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.
We do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual.George Eliot, Middlemarch
Famously, realism is concerned with ordinary experience. And yet, there has always been something strange and troubling about this. Isn’t the ordinary also deeply boring? In New Grub Street, George Gissing’s realist writer character insists that his novel will reproduce life as it is. The book “will be something unutterably tedious,” he explains. “If it were anything but tedious, it would be untrue” (265; vol. 1).
Critics disagree about how much ordinariness a narrative can sustain. Elaine Scarry has argued that the impulse to widen the scope of representation in the nineteenth century to include the everyday life of workers necessarily conflicted with the demands of narrative. What characterizes working-class experience is “perpetual, repetitive, habitual” labor. To ignore the repetitiveness of labor would be to falsify it, Scarry argues, but to represent it would be to mire narrative in a kind of non-narratable monotony (68). Franco Moretti, on the other hand, makes the case that growing bourgeois audiences enjoyed the absence of extraordinary events in the realist novel. Since the new middle class valorized order and routine, Moretti speculates that realist novels deliberately incorporate “fillers,” which “offer the kind of narrative pleasure compatible with the new regularity of bourgeois life” (381; vol. 1). Most recently, Amy M. King has argued that nineteenth-century British readers and writers, steeped in natural theology, learned to see divine splendor in small, local details. This reverence for detail trained them not to read for narrative resolutions, but rather to take pleasure in protracted descriptive passages, such as those that fill Mary Russell Mitford’s extremely popular—and mostly plot-less—five-volume Our Village (1826-32).
But despite their differences, all of these critics share one assumption—that realism is opposed to narrative excitement. In this essay, I want to propose an alternative, a way to bring together realist ordinariness with the thrilling pleasures of narrative. Joining them is a paradoxical technique I call the shock of the banal—a jolt of surprise in response to the most routine of experiences. I first experienced this shock in the contemporary television serial dramas that are most often compared with Victorian novels: The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men. I then came to realize that the nineteenth-century realist novel had invented the technique—and put it to excellent and imaginative use. But there was a reason that I recognized it on television before I could see it in the novel: it works best from a specific historical vantage point. In order to experience the shock of the banal, one should be habituated to a particular set of routines—a historically-situated experience of ordinariness.
Since we can most easily grasp these realist surprises in the texts of our own moment, I will start with the new serial television and then move backward to explore the shocks of the nineteenth-century novel, including examples from Adam Bede, Bleak House, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Along the way, I will explore three kinds of shock—the shock of recognition, the shock of historical difference, and the shock of social violence. All three revolve around a jolt of surprise at habit, routine—sheer ordinariness.
Let me start by considering the premise of The Sopranos. A mafia boss suffers from panic attacks and has to learn from regular therapy sessions to let go of the dream of total control. The typically glamorized figure of the ruthless mafia don is reduced to the condition of the absurdly mundane. And it is not only in the therapist’s office; tending his lawn and driving a Chevy Suburban, Tony takes his daughter to visit liberal arts colleges, fights with his mother about going into a nursing home, and worries about his son’s attention deficit disorder. In these moments, he startles us not by his willingness to commit violence, but by his entanglements in the commonplace.
The Wire makes a comparable move. The illicit business of street drugs turns out to be as mundanely bureaucratic as the police force: both are subject to bad management, ineffective organizational plans, and a frustrating absence of qualified personnel. Season 3, for example, opens in the first episode with police detectives planning to arrest a mid-level dealer. They expect him to be replaced with a garrulous underling whose chatter, they hope, could give the whole game away. “What makes you think they’ll promote the wrong man?” asks the Police Commissioner “We do it all the time,” Daniels responds. With its pecking orders, incentives, and quality assessment, the Barksdale criminal enterprise faces the same daily struggles as any state-run agency. Character Stringer Bell’s borrowing of Robert’s Rules of Order for his cross-Baltimore drug consortium is perhaps the most elegant example of humdrum bureaucracy at the heart of the deadly drug business.
Mad Men does not dwell on shocking criminal underworlds, but the AMC show does offer some analogous shocks. As we encounter smoking pregnant women, three-martini lunches, and conversations about a woman’s immaturity between her therapist and her husband, we are startled not by the sensational, but by the mundane. Can it be true that eating raw eggs or smacking a neighbor’s child across the face used to be so awfully ordinary?
