For any English student, the ability to spot figurative devices and explain to what effect they are used is an important skill.
Among the many figurative devices out there, a few are easier than others to spot, but not always as easy to analyse. An example of this is repetition, which is probably on par with simile in terms of the speed with which students can identify in texts. After all, how hard can it be when repetition just means repeating the same word or phrase?
According to our trusty ole’ Oxford Learners’ Dictionary, repetition is defined as:
1) the fact of doing or saying the same thing many times
2) a thing that has been done or said before
At this point, however, some of us run into a bottleneck – okay, so we’ve spotted the same word or phrase recurring throughout a given poem / prose excerpt, now what?
This when we need to ask ourselves the 3 questions below:
- Which type of repetition are we looking at?
- What does the repeated word / phrase mean? And how does it relate to the wider themes of the literary work in which it’s contained?
- What thematic message and emotional impact do you think the author is trying to achieve by repeating this word / phrase?
Types of repetition
While the definition of repetition is simple enough, repetition manifests itself through different syntactic – and even sonic – permutations and combinations. In the context of any written work, words and phrases are almost never repeated in isolation; the position in sentences wherein they recur, the sounds they create that chime against each other – these are technically all examples of repetition.
As such, I would like to propose that the following devices all fall under the umbrella term of repetition:
(Potentially confusing terms ahead!)
If this looks all Greek to you, well, that’s because most of these terms are Greek (with a dose of Latin thrown in for good measure), but worry not, you don’t actually have to know every single one of them in order to write a good analytical commentary.
I’m just trying to make a point about how, contrary to popular belief, repetition isn’t all that straightforward or simple as we may think. There are syntactic nitty-gritties to care about (if we wanted to care about them) and categorical nuances to examine (if we wanted to examine them).
Here’s an at-a-glance list of what each term means:
- Antanaclasis: the repetition of a word within a phrase or sentence in which the second occurrence utilizes a different and sometimes contrary meaning from the first
- Anadiplosis: repetition of a prominent and usually the last word in one phrase or clause at the beginning of the next
- Antimetabole: repetition of a phrase with the order of the words reversed
- Anaphora: repetition of a word / phrase at the beginning of successive sentences
- Epistrophe/epiphora: repetition of a word / phrase at the end of successive sentences
- Diacope: repetition of a word / phrase with intervening words in between
- Parallelism: repetition of the same sentence structure
- Polysyndeton: repetition of conjunctions (and, or, but)
- Polyptoton: repetition of words with the same root
And ones that may take some of you by surprise…
- Alliteration: repetition of consonant sounds
- Assonance: repetition of vowel sounds
- Motif: a recurring idea or theme in a text
For clarity, let’s categorise these repetitive devices into three pillars:
(repetition that affects or relates to meaning)
(repetition that affects sentence structure)
(repetition that affects sound)
As you can tell, there’s an awful lot of repetitive devices that aren’t so much related to the words themselves as they are to the positioning of these words in sentences. Most of the time, syntactic repetition achieves rhetorical impact, which is why we tend to find them in verse (poems, songs, Early Modern drama) and speeches.
Some of you may also be surprised by my grouping of alliteration and assonance under repetition, because we often think of the two as sound devices. But if you think about it, alliteration and assonance are just repeated sounds of consonants and vowels, so it makes perfect sense to see them as tools of sonic repetition.
Then there’s the elephant in the room – why is motif a kind of repetition? And how do we ‘spot’ it in a literary work? First, motif qualifies as repetition because it, by virtue of its definition, recurs throughout a work. So while you won’t necessarily see the recurrent idea or object mentioned in close proximity in a text (although this is perfectly possible), it should appear in a more spanned out way, overarching a series of chapters as the idea or object is peppered throughout the text.
In a way, then, perhaps the use of symbols in a novel, play or longer work should also be considered a kind of repetition. But you’d definitely want to discuss symbolism as a stand-alone device in your literary analysis, and not as a sub-point under repetition. All I’m saying is that, structurally speaking, literary symbols often come to us in the form of repeated references.
Now, let’s take a look at the use of repetition in drama, prose and poetry.
What does repetition look like in drama, prose and poetry?
Macbeth (1623), William Shakespeare
Arguably one of the most famous examples of repetition in literature, Macbeth’s reference to “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” in the final Act of the eponymous play is often cited to illustrate the force of a simple, repeated phrase:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
The most striking example of repetition here – “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” – is a combination of polysyndeton (“and”) and diacope (the interspersion of “and” between “tomorrow”). What’s interesting about the thrice-repeated “tomorrow”, however, is the conceptual contrast between repeating this word once, versus twice, versus thrice.
Mentioned once, the temporal extension of a “tomorrow” is but that of one day; said twice, the impression is one of continued protraction, perhaps ambivalently received; iterated thrice, however, the implication becomes one of monotonous endlessness, and a torturous one at that.
