigger one of the fight, flight or freeze responses.  David Huron in his study of responses to music in Sweet Anticipationhas explored how these responses, which we share with other animals, are adapted in humans, such that the initial arousal response is managed cortically to moderate its effect, in aesthetic experience. Wassiliwizky and colleagues have also explored similar thrill-generating processes in poetry, as in Housman’s account of how he knows poetry by the arousals in his body, including the hair standing up on his chin, so that poetry can hinder shaving.  Thus, surprise in front of an artwork or work of literature can produce arousals such as chills (goosebumps, frisson etc.), and (based on the work of Efran and Spangler) we can say that tears – another arousal response to aesthetic objects – can be understood in terms of surprise.  (Note that these arousals can arise in other ways, and many surprises do not produce the arousals at all.)  This all suggests that chills and tears in response to literature might be a response to something surprising in the text.  There are other contributing factors, for example empathy can also produce an arousal response which might be combined with a surprise to enhance the response.

Surprise can also produce an epistemic experience.  This is because surprise is a response to something we perceive but that we do not already know.  So, a surprise can always lead to learning, when we change what we know, to fit the new perceptions.  Perhaps in some special cases, the learning-from-surprise can feel as though we have learned something very profound.  This could be what happens in the experience of the sublime, or of the various types of epiphany: they are basically surprises where the epistemic feeling, the feeling of coming to know something new, is enlarged.  In some cases, something profoundly new has in fact been learned; in other cases, it may feel as though this has happened, but it is difficult to verify. Verification may fail if what is known cannot be put into words; that is, it is ineffable.  Here, we may be experiencing an effect of profound knowledge without there being any actual knowledge, in a kind of epistemic illusion.  Ineffability might arise from various sources, as Diana Raffman has shown in her analysis of ineffable experiences of music; but ineffability is also an expected correlate of any surprise.  This is because words for the most part represent schemata (types) rather than particulars (tokens), and surprise arises exactly when we cannot fit a token into an existing type; so, where there is no type there should be no word.  The epistemic effects of surprise can arise from our reading of literary texts, where there may be an experience of knowing something profoundly new, but we may not be able to say what it is.

The epistemic effects of surprise are, I suggest, at the root of various types of ‘strong experience’ including the sublime, the epiphany, and the uncanny.  In my book A Theory of Thrills, Sublime and Epiphany in Literature, I group these various types of experience under the rather noncommital term ‘strong experience’, a term borrowed from Gabrielsson’s account of ‘strong experiences in music’.  These strong experiences have been extensively discussed in the critical and philosophical literature, particularly under the categories of ‘sublime’ and ‘literary epiphany’ (Beja, Nichols, Tigges).  They have also been described in the psychological literature, notably by William James who was interested both in the epistemic (noetic) aspects and in the arousal aspects, and by Freud in his discussion of the uncanny. But, as I discuss in the next section, many more ordinary types of experience can also arise from surprise, triggered by characteristics of literary texts.


Discrepancy in Literary Texts as Triggers of Surprise

If a literary text has some element which deviates significantly from the schema we bring to it, then there may be surprise, and this in turn can bring with it the epistemic and arousal consequences of surprise, producing a powerful experience from the literary text.  The deviation can be in the content: the literary text may represent something, somebody, some place, etc. which is very discrepant relative to the schemata which the reader brings to them. Literary characters can surprise us by behaving in ways which contradict the knowledge which we formulate about them, and our surprise may be enhanced into a more profoundly felt experience if we also empathize with the characters (with empathy enhanced by literary devices).

Surprise can be triggered in narratives, and other texts which have a predictable sequential structure. Here, the predictability allows us to be surprised when the sequence does not follow the expected pattern, for example when an event fails to occur, or unexpectedly occurs, or occurs before or after it is anticipated.  This type of surprise has been extensively studied in the psychology of music, and is a major theme in Huron’s work on how music surprises us and produces the type of strong experience which is a thrill.  Any kind of sequential organization can allow for formal changes, and change is one of the possible sources of surprise.  Smith, in her book on the strong experience of poetic closure suggested that “any terminal modification of form will strengthen closure”.  Formal changes can change processing effort, and sudden changes in processing effort might perhaps be a trigger of strong experience because they are surprising. 