All three series startle us, then, with representations of everydayness. The ordinariness of The Sopranos and The Wire is shockingly similar to the ordinariness of the contemporary middle class, only in circumstances that to most viewers will be exotic—the murderous underworlds of mafia and drug trade. The ordinariness of Mad Men is remote, but in regular middle-class homes and offices. While the first two shows surprise us with the banal in extraordinary places, Mad Men startles us with the extraordinary in banal places.
These experiences of strangeness-in-familiarity might immediately call to mind the experience of the uncanny. For Sigmund Freud in “The Uncanny,” the unheimlich refers to the negation of the experience of feeling “at home”—producing discomfort and unease. But since the sensation of uncanniness emerges from desires that have been repressed, and since those desires begin in the infant self, they are in some sense more intimate and private—more heimlich—than the experience of feeling “at home.” Thus the unheimlich always tacks back and forth between familiarity and strangeness. And yet, while there are resonant echoes of Freud in the shocks of these television serials, I would argue that The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men do not offer us precisely the uncanniness Freud described. If there are infantile feelings in The Wire and The Sopranos, they are those that are most out in the open: violence, vengefulness, greed. Thus they turn usual experience of the uncanny upside-down; what return, unbidden, are the routines of ordinary life, their very mundaneness producing our frisson of surprise. The role of the repressed in Mad Men’s version of the uncanny is even subtler. When the Drapers, at the end of a picnic in an idyllic country scene, dump their garbage on the grass and leave, or when the children run around the house covered in dry cleaner bags, these startling actions do not gesture to the fulfillment of frightening and shameful desires but to a fully functioning regime of thoughtless habits, markedly different from our own, but equally routinized and automatic. What has been repressed is another system of repression. The feelings of strangeness provoked by scenes like these, then, are not the excitements of desire, aggression, and fear but the recognition of routine.
If the shock of the banal eludes the uncanny in some crucial ways, it might seem like a better theoretical fit with defamiliarization. After all, the televisual scenes we have described succeed in making the everyday strange. Viktor Shklovsky writes against the deadening habits that have taken the place of genuine and attentive perception: “Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war.” Only art works against this terrifying mindlessness: “The purpose of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged” (12). But here again, as with Freud, the theoretical fit is imperfect. Shklovsky puts his emphasis on slowing down perception in order to disrupt habit, whereas the shock of the banal in The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men takes shape as a sudden jolt, a quick frisson of recognition. We are far here from the elongation of descriptive passages, narrated from the perspective of an outsider—Natasha at the opera or Leo Tolstoy’s horse narrator in War and Peace, for example—which, in dwelling on the strangeness of ordinary experience, deliberately interrupt narrative flow and prevent people and objects from being simply put to use for plotted ends. Instead, what is remarkable about the shock of the banal is that it goes with the flow; it keeps things moving along. It actually supports precisely the kind of instrumentality Shklovsky abhors. The Wire, for example, allows us to grasp the day-to-day workings of the drug business quickly, precisely by invoking a structural parallel to more a familiar world (the world of other bureaucracies), calling up a whole range of experiences that are so well known and have been represented so many times that they do not need to be given again in any detail. In a flash, The Wire maps a whole regime of mundane, habitual practices and routines onto an illicit underworld. Its shock of the banal does not slowly defamiliarize, then; it swiftly de- and re-familiarizes.
Mad Men’s shocks are a little different, but they are similarly un-Shklovskian. Taking place in fleeting asides and moments that serve as mere backdrop (a shot of a pregnant woman smoking, or of a child in a car without seatbelts), Mad Men’s jolts of recognition, like those in The Wire, are deliberately quick. And rather than divesting us of routinized perception, they again capture in quick glimpses a sense of the vast numbers of repetitive routines that organize our experience. Each shock reminds us how mired we are in daily habits, from smoking to seatbelts. By jarring us with sudden insights into the ways that the most mechanical routines change over time, Mad Men offers not a way outside of habit but a flash of insight into habit’s historical contingency.
It is my contention, then, that contemporary television serials manage to convey mundane regularity in a way that is itself startling and even funny, giving us a rich representation of routine without getting mired in such monotony that they bring all narratable action to a halt. In so doing, they offer a way past the critical opposition between realist ordinariness and narrative excitement. If this seems like a remarkable feat, the credit belongs not to television, I believe, but to Victorian novelists, who developed these techniques skillfully and successfully, but in ways that are difficult to apprehend from a substantial historical distance.