While Macbeth awaits in this state of uncertain certitude – not knowing what will come in a tomorrow that must eventually come, he can’t even seek solace in his memory of “yesterdays”, all of which “have lighted fools/The way to dusty death”, a reference to those who have died as a result of his judgment (or lack thereof). Syllabically, the three repeated “tomorrows” are neighbours by proximity; conceptually, however, their implied temporalities are much more far apart.
The message is clear: no matter how much one gets to hog the limelight in a glorious moment, to “strut and fret his hour upon the stage”, there’s bound to be a point in our lives at which we must all accept our commonness and confront the fundamental, painful monotony that is the essence of human living. The question, however, is whether this realisation makes life less bearable than death.
The Great Gatsby (1925), F. Scott Fitzgerald
In Fitzgerald’s timeless ‘American Dream’ novel, The Great Gatsby, there’s an iconic moment in Chapter 5 when Daisy Buchanan, the love of Jay Gatsby’s life (or so he wants to believe), erupts in a bout of tearful hysterics upon seeing the “silk shirts” of her ex-lover. This moment is important to our discussion of repetition, because the description features quite a bit of this literary device:
Recovering himself in a minute he opened for us two hulking patent cabinets which held his massed suits and dressing-gowns and ties, and his shirts, piled like bricks in stacks a dozen high.
“I’ve got a man in England who buys me clothes. He sends over a selection of things at the beginning of each season, spring and fall.”
He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-coloured disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher – shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange with monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.
“They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such – such beautiful shirts before.”
The descriptive vividness that Fitzgerald affords us here is detailed, intense, if not also somewhat comically misplaced. And rightly so, because if we consider what Jay Gatsby is literally doing here (flinging a bunch of brightly coloured silk shirts – uh, hello, where’s the fashion police?! – in front of others), we’re looking at a rather comically cringe-worthy scene – made cringe-worthy precisely because of the excessiveness and over-the-topness of Gatsby’s behaviour. As such, the repetition of “shirts” and the polysyndeton of the “and” conjunction emphasise both the material excess on display (dude, what’s up with having so many shirts?), as well as the protagonist’s behavioural excess (that’s not how you impress a girl, by the way).
Of course, Daisy’s reiteration of “such beautiful shirts” is also at once ironic and symbolic, because we know her admiration of Gatsby is only limited to the level of superficial materiality, which is in turn symbolised by the flamboyant silk shirts that Gatsby uses to mask his real, less glamorous identity.
‘Stopping by Woods’ (1923) and ‘The Prophets Really Prophesy as Mystics’ (1962), Robert Frost
Finally, some poetry, and from one of the all-time masters of plain-spoken poeticism, Robert Frost. The amazing thing about Frost is his ability to use simple words to convey deep ideas, so perhaps it’s no coincidence that repetition makes a regular appearance in his works.
Before we look at one of his most famous poems, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, let’s examine a lesser known and more humorously titled one, ‘The Prophets Really Prophesy as Mystics The Commentators Merely by Statistics’:
With what unbroken spirit naive science
Keeps hurling our Promethean defiance
From this atomic ball of rotting rock
At the Divine Safe’s combination lock.
In our defiance we are still defied.
But have not I, as prophet, prophesied:
Sick of our circling round and round the sun
Something about the trouble will be done.
In the second stanza, the pairs ‘defiance/defied’ and ‘prophet/prophesied’ are examples of polyptoton (repetition of words that share the same root). It’s a witty way for Frost to show that humans, bolstered by the blind faith we have developed in “naive science”, are ironically defeated by the very ‘weapon’ which we yield against supernatural forces – “In our defiance we are still defied”, while the allusive nod to Prometheus in “our Promethean defiance” reinforces our eventual defeat, and even hints at an impending punishment for humanity that will be as gory and tragic as the one received by the Greek giant for stealing fire from the Gods.
Meanwhile, the persona shows his exasperation over the fact that people have not listened to what “I, as prophet, prophesied”, and for having to now repeat what he has already once cautioned humanity against, which is “our circling round and round the sun”, our ‘pestering’ of a supreme power that should not be trifled with.
The final example of repetition I will give comes from the last stanza in Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, which many interpret as a tranquil harbinger of death:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
The refrain – a group of lines repeated at the end of a stanza – of “And miles to go before I sleep,/And miles to go before I sleep”, reveals a curious chasm between what it says and what it does. Despite the message of ‘sleep’ being a ways away (“miles to go”), the insistence of this statement opens up room for doubt in its veracity, while the repetition itself seems to radiate a sense of hypnosis, as if the persona himself has already been lulled into threshold consciousness – a ‘half-asleep’ state.
It’s not unreasonable, then, to think of this poem as a morbid nursery rhyme of sorts, notwithstanding its atmospheric calm and descriptive idyllicism.
These examples are just the tip of a colossal iceberg; there are, of course, countless more instances of repetition in both literature and non-fiction texts (e.g. speeches, autobiographical essays, letters, diaries etc.)
That said, I hope this post shows to some extent the sophistication of repetition as a figurative device, the various types of repetition available for analysis, and the approach to engaging with repetition as adopted across different literary modes.
Message me here if you have a question!