Narratives have a sequential structure but also have a hierarchical structure, which to some extent mimics the hierarchical structure of events as we understand them, where that hierarchical structuring of events is a psychological universal (Radvansky and Zacks, Zwaan et al).  This allows for another kind of discrepancy, when the hierarchical structures of narrative are violated.  Such a violation can involve liminal or transitional parts of a narrative, for example, when the ending of one event overlaps with the beginning of another.  And hierarchies can also be violated by failing to fully contain events, if the large-scale events of the whole narrative interrupt the lower-level events which make it up, rather than fully containing them.  An example of this can be seen in the penultimate chapter of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.  Mr Ramsay is “forever suspended in this moment” (Speidel) as he steps from the boat to the land near the end of To the Lighthouse, a moment which Beja identifies as epiphanic. For our purposes the important point is that here the large-scale episode ends when they arrive at the lighthouse, but the component small-scale event of stepping onto the land is interrupted and so never completed in the text. Thus, the hierarchical structure of events are violated and perhaps this violation of event schemata is the trigger of the epiphanic strong experience. Disruptions to hierarchical structure of this kind may be interpreted as discrepant relative to general schemata for events, and so surprising.

Literary texts are often characterized by ‘defamiliarization’ where familiar things are presented in an unfamiliar way: the resemblance is deliberately made odd, such that our perceptions cannot properly be matched to the schemata we bring to the text.  Some specific moment of defamiliarization in a text might be a trigger of sudden surprise which can lead to strong experience. This defamiliarization can come from a gap between the literary representation and what is being represented; of course, all representation involves a gap, but in literary texts our attention is often drawn to this gap, and so to the possibility of perceptions which are schematically discrepant. Metaphor is a good example of this, where what is said has a ‘discrepant’ relation to what is meant, and where what is literally said may be strange or untrue. Kuiken and colleagues, following Ricoeur, say of metaphors that “sublime feeling is embodied in the crossed ontological categories of the text”.

Literary texts can also trigger strong experiences ‘infectiously’ just by describing strong experiences.  There is anecdotal evidence that remembering one’s own strong experience, or reading about someone else’s, can trigger a strong experience, and can be a source of ‘infectious chills’, as Gabrielsson notes.  This is perhaps what happens at the end of Wordsworth’s ‘daffodils’ poem, in which Wordsworth stimulates a strong experience in himself by remembering a strong experience – and perhaps further stimulates one in the reader.  I suggest that this is an example of metacognitive surprise: we are surprised at the very fact of strong experience, and particularly at strong experiences of ordinary things.  Such experiences should not be able to happen; our perception of them may again violate a deeply embedded schema about the nature of experience itself.  (I return to other types of metacognitive surprise in the next section.)  Relative to our schemata for experience, strong experiences are metacognitively perceived as deviant, and hence potentially a trigger for strong experience.


Surprise at the Lack of Variation

I began this article by noting that when we match perceptions to schematic knowledge, we must allow for some variation.  Two tokens of the same type will vary both from each other and from the type itself, and this holds true of objects as well as events and sequences of events.  It is particularly notable that when this is not true, we are surprised.  So, for example, twins are surprising to many (non-twin) people when they see them; they violate an expectation that two tokenings of the same type (e.g., two people) will differ from one another.  And the experience of déjà vu is surprising in part because we do not expect identity between two separate sequences of events.  Dan Sperber, in his discussion of symbolic animals notes that animals can be symbolic when they are very discrepant relative to a classificatory system (as in the animals forbidden as food in Jewish law), but that animals are also symbolic when they are perfect tokenings of their type. Sperber points out that this identity is itself anomalous, and this is the basis of my suggestion here that a lack of variation is itself surprising.  This is a meta-surprise, about experience itself and specifically the relation between perception and schema, and not a surprised triggered just by the object of the perception. 