To be sure, there may be dangers in working backwards from contemporary television to the Victorian novel. In this issue, John Plotz warns us that imposing the perceptions of our own times onto the Victorians may limit us, “the influence of Mad Men on Trollope” persuading us too hastily into claims for correspondence between then and now. But I want to make two opposing claims about history here. On the one hand, I want to suggest that the shock of the banal is successfully transhistorical in the sense that it has traveled, pretty much intact, from the Victorian period into our own. I am not making a comparison between two eras, risking the imposition of one historically-situated kind of perception onto another, but rather staking a claim for the portability of literary techniques, a contention that literary forms travel across historical contexts. On the other hand, I want to make the case that each shock of the banal must be radically situated, historically speaking, because it will not work unless we share a whole regime of ordinariness with the text that seeks to make it strange.
We can see both of these principles—the transhistorical and the historically-situated—at work in the locus classicus of Victorian realism, chapter 17 of Adam Bede. This chapter is an essay within the novel which puts forward a theory of ethical realism that rejects idealized heroes and saintly souls in favor of flawed ordinary people:
These fellow-mortals, every one, must be accepted as they are: you can neither straighten their noses, nor brighten their wit, nor rectify their dispositions; and it is these people—amongst whom your life is passed—that it is needful you should tolerate, pity, and love: it is these more or less ugly, stupid, inconsistent people, whose movements of goodness you should be able to admire—for whom you should cherish all possible hopes, all possible patience. And I would not, even if I had the choice, be the clever novelist who could create a world so much better than this, in which we get up in the morning to do our daily work, that you would be likely to turn a harder, colder eye on the dusty streets and the common green fields—on the real breathing men and women, who can be chilled by your indifference or injured by your prejudice; who can be cheered and helped onward by your fellow-feeling, your forbearance, your outspoken, brave justice.Adam Bede 160
If chapter 17 offers a deliberate celebration of ordinariness, what opens the famous essay on realism is an expression of shock: “‘THIS Rector of Broxton is little better than a pagan!' I hear one of my lady readers exclaim” (159). In response, the narrator points to the difference between the habits of her own moment and those of a historical past:
Sixty years ago—it is a long time, so no wonder things have changed—all clergymen were not zealous; indeed, there is reason to believe that the number of zealous clergymen was small, and it is probable that if one among the small minority had owned the livings of Broxton and Hayslope in the year 1799, you would have liked him no better than you like Mr Irwine.159
Remarkably like Mad Men, Adam Bede marks the distance habits have traveled in sixty years, looking back to a time when different mores governed expectations. But unlike Mad Men, Eliot does not envision this as a particularly pleasurable shock for her imagined reader. Unable to believe that people used to have such strange tastes, the horrified reader implores the novelist to change the text to suit contemporary norms: “‘Do improve the facts a little, then; make them more accordant with those correct views which it is our privilege to possess’” (159). The reader believes her own time lays claim to “correct views,” as opposed to the unenlightened past, and asks the narrator to conform to the ideals of the present rather than to the reality of the past.
But to “correct” the novel to suit the moralizing habits of one’s own time would be a double mistake, the narrator suggests: it would be historically inaccurate, distorting our sense of the habits of mind that dominated social experience in 1799; and it would be unethical, since idealized characters lead contemporary readers to reject the ordinary people that inhabit their world. Intriguingly, Eliot is actually merging two forms of ordinariness here: the ordinariness of a particular regime of normalizing judgments; and the ordinariness of daily work, “monotonous homely existence” (157). On the one hand, chapter 17 historicizes, much as Mad Men does, startling us with the habits of a recent time; on the other hand, the narrator is deliberately transhistorical: “I am not at all sure that the majority of the human race have not been ugly” (161). The target of both critiques is the reader’s sense of idealizing superiority. The danger of the historicizing perspective is that it might actually bolster the reader’s feelings of disdain; we are liable to think of ourselves as belonging to a time of “enlightened opinions and refined taste,” scornful of a bygone age (159). But if the ordinariness of our own time also fails to fit our enlightened ideals, then everydayness today must successfully challenge our habits of complacent superiority too.
There are not just two kinds of ordinariness, but also two systems of habit, at work here: first, habits of normalizing expectation and disdainful judgment; and second, routines of life and labor. Since all cultures are organized around patterns of work and community, the latter version of habit is inescapable and universal, while the habit of moral judgment emerges as not only historically specific but also paradoxical and untenable; it is a routine of despising routine, an ordinary view that we should dismiss the ordinary. Like Mad Men, then, Eliot startles her readers with a time just distant enough to feel familiar and unfamiliar, but Adam Bede goes farther than Mad Men in launching a double shock of the banal: the first allows readers a jolt of surprise at a regime of norms and habits that held sway sixty years earlier; the second warns audiences away from the ordinary habit of understanding ourselves as above ordinary habits.
