Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes


"Thou still unravished bride of quietness . . . "

This opening line from John Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn sounds nothing like normal, everyday language with which we process and express routine existence.

If you spoke these words under the wrong circumstances to a strangere.g., standing in line for the moviesthat stranger might think that you were the stranger, either mentally challenged, mind-altered, or maybe translating another language into unfamiliar English.

If, however, you spoke, read, or heard these words in another circumstanceat a poetry reading at Barnes and Noble, in a classroom on the English Romantics, or conceivably in an intimately playful moment when you know the other person shares your receptivity to such language—you wouldn't think these words are drunken or deranged but rather that they are literary or poetic, another kind of language that is still English (in this case) but is not exactly the same language with which you'd talk to your boss or make arrangements with a service technician.

In brief, literary language or poetry is strange, and the reality it expresses may feel equally strange or removed from the everyday.

The description above makes sense of this phenomenon in everyday language, but true to literary experience, recent literary theory has expressed this concept as "defamiliarization."


Oxford English Dictionary

Etymology: trans. Russian ostranenie, literally "making strange"

In structuralist (esp. Russian Formalist) theory: the process or result of rendering unfamiliar; spec. of literature, in which formal devices are held to revitalize the perception of words and their sounds by differentiation from ordinary language or (subsequently) from other habituated formal techniques.

defamiliarize v. (trans.) to render unfamiliar; to subject to defamiliarization


Margolin, Uri. “Russian Formalism .” The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Ed. Michael Groden, Martin Kreiswirth, and Imre Szeman. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Defamiliarization of that which is or has become familiar or taken for granted, hence automatically perceived, is the basic function of all devices. And with defamiliarization come both the slowing down and the increased difficulty (impeding) of the process of reading and comprehending and an awareness of the artistic procedures (devices) causing them.

"To carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood; to combine the child’s sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances which every day for perhaps forty years had rendered familiar [. . .] this is the character and privilege of genius." (Coleridge, Literary Biographia)

(<thru Wikipedia)


Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown, Glossary of Literary Theory

Defamiliarization: A term used by the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky to describe the capacity of art to counter the deadening effect of habit and convention by investing the familiar with strangeness and thereby deautomatizing perception. Defamiliarization is not simply a question of perception; it is the essence of "literariness." Calling attention to its techniques and conventions ("baring the device"), literature exposes its autonomy and artificiality by foregrounding and defamiliarizing its devices.


Vasily Lvov, “’Estraingement,’ or the Twists and Turns of Defamiliarization”


Shklovsky opposed defamiliarization to the process of habitualization, or rather automation, when a person gets used to things surrounding him so much that he is no longer able to see their uniqueness. Defamiliarization, on the contrary, gives "the sensation of things, presents them from a new angle and, thus, overcomes the stereotypes of thinking. As Shklovsky phrased it later, in the sixties,defamiliarization shows an object “outside the habitual sequence.” In the article “Art as Technique” Shklovsky explains how defamiliarization functions in Leo Tolstoy’s literary works and articles where the writer “describes an object as if he were seeing it for the first time, an event as if it were happening for the first time.” Right after that Shklovsky declares the technique of defamiliarization as the principle of poetic language where perception is hindered by roughening and retardation of formin distinction from practical language of the everyday life.

Sometimes defamiliarization is undesirable. . . . [e.g., journalism] A reporter has to transmit some message to his or her audience as fast, briefly, and clearly as possible. For that reason a reporter's language is simple and sometimes pedestrian; that is, the practical language of everyday life.


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