This (meta-)surprise is possible because, in addition to schemata about objects and events in the world, we also have schemata about our own experience, including schemata about the relation between tokenings in the world and the types (schemata) to which they belong.  I suggest that this is the source of our being surprised by ordinary things when those things are too close to their underlying schemata (or to one another).  I suggest that we have a deeply embedded schema which is a knowledge that things in the world, as tokens, vary both from other tokenings of the same type and from the ideal type of which they are tokens (the underlying schema).  This knowledge of the fact of variation is a basic schema, which has evolved with us as a species.  Other basic schemata include those which underpin our knowledge of the distinction between animate and inanimate things, our knowledge of basic physics such as the knowledge that things fall when we drop them.  Basic schemata are impossible to unlearn, even though they may be wrong in some contexts (or always wrong). For example, a basic schema tells us that objects fall downwards, and even though we know that in gravity-free environments objects can float, this knowledge does not prevent us being surprised by seeing objects floating in gravity-free environments. This is because failure to fall violates a basic schema which cannot be modified even if we consciously know that it is wrong.  These basic schemata are part of what Boyer calls our ‘intuitive ontology’: he argues that religious beliefs involve limited violations of basic schemata, and this gives them their power, presumably by permanently surprising us. 

So, I propose that when we – or characters in Modernist fiction – are surprised by ordinary things, the surprise comes from an inwardly directed perception: that the basic schema which predicts variation is violated by perceived nonvariation. This might arise if an ordinary object is perceived as unique, and thus it is the only instantiation of a schema. In this case, it is identical to its schema, and the basic schema which expresses fundamental principle of variation is violated, producing surprise. A person is a unique entity in this sense: as a token, they are identical to their schema.  The epiphany (or moment of vision) at the end of Mrs Dalloway is triggered by Clarissa Dalloway, and as Zhang notes, the language of the text directly points to the world (with a proper noun, and a pronoun), thus expressing the nonschematic and unique nature of the individual.   Kenneth Clark cites the painter Graham Sutherland who on his walks finds that “objects which he has passed a hundred times – a root, a thorn bush, a dead tree – will suddenly detach themselves and demand a separate existence”: here it is the uniqueness of the object which triggers the experience.  Detachment of the object may involve its perception as lacking (Gibsonian) affordances, such that it is seen as having an existence only in and for itself; this fits with James’s view of mystical experience (a type of strong experience) where “the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance”.  Another way in which an object can be seen as unique is if it is perceived with a high degree of granularity; this incidentally should also produce a type of ‘nuance ineffability’, Raffman’s term for when our perceptions are more granular than the schemata and so words which we can match them to.  Another possibility is that the object is perceived as a perfect instantiation of its schema: Sperber argues that perfect animals are odd in precisely this way, which makes them suitable for sacrifice in the temple.

The basic schema which predicts variation is also violated by the perception of doubles or multiples, since these are entities in the world which are perceived as identical to one another.  Doubles and multiples should trigger metacognitive surprise at this violation of a basic schema, and this surprise might turn into the experience of the sublime as a response to multiples (Mendelssohn), or to the uncanny as a response to doubles (Freud). 

If a lack of variation is surprising, then literary texts, in many cultures, should be surprising.  In their content, literary texts tend to regularize and simplify what they represent, relative to the real-world equivalents.  Narratives are simpler than real-world sequences of events, more bounded, more sparse, and with causation more simply expressed. Fictional characters are sparser in their characteristics and interconnections than real people, thus giving them greater regularity relative to types.  It is particularly worth noting that the greater regularity in the language of literary texts, relative to ordinary language, means that the language of literary texts can fall below the degree of variation which we expect from language in general: this points towards a violation of the basic schema of variation.  This consistent violation, at a low level, might also produce a continuous mild surprise.