In comparing the novel to the television series, I am struck by how lucky it is for me that in chapter 17 Eliot draws explicit attention to the distance in conventional expectations for clergy between 1799 and 1859. If she had not paused to note that she was administering a surprise, I would not have guessed it was there; too far removed from the norms of the Anglican Church in 1859, I would not have felt a shock at the Reverend Irwine’s worldliness. Thus it seems crucial to recognize the historical particularity of realist shocks; we must be immersed in the norms of a particular moment in order to feel surprised by the difference in ordinary experience across time. But there is also a transhistorical potential here: Eliot suggests that realist surprise can be mobilized at any time because the ordinary is generalizable. Thus the shock of the banal can reappear in our own time as a realist mode par excellence.
In fact, I want to call attention to an intriguing moment of realist shock in Adam Bede that has successfully traveled from then to now, though in this case the narrator does not go out of her way to mark it. Early in the novel, Arthur gives a book to Mr. Irwine’s mother. “I know you are fond of queer, wizard-like stories,” he says. “It’s a volume of poems, ‘Lyrical Ballads’: most of them seem to be twaddling stuff; but the first is in a different style—‘The Ancient Mariner’ is the title” (59-60). This is the shock of the banal, Mad Men style—a quick jolt of recognition, a frisson of pleasurable surprise. It works today because readers—at least literary ones—have continued to share some of the ordinariness of 1859, which is different from the norm of 1799; for us, Wordsworth is not “twaddling,” nor Coleridge “queer.” Both form part of that habit we call the canon.
The moment of encountering Lyrical Ballads in the novel prompts me to ask how many more shocks of the banal are at work in Adam Bede that I am too far removed to feel—shocks at clothing styles and outmoded idioms, farming practices and harvest suppers? I am only alert to the literary shock because this is my own area of expertise. I can imagine a viewer of Mad Men a century from now, fuzzy on the differences between 1962 and 2012, missing all of the shocks we experience now. This leads me to wonder whether nineteenth-century realism was far more dependent on the shock of the banal than we, at our historical distance, are able to grasp.
If the shock of the banal usually works without self-conscious markers, as in Mad Men’s casual racism or Arthur’s gift of Lyrical Ballads, it seems intriguing that Eliot goes to the trouble of marking the particular surprise that opens chapter 17. I want to suggest that this has everything to do with her project of articulating a new theory of realism. In fact, Eliot had already linked realism to surprise. In “The Natural History of German Life” (1856), that other early exploration of a new realist aesthetic, she wrote: “a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment” (54). It is emphatically not the case, then, that this famous theorist of nineteenth-century realism embraces the ordinary in a way that is supposed to feel given, natural, or calm; instead, as Eliot carefully and influentially formulates it, realism demands that we be shocked out of our routines of perception and judgment into a recognition of monotonous homely existence. This is a realism deliberately and dramatically unlike Moretti’s model of a bourgeoisie soothing itself with comfortable routines. It is first and foremost dependent on surprise.
George Eliot is not the only novelist of her time to link shock to realism. Let me now introduce a second Victorian example, both to broaden my claims about realist surprise in the nineteenth-century novel and to explore a different version of the shock of the banal. The example comes from Bleak House, right before Jo, the crossing sweeper, dies. The third-person narrator goes out of the way to emphasize the boy’s ordinariness:
He is not one of Mrs. Pardiggle’s Tockahoopo Indians; he is not one of Mrs. Jellyby’s lambs, being wholly unconnected with Borrioboola-Gha; he is not softened by distance and unfamiliarity; he is not a genuine foreign-grown savage; he is the ordinary home-made article. Dirty, ugly, disagreeable to all the senses, in body a common creature of the common streets, only in soul a heathen. Homely filth begrimes him, homely parasites devour him, homely sores are in him, homely rags are on him: native ignorance, the growth of English soil and climate, sinks his immortal nature lower than the beasts that perish. Stand forth, Jo, in uncompromising colours! From the sole of thy foot to the crown of thy head, there is nothing interesting about thee.564
There is, of course, a troubling nationalism at work here, as Dickens urges readers to look after the poor at home instead of reaching out to people in distant places. But I want to put a slightly different pressure on the relationship between foreign and domestic for a moment. Distance and unfamiliarity, according to Dickens, “soften” our image of the remote heathen, making him seem appealing and interesting. By contrast, Jo’s closeness and familiarity make him both repellent and uninteresting. There is a kind of circular logic at work here: first we ignore the poor because they are all around us and so feel too familiar for us to take any interest; then we become so used to ignoring poverty that we fail to notice how shockingly everyday it is. Not only is one boy dead, but others are also “dying thus around us every day” (572). It is the common things we are inclined to ignore, but their commonness is, in fact, precisely what is shocking about them. What Dickens needs, then, is a representational strategy that will shock us into a recognition of the familiar—as both everyday and shocking. This is even harder than startling us with strange habits that are ordinary elsewhere, as do Adam Bede and Mad Men; and it is harder, too, than locating the ordinary in sensational places, as do The Wire and The Sopranos; Dickens’s challenge is to make the ordinary, as ordinary, feel shocking.
