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.
- Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Trans. Willard Trask. New York: Doubleday: 1957. Print.
- Dickens, Charles. Bleak House (1852-54). Ed. George Ford and Sylvere Monod. New York: Norton, 1977. Print.
- Eliot, George. Adam Bede (1859). Ed. Carol A. Martin. Oxford: Oxford U P, 2008. Print.
- Eliot, George. “The Natural History of German Life.” The Westminster Review (July 1856). 51-79. Print.
- Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny” (1919). The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. James Strachey et al. 24 vols. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74. 217-52; vol. 17. Print.
- Gissing, George. New Grub Street. 3 vols. London: Smith, Elder, 1891. Print.
- King, Amy M. “Dilatory Description and the Pleasures of Accumulation: Toward a History of Novelistic Length.” Narrative Middles: Navigating the Nineteenth-Century Novel. Ed. Caroline Levine and Mario Ortiz-Robles. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2011. 161-193. Print.
- Levine, Caroline. “The Shock of the Banal: Mad Men’s Progressive Realism.” Mad Men, Mad World: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s. Ed. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky, and Robert A. Rushing. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013. 133-44. Print.
- Levine, Caroline. “Surprising Realism.” A Companion to George Eliot. Ed. Amanda Anderson and Harry Shaw. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. 62-75. Print.
- Moretti, Franco. “Serious Century.” The Novel. Ed. Franco Moretti. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. 364-400; vol. 1. Print.
- Scarry, Elaine. Resisting Representation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. Print.
- Shklovsky, Viktor. “Art as Technique.” Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays. Trans. Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965. 3-24. Print.
- Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). New York: Library of America, 1982. Print.
- “Time after Time.” The Wire. Writ. David Simon. Dir. Ed Bianchi. HBO, 2004. DVD.
- Woloch, Alex. The One vs. The Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003. Print.