Parallelism, which Jakobson thought was the basis of the poetic function, is a greater regularity imposed on language, as are the other types of regular form: metre, alliteration and rhyme.  In fact, one way of thinking about what is distinctively ‘literary’ about literary language is that relative to ordinary language it is more regulated, the syntax can be different (particularly in poetry), and its vocabulary can be different.  Literary language can be thought of as resembling ordinary language but with a reduced degree of variation, and I have previously argued (in ‘Why is verse poetry?’) that literary language might sometimes be a copy of language rather than an instance of language.  Literary language might thus be perceived as schematically discrepant when matched to schemata for language itself.  It is worth asking at this point whether we can become habituated to literary language, such that we no longer perceive it as discrepant, but I think not: no amount of habituation to literary language will ever make us forget about ordinary language, or reduce the distance between literary and ordinary language.

Similar points might be made about other aesthetic practices, which include forms which resemble but are not quite the same as practices in the real world.  All representative forms only partially resemble what they represent, and in principle can be perceived as discrepant relative to what they represent. Music is a more regular kind of sound; singing is not quite like speaking; theatrical performance is not quite like real behaviour; dancing resembles but is not the same as running and jumping, and so on.  In these ways all the aesthetic practices, as well as literature, demonstrate a constant but low-level schematic discrepancy.  This might stimulate a constant but low level of surprise, which in turn might be part of our general aesthetic experience, characterised by the effects of surprise, both epistemic and arousal.   


Is ’Surprise’ Too Simple a Way to Approach These Problems?

The approach I take to this range of problems is to treat all of them as starting from the same psychological event, the event of surprise.   Surprise is here treated as the response to perceptions (including thoughts) of objects, events, sequences of events which significantly differ from what we expect, where our expectations are based on our general, schematic knowledge.  Thus, surprise is responsible for: the effects of various literary devices, the aesthetic experience of general aspects of literary form, profound experiences such as the sublime and epiphany, and physical responses such as chills and tears.  In some cases there are other general psychological processes at play, including emotions and empathy, all of which may contribute to and modulate the experience of the event.  All of these are ordinary human psychological events, with experiential and epistemic components, but none of them are treated a distinctive category of psychological event.  The different names and categorizations of these events come primarily from culture, not from psychology.  In other words, there is no special theory here; this is a minimalist approach which starts from common and ordinary psychological events and states, and suggests that in the right arrangement of circumstances, the event has particular manifestations and feels special.  The term which I use for experiences such as the sublime, epiphany and the uncanny, along with thrills is ‘strong experience’, and this is a term of convenience which is both deliberately neutral and not understood as a separate type of experience: it is just ordinary experience, in a ‘strong’ form, where the strength manifests as the powerful epistemic experience, or as a bodily arousal.   This is a strength in the approach, in that it seeks to explain a wide range of experience, including aesthetic experience, using only what is already in the ordinary psychological toolbox.

The weakness in this approach is that it leaves many aspects of any individual experience unexplained: why does it happen now to this person and with this degree of strength of epistemic effect and this arousal?  Why should ordinary surprise be inflated into something rarer and more profound in certain circumstances?  But this is a weakness in explanation which may be unresolvable. Even for well-studied issues such as the triggering of chills in experimental subjects by musical or textual features, we know that there is a great deal of variation in response, which tells us that there will always be contextual or circumstantial factors which shape why certain experiences arise. 


Future Research

One direction of research would be to extend the experimental work on the triggering of thrills by specific aspects of texts, and to test whether these can be understood in terms of surprise.  This has been done extensively for music, and to some extent also on poetry, and it could be productively extended to literature more generally.  Experimental work on how thrill responses are caused is relatively straightforward, and is a proxy for the almost impossible task of doing experimental work on the more epistemically oriented and very rare experiences of the sublime, epiphanies or uncanny. However, even these rare and epistemically significant kinds of experience might be the subject of experimental work along the lines of research on religious and mystical experience as described for example by McNamara.

This project assumes some basic aspects of human psychology, involving the psychology of surprise and why it happens, the schematic organization of knowledge, and the universality of basic schemata—these should be true of all humans.  In the previous section I suggested that the experiences of the sublime and of epiphany might be manifestations of this experience of surprise; these are strongly evidenced in post-18th century Western literature.  But are they universally found?   An indication of what is possible comes from Dalton’s account of the sublime in Rawa culture of Papua New Guinea, or from Morphy’s account of the aesthetic power of brilliance in Yolngu culture in Northern Australia.


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