Recognizing Patterns: Appreciating the Ordinary in Literature

Speaking at the Humanities Center Annual Symposium, Caroline Levine encouraged faculty and students to pay more attention to patterns in their studies.

ot8PROVO, Utah (November 13, 2015)—“We do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual,” George Eliot wrote in her 1871 novel, Middlemarch. Instead, people pay attention to things that stand out, make waves or break molds. So it’s understandable that art would have trouble representing work, labor or any action so repetitive that we encounter it every day.

But Caroline Levine – visiting professor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison – believes that repetition is exactly where researchers need to pay attention. As the guest scholar at the Humanities Center’s Annual Symposium, Levine delivered her presentation “Pattern Recognition: Literature, Habit, Labor,” inviting faculty and students alike to notice and respond to repetition.

Repetition, Levine explained, produces forms and patterns that we perceive but regularly ignore. These patterns include racism and heteronormativity, patterns of conduct that influences other activities.

Levine argued that the bulk of literary theory has been opposed to studying repetition, with critics like Helen Vendler citing the “forgettable writers of verse . . . [who] adopt the generic style of their era and repeat themselves in it.” To many critics, repetition gets in the way of innovation, radical politics and historical specificity, and instead produces forgettable novels that blend into the background. Critics prefer instead to focus on specificity, or, according to Levine, “the singularity of experience, rather than repetitive patterns.”

The realist movement of the nineteenth century was a reaction against what Levine described as “our habit of being too interested in exceptional and extraordinary experience.” Authors of this movement focused their writing on normal men and women and the repeating patterns of life – such as labor, politics, economics and daily routines. Levine further explained, “What’s really important about our world, according to these novelists, is that it’s not exciting or exceptional: it’s actually mostly repeating itself.”

As an example, Levine turned to Bleak House by Charles Dickens. Dickens describes Jo – a homeless boy suffering from pneumonia – emphasizing the boy’s ordinariness. He is not a foreign oddity; he is just an everyday and unappealing street urchin, and the narrator concludes, “There is nothing interesting about thee.” Jo is left to die, unaided and unnoticed.

Levine expounded on Dickens’ purpose in describing Jo in such a manner, saying, “We ignore poor children like Jo because they’re too familiar. They’re not exotic enough.” She added, “The commonness of Jo’s fate is in fact what should be most shocking to us.” The challenge for Dickens and other realist authors was not only to make the ordinary appear shocking, but also to make readers question why they took such ordinary things for granted, to challenge the status quo that they ignored for its lack of appeal.

Examining repetition, then, becomes a way to effect change. It is a way to study and understand “relations between labor and consumption, between giving and taking, between the world of bounty and its starving poor.”

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)


Samuel covers events for the Humanities Center for the College of Humanities. He is a senior pursuing a degree in American studies with a minor in editing.