The novel manages this task with what now probably feel like pretty tried-and-true realist tactics: it gives a relatively rich interior life to a socially marginalized figure, and it lends Jo a lot of narrative importance as a hub for events in the plot. Jo takes on the qualities of a rounded character whose uniqueness presumably often overpowers his ordinariness for readers. But then Dickens also tries to jolt us with the recognition that Jo is, in fact, not unique after all, but one of many poor children dying around us every day. To be precise, Jo is both extraordinary—individuated, feeling, sympathetic—and ordinary—representing the poor in general. All poor children, the realist novelist implies, would be as individuated as Jo is for us if we knew them. In this sense, representing the poor as rounded individual characters—which is of course a staple of the realist enterprise—could actually be seen as another instance of the shock of the banal. Poverty, an ordinary condition, becomes individuated and therefore specific and extraordinary, but only in order to represent something larger than the individual—the shocking reality of poverty’s ordinariness.
I am both drawing on Alex Woloch’s work on character and departing from it here. Woloch makes the brilliantly revelatory argument that the realist novel “registers the competing pull of inequality and democracy” characteristic of the nineteenth-century middle class (31). On the one hand, realism democratizes its field of representation such that anyone can, in theory, become a major figure in the novel—including prostitutes, beggars, and thieves. On the other hand, the novel always narrows its focus to a small number of richly rounded characters: “any character can be a protagonist, but only one character is” (31). Woloch puts forward a convincing account of the novel’s “character system” as always “asymmetric.” His reading of Dickens focuses on the memorably flat, eccentric minor characters that surround and overwhelm the deliberately weak protagonist, “who gets swarmed by the very minorness that he creates through his centrality” (178).
Jo does not figure in Woloch’s account, and I want to suggest that this is telling. Jo does some democratizing work for the novel, expanding its field of representation by standing in for the vast number of poor children who populate modern urban streets, while he also individuates that experience through his sympathetic interior experiences of sincere good will, puzzlement, guilt, and fear. Bleak House certainly has its share of flattened eccentrics—Skimpole, Grandfather Smallweed, and Mrs. Jellyby, for example—but Jo is not among them. He is not quite a protagonist, but nor is he doomed to a rigid and functional minorness. Jo, that is, gestures to a politics of the realist novel that emerges not out of the dynamics of an enclosed character system structured by inequality, but out of a more referential, reader-centered dynamics of extraordinariness-in-ordinariness—the movement of realist shock. In this case, Jo offers a mixture of quintessentially bourgeois interiority alongside startling deviations from comfortable middle-class everydayness.
I am reverting here to an older, more familiar reading of realism, one that long predates Woloch. It is a realism that deliberately fuses the type and the individual, the social and the personal, seeking to spur outrage and social reform. And I want to defend this long tradition, arguing that realism’s politics works more successfully than Woloch suggests when it operates through revelations of a pervasively disturbing ordinariness.
It is the shock of the banal, for example, that Harriet Beecher Stowe begins to unpack in this passage from Uncle Tom’s Cabin:
Facts too shocking to be contemplated occasionally force their way to the public ear, and the comment that one often hears made on them is more shocking than the thing itself. It is said, “Very likely such cases may now and then occur, but they are no sample of general practice.” If the laws of New England were so arranged that a master could now and then torture an apprentice to death, would it be received with equal composure? Would it be said, “These cases are rare, and no samples of general practice”? This injustice is an inherent one in the slave system,—it cannot exist without it.511
Stowe actually squeezes together two political arguments here: first, she refuses to excuse the individual case by imagining slavery transported to New England, intending to shock her reader by translating the excuses made by southern slave-holders into the familiarity of their own, non-slaveholding world; and second, she insists on the systematic cruelty of slavery, the necessarily routine violence of a system founded on injustice. Both arguments depend on a play of extraordinariness and ordinariness: the first imagines the startling exception in ordinary surroundings; the second shows that, far from exceptional, each shocking instance is all too mundane. It is as if Stowe is compressing the shocks of Mad Men with those of The Wire.
