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Defamiliarization in Literature: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Definition of…
  • 2:18 Examples Of Reflexive Novels
  • 5:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Take the chance to get more familiar with 'defamiliarization' in this lesson. Keep reading to find out more about this often confounding literary technique and to see it used in some famous novels.

Definition of Defamiliarization in Literature

Why do so many throughout the world consider the Mona Lisa to be such a great representation of what 'art' is? When discussing what makes the masterpiece great, we might talk about what went into creating it: the brushstrokes, or DaVinci's use of color, or the manner of framing his subject.

Writers also identify their works as art, and some of them even use their work to discuss the various aspects of creating that art. They often achieve this discussion through a literary technique known as defamiliarization, in which the process of writing is itself focused on more than any particular plotline.

This term and the concept behind it were introduced in 1917 by Viktor Shklovsky in his essay 'Art as Technique.' To explain his thinking behind defamiliarization, Shklovsky claimed that the technique of art is to make objects 'unfamiliar'… Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object: the object is not important…' Let's take an object we all know and try to defamiliarize it to see if we can find its 'artfulness.'

Most of us are probably familiar with cobwebs as simply a nuisance to household cleanliness, but what if we read a passage that described a spider's web in detail as a carefully woven tapestry, crafted to capture unsuspecting victims? We might find a long-winded or even eloquent description of a spider web to be unnecessary in most real-life contexts, and this is exactly the distinction that authors try to make with defamiliarization.

Writers use this technique to help demonstrate the line between reality and their art. Although literary works are often praised for faithful reflections of real life, their authors still recognize them as pieces of art and use defamiliarization to remind their readers of that fact. Novelists might employ the technique to compose reflexive novels, or extended works of prose fiction in which authors bring direct attention to the fact that they're creating a literary work. Similar texts, such as short stories and poems, are also often referred to as being 'writerly,' meaning they consciously identify themselves as works of art through their focus on their own unique mechanics and use of language.

Examples of Reflexive Novels

Have you ever known someone who always goes off on a tangent while trying to tell a story? Though we might find this rambling characteristic somewhat irritating, it can also at times be somewhat humorous - especially when the rambler takes his story so seriously. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne certainly takes his life's story seriously; however, this narrator-protagonist of this 1759 classic has the funny tendency to digress: so much so that you're over a third of the way through the novel before you even hear anything about his birth!

Tristram's many and often extensive digressions allow Sterne to discuss with his readers the process of trying to cram the whole of one's life experiences, along with all the events that could possibly affect them, into a literary work. As the 'author' of this autobiographical novel, Tristram is able to reflect Sterne's own views on this process and what it produces.

Shandy calls the product a 'history-book…of what passes in a man's own mind,' namely 'obscurity and confusion.' While Tristram Shandy is definitely full of both, it's also extremely clear in letting readers know that the obscurity and confusion are part of the experience, just as they are in attempting to craft a coherent account of one's full life from so many individual stories.

Let's take a look at another example.

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