If a word, phrase, or passage is repeated in a literary text, the reader’s natural response will be to assume that that which is repeated must be significant in some way. The very fact that a particular cluster of words has been included in the text more than once invites the reader to assign a degree of importance to it, and from that point on, the reader constructs an interpretation of the text based on his or her understanding of the potential meaning of the repeated words in the context of the novel, short story, or whatever. So we can see that repetition guides the reader towards a ‘reading’ of the text. But repetition can serve a very practical purpose as well as an aesthetic one: as demonstrated below, repetition may alert the reader that a temporal shift in the narrative (a flashback or a flashforward) has occurred and it can also help the reader to locate the end of a time shift. Literary texts very rarely have an absolutely linear timeline, and right from the off, the reader is attempting to reconstruct the beginning-middle-end of the story from what s/he learns while reading the narrative (the way in which the story is told) with all its temporal anomalies. When repetition provides temporal location markers as described above, it aids the reader in his/her construction of a global time frame.
What follows is a brief description of how the repetition of a brief snatch of dialogue guides the reader through the temporal shifts in the first chapter of Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye. Spark, as usual, manages to wring an enormous amount of meaning out of a very simple device: the repetition here serves both a practical and an aesthetic end, as we shall see.
For those who haven’t read the novel, here’s a quick summary of the first chapter:
Humphrey Place has returned after jilting Dixie Morse at the altar. He tries to visit Dixie, but Mavis, Dixie’s mother, slams the door in his face. Humphrey then goes on a pub crawl where he runs into Trevor Lomas, a local thug, who hits him, and they are both ordered out of the pub. In flashback, we see Humphrey jilting Dixie at the altar. Back in the ‘present’ (such as it is in Spark’s novels!), Humphrey and Trevor fight in the car park until they are eventually parted by onlookers. We ‘cut’ to Dixie’s house, where she is discussing Humphrey with her mother. The doorbell rings, but this time it is Trevor. Dixie enquires after Humphrey while reiterating that she doesn’t want to see him again. The reader is filled in on more of the background by overhearing the gossip of Peckham inhabitants and we learn the names and current situations of many of the characters. The chapter closes with a ballad-like speculation of what became of the bride and groom.
In the first chapter of The Ballad of Peckham Rye, the barmaid of The Harbinger is twice heard to order the two men outside when Trevor punches Humphrey. It is not to be supposed that the barmaid actually utters her words twice*; instead, the reader understands that the narrative has jumped forward in time from the jilting scene and Humphrey’s subsequent departure to the moment when the analepsis (flashback) begins, after Trevor and Humphrey have been ordered out of the pub.
What is notable here is that we are given two pieces of information when we only need one – it would have been enough merely to hear the barmaid say ‘Outside’, and yet we are shown the female bystander’s comment twice as well: ‘ “It wouldn’t have happened if Dougal Douglas hadn’t come here” ’ (The Ballad of Peckham Rye, pp. 7 and 9).
In fact, the bystander’s comment is foregrounded in two ways: firstly, in that it is repeated, and secondly, in that the speech adverbial ‘remarked’ breaks the pattern established prior to this moment. Until this point, every spoken comment is marked simply as ‘said’ (he said, she said). The change calls attention to the woman’s remark, which is an important one because it refers to Dougal Douglas for the first time. The responsibility for the events of the narrative to follow is placed squarely on Dougal’s misshapen shoulders at this early stage. The ‘remark’ is also understood as an observation rather than a conversational turn. We do not know the identity of the woman’s interlocutor, and she receives no reply. The narrative switches to the aborted wedding scene immediately after we hear the remark for the first time, so the woman’s words are left hanging in the air in the moment before the reader sees the scene of the jilting for which Dougal is being blamed. The indefinite article – ‘a woman’ – spotlights the remark itself, not the speaker, as does the positioning of the remark in the sentence, which comes before we know who is speaking and to whom. The woman is not important. Her comment is, because it introduces our hero Dougal as a mischief-maker, and it sets up what is arguably the primary narrative (Dougal’s arrival in Peckham Rye and how much trouble he managed to cause before his departure). In addition, the repetition we see here has an aesthetic purpose in that the repeated dialogue serves as the equivalent of a ballad’s refrain – and The Ballad of Peckham Rye is a novel that is both thematically and structurally influenced by the border ballads of which Muriel Spark was so fond.
* ‘It is not to be supposed that the barmaid actually utters her words twice’ – in the context of the novel, that is. What I mean here is that the utterance is made only once in story time, but twice in narrative time. In real life, of course, the utterance was never made at all…