Extraordinary Ordinariness: Realism Now and Then

1 University of Wisconsin-Madison. Caroline Levine is Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of three books: The Serious Pleasures of Suspense (2003), winner of the Perkins Prize for the best book in narrative studies; Provoking Democracy: Why We Need the Arts (2007); and a forthcoming book on form. She is also co-editor with Mario Ortiz-Robles of a volume called Narrative Middles (2011) and is the nineteenth-century editor of the Norton Anthology of World Literature.


Critics have often assumed that realism betrays its dedication to ordinary reality when it takes on lots of narrative and political excitement, but this article argues that realism works best when it combines humdrum routine with narrative shock. Levine claims that the nineteenth-century novel invented a paradoxical realist technique that has been adopted by contemporary serial television, which she calls “the shock of the banal.” Representing daily routines in ways that render them unfamiliar, funny, or strange, realist fictions strive to make ordinary experience feel extraordinary. This essay explores the formal, historical, and political implications of “the shock of the banal” in Adam Bede, Bleak House, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and their echoes in The Sopranos, Mad Men, and The Wire.


Copyright © Caroline Levine, 2014

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