Repetition in literature can be used by characters to emphasize an idea or emotion to another character, or to the reader. Characters can use repetition to highlight something that is troubling to them. Repetition can also be used to create tone and mood for the narrator of the story, which helps the reader understand the narrator on a deeper level.
10 Examples of Repetition in Literature
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
“The witnesses for the state, with the exception of the sheriff of Maycomb County, have presented themselves to you gentlemen, to this court, in the cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted, confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption—the evil assumption—that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women, an assumption one associates with minds of their caliber. Which, gentlemen, we know is in itself a lie as black as Tom Robinson’s skin, a lie I do not have to point out to you. You know the truth, and the truth is this: some Negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral, some Negro men are not to be trusted around women—black or white. But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men.”
Atticus Finch, in his closing remarks to the jury during Tom Robinson’s trial, uses repetition to drive home the point that the men on the jury must put aside their prejudices about African American men and realize that the lies the Ewells want the jury to believe are simply untrue. He outlines the faulty reasoning used by the Ewells that plays on Southern white prejudices of the 1930s—the assumption that only African Americans are capable of evil acts. But Atticus points out to the jury that this assumption is a lie, repeating it twice, because the truth, also repeated twice, is that men of all colors are capable of lying, being immoral and are untrustworthy. Just because Tom Robinson is black does not mean he is guilty.
The Tragedy of Richard III by William Shakespeare
“My horse! My horse! My kingdom for a horse!”
This famous line is uttered in the heat of battle by King Richard III as he is losing against the Earl of Richmond (who later becomes King Henry VII and begins the Tudor dynasty). Richard is unhorsed in battle and believes that finding another one to ride will save himself and his reign; however, the repetition of such an insignificant thing (“a horse!”) in the face of a battle Richard is quite clearly losing (and deserves to lose) highlights the ridiculousness of the request. It also prepares the audience for the inevitable, which is that Richard will lose his throne and his life to Richmond, and the House of York will rule over England no more.
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
“With the hot mid-day sun burning down upon her face, and lighting up its shame; with the scarlet token of infamy on her breast; with the sin-born infant in her arms; with a whole people, drawn forth as to a festival, staring at the features that should have been seen only in the quiet gleam of the fireside, in the happy shadow of a home, or beneath a matronly veil at church.”
This scene from The Scarlet Letter highlights the contrast of Hester Prynne’s beauty with the shame of her sin. The repetition of “with the” enhances this contrast: Hester, a beautiful woman, is standing in front of a crowd of her peers being shamed for the sin of having a child out of wedlock and outside of her marriage, and she is being treated as both a pariah and a sideshow oddity. The repetition also likely mimics the ticking away of the minutes that Hester must stand before the crowd, and the observations she herself is likely making of her own punishment.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
“Some things are hard to remember. I’m thinking now of when Stradlater got back from his date with Jane. I mean I can’t remember exactly what I was doing when I heard his goddam stupid footsteps coming down the corridor. I probably was still looking out the window, but I swear I can’t remember. I was so damn worried, that’s why. When I really worry about something, I don’t just fool around. I even have to go to the bathroom when I worry about something. Only, I don’t go. I’m too worried to go. I don’t want to interrupt my worrying to go. If you knew Stradlater, you’d have been worried, too.”
One of the characteristics of The Catcher in the Rye that is so unique is Holden Caulfield’s style of stream-of-consciousness narration. Holden has a lot of preoccupation with the past and worrying about things he cannot control. His anxiety is revealed in this passage with his recall of Stradlater’s date with Holden’s friend Jane, and his inability to remember exactly what he was doing when Stradlater returns, but knowing that he was filled with worry because Holden cares about Jane. Holden’s worrying is not only focused on Jane, but in general, his anxiety takes over his physical needs. His repetition of “worry”, “worried”, and “worrying” reveals that even reliving this is a source of anxiety for Holden.
The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
“O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?”
This famous line, uttered by Juliet as she contemplates the fact that she has just discovered the man of her dreams is her family’s enemy, highlights the upcoming idea that Juliet doesn’t understand what is so important about a name. She is supposed to hate Romeo, starting with his name, because he is a Montague and she is a Capulet. Yet, she doesn’t hate him, and if his name were anything else, she would be able to love him freely. Her repetition of his name reveals her growing rejection of her family’s feud, and her growing love of Romeo.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
“I am so happy. I got love, I got work, I got money, friends, and time. And you alive and be home soon. With our children.”
Celie’s missive to her sister Nettie expresses happiness for one of the few times in the novel. Celie has finally learned that her sister is not dead, even though Mister has been hiding her letters to Celie for years. Celie uses repetition to show all of the things she has: love, work, friends, money, time, Nettie and Celie’s children. Her repetition creates a tone of hope and relief.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time…”
Macbeth, after learning of the death of Lady Macbeth, highlights the futility of the quest for power in this soliloquy. For Macbeth, Lady Macbeth’s death extinguishes his purpose and his drive to hold the throne of Scotland. His repetition of the word “to-morrow” mimics the passing of each day, all leading to the same thing for everyone in the end: death. Macbeth is foreshadowing his own defeat and death here at the hands of Macduff and Malcolm.
The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allan Poe
“I was sick— sick unto death with that long agony; and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my sense were leaving me. The sentence— the dead sentence of death– was the last of distinct accentuation which reached my ears.”
Poe’s terrifying short story of a prisoner trapped beneath a swinging pendulum, forced to decide between being sliced by the sharp blade or falling into a deep, bottomless pit describes an almost impossible dilemma. The “sick– sick” repetition reveals the narrator’s fear at both his predicament, and his impending death. The “sentence– dead sentence of death” tells the reader that the reason why he is in this predicament is that it is his punishment for an unknown crime. The repetition of “death” throughout the passage points the reader to the only ending for the prisoner’s punishment: death, making his time in the room even more precious and suspenseful.
The Man that Corrupted Haldeyburg by Mark Twain
“At church the morning sermon was of the usual pattern; it was the same old things said in the same old way; they had heard them a thousand times and had found them innocuous, next to meaningless, and easy to sleep under…”
The repetition found in this passage from Twain’s short story highlights the patterns of the town of Hadleyburg, as the people attend church, unaware and unexpecting that the mysterious bag of gold delivered by a stranger would soon corrupt their sleepy little town. The repetition of the phrase “the same old” things and “the same old” way underscores that the town was used to its reputation of honesty and not being disturbed; however, it also foreshadows that things will soon change.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
“It’s not that I don’t agree with him. I do. But what good is yelling about the Capitol in the middle of the woods? It doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t make things fair. It doesn’t fill our stomachs. In fact, it scares off nearby game.”
Katniss Everdeen is using repetition to bring attention to the idea that the Capitol is a power that the people can’t do anything about. The government of Panem is a tyrannical government which exercises absolute control over its 13 Districts. Katniss here is highlighting the fact that yelling and complaining about the government’s oppression will do no good, even though her friend Gale regularly focuses his frustration on it. Katniss’ repetition of “it doesn’t” highlights the importance of what they can control, such as hunting for food in the forest.