These kinds of shocks are politically crucial, Stowe suggests, because slavery survives by giving itself a veneer of safe ordinariness:
A slave warehouse! Perhaps some of my readers conjure up horrible visions of such a place. They fancy some foul, obscure den, some horrible Tartarus “informis, ingens, cui lumen ademptum.” But no, innocent friend; in these days men have learned the art of sinning expertly and genteelly, so as not to shock the eyes and senses of respectable society. Human property is high in the market; and is, therefore, well fed, well cleaned, tended, and looked after, that it may come to sale sleek, and strong, and shining. A slave-warehouse in New Orleans is a house externally not much unlike many others, kept with neatness; and where every day you may see arranged, under a sort of shed along the outside, rows of men and women, who stand there as a sign of the property sold within.379
Canny slave traders make the warehouse look homely and familiar enough to foreclose a shocked response. Observers find their eyes soothed by the ordinariness of the scene—“a house externally not much unlike many others.” It is strategically urgent, therefore, for the realist novelist to keep both ordinariness and extraordinariness in play: to startle us with the cruelty and injustice that is masked by familiar surroundings, and to shock us with the everydayness of a violence that should always feel like a painful exception.
With the question of everyday violence, let me return to a final, brief example from The Wire. Not only does David Simon’s HBO series reveal bureaucratic ordinariness at the heart of the illicit underworld of the drug trade, as we saw earlier, but it also, like Bleak House and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, explores the shocking mundaneness of urban poverty in a way that seeks to provoke a political response. By way of a conclusion, I want to point to one of the most painful moments in the TV series, which results not from street or prison violence, but from the collision of two humdrum routines. I am thinking here of Duquan’s graduation from middle school. Part of a beleaguered school system’s attempt to show that its students are advancing academically, Duquan is suddenly expected to move forward to the ninth grade at mid-year. Breaking with the widespread practice of social promotion—which moves children forward with their peers by age, rather than academic level—the change is routine in its own way, part of a regular political campaign cycle where incumbents want to claim success for the city schools. There is nothing extraordinary here—merely a shift from one bureaucratic organization to another. But the consequences will prove catastrophic for Duquan. He is frightened by the socially mature world of high school and so drops out altogether, only to learn that for a boy like him there are no good alternatives. Forced to leave his middle school cohort, he is not yet old enough to find paid work in a legitimate business, and so, cast out of the bounds of home, school, and workplace, both too old and too young, he faces a bleak future of drug addiction and homelessness. This is a routine both mundane—it is just another bureaucratic method of school promotion, after all—and shocking in its tragic ramifications.
There is a long tradition of understanding realism as an aesthetic that seeks to naturalize, to totalize, and to normalize—to make the status quo feel necessary and incontrovertible. Moretti writes that realist “[d]escriptions turn the present into something so thoroughly pervaded by the past that alternatives become unimaginable” (191). But if the dominant account of realism is that it normalizes the social world, the shock of the banal does precisely the opposite. It makes daily routines seem startlingly out of place—horrifying, funny, artificial, or strange. It is almost as if the Victorian realist novel and contemporary serial television bring together the two opposing projects of representation that open Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: the bright, easily intelligible world of the Homeric Greeks, which hides nothing “in a perpetual foreground,” and the mysterious, obscure, inexplicable world of the Hebrew Bible, where almost everything important remains unexpressed and fragmentary (9). The shock of the banal suggests that the clear, bright foreground of experience—the visual details, for example, that give us such a strong feeling of historical verisimilitude in Mad Men—operate in an environment of thoughtless routine, which is both obvious and hidden, always at work on the very surface of our experience and yet obscured from perception by its very familiarity. Representation must therefore startle us into a recognition of the “perpetual foreground.” And if I am right that these shocks have long been essential to drawing readers to the realist project, then realism, both now and then, creates pleasure, fascination, and strategic political shock by surprising us with ordinariness.
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.
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