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Randomness as Pattern

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Zadie Smith’s novel NW does not have a distinct structure; it tries to mimic the randomness of real life. The novel does this in its presentation of words, sentences, chapters, themes and overarching plot. In the novel the lack of clear structure and closure in the ending left the majority of my classmates and me feeling slightly agitated and disorientated. This disorientation is possibly a manifestation of Zadie Smith’s intent to make us aware of our human instinct to put the world into simple patterns that don’t account for exceptions. A New York Times article on putting meaning into randomness says that, “Believing in fate, or even conspiracy, can sometimes be more comforting than facing the fact that sometimes things just happen.” (Belkin, 1) When humans hold on to the comfort of relaying on their faith in a mixture of patterns and coincidences, they prepare themselves to ignore things that could possibly contradict that faith. 

In NW the number 37 is an expression of randomness. Leah Hanwell becomes aware of the number 37 at the beginning of NW, throughout which the number sporadically resurfaces. Leah probably learned about the number 37 from her friend Natalie who said, “The number 37 has a magic about it, we’re compelled toward it. Websites are dedicated to the phenomenon. The imagined houses found in cinema, fiction, painting, and poetry-almost always 37. Asked to choose a number at random: almost always 37. Watch for 37, the girl said, in our lotteries, our game-shows, and our dreams and jokes, and Leah did, and Leah still does.” (Smith, 46) This quote conveys that the number 37 has a “magical” significance, and is somehow part of the underlining structure of society, instead of just a random number. The number 37 stays in Leah’s subconscious throughout NW, and she notes whenever she sees it.                          

An example of Leah noting the number 37 is when she sees a house on Ridley Avenue numbered 37 as she walks by it on her way to meet her mother. She stops to contemplate the house and the number 37, and ignores the fact that she has come across many other buildings that are not labeled 37. (Smith, 46) In this way Leah reinforces her faith, while ignoring all the other houses around her with different numbers. This situation is akin to a person being impressed when they get a royal flush in cards, but not being impressed when they other decks that are equally as unlikely to happen. (Belkin, 3) The number 37 and a royal flush are “not actually a pattern that exists but merely a pattern (people find).” (Belkin, 1)

To Leah it is possible that the number 37 represents the hope that there is meaning in her life. The possibility that people are attracted to a seemingly unimportant number suggests a kind of order to the universe. In this way Leah follows the behavior demonstrated by the article, “Human beings are pattern-seeking animals (and) conspire to make coincidences more meaningful than they really are.” (Belkin, 5)

It is never clarified whether or not the number 37 is a phenomenon, or just a random number Leah held onto. Textually, there are multiple chapters entitled “37” that appear randomly in the first quarter of the book. In the last half of the book when the writing goes into numbered sections, the section number 37 is skipped and goes onto 38, leaving nothing. (226) Smith’s randomness in the placement of the number 37 could reflect that the number doesn’t mean anything, and that Leah’s life in general has no real order or meaning.

When Leah contemplates randomness she thinks, “like a riddle in a dream there it no answer” (109) and at the end of the book Leah says, “I just don’t understand why I have this life.”(399) This is Leah’s acceptance of the randomness in her life, which is agitating and disconcerting to her, just as it is to the reader. As the article on randomness point out, “We are discomforted by the idea of a random universe.” (Belkin, 1)

Belkin, Lisa. “The Odds of That” New York Times 3 Nov. 2013. 11 Aug. 2002.  <>

Smith, Zadie. NW. New York: The Penguin Press, 2012.