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Defamiliarisation is a technique whereby you describe something familiar in a way so as to make it sound strange and unfamiliar. The term was invented by the Russian literary theorist Viktor Schlovsky, and he found examples in passages from the work of Tolstoy. One of the main ways to make something seem unfamiliar is to describe it from a different perspective than we’re used to. In Anna Karenina (film pictured) a good part of Vronsky’s horse race is described from the point of view of the horse; while, in War and Peace, a hunt is described from the point of view of a dog. In Resurrection the change of point of view is much more subtle, but creates as jarring an impression – a religious service is described from the point of view of a man who has lost faith in the rituals of the Orthodox Church. For Schlovsky, defamiliarisation is a way to draw our attention to an aspect of something that we had not previously noticed.

I hesitated to call what Steinbeck is doing in this passage ‘defamiliarisation’ because, well, for most of us there’s nothing particularly familiar about the sight of thousands of turkeys – from any angle. Still, what he manages in this passage is to make something normal and natural (if industrial scale farming can be described so) as something other-worldly:

As the evening deepened, I walked with Charley among his mountains of delight to the brow of the hill and looked down on the little valley below. It was a disturbing sight. I thought too much driving had distorted my vision or addled my judgment, for the dark earth below seemed to move and pulse and breath. It was not water but it rippled like a black liquid. I walked quickly down the hill to iron out the distortion. The valley floor was carpeted with turkeys, it seemed like millions of them, so densely packed that they covered the earth. It was a great relief. Of course, this was a reservoir for Thanksgiving.

P115, John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley, Mandarin, London, 1991

The defamiliarisation here comes simply through Steinbeck viewing this huge huddle of turkeys from a height, so that they appear to be a kind of amorphous black blob. He lingers on this description for a couple of sentences, using various verbs to describe this blob. Getting closer, he sees what they really are – and yet, in the last sentence of this paragraph, he still refers to them as ‘a reservoir’ as if they still retain some of their unfamiliarity. There is a point to this, after all. Defamiliarisation is not just describing something from a different point of view for novelty, but to show us something new about it. We recognise in this description that there is something uncanny, perhaps unnatural, about industrial farming on the scale it is shown here. This adds to the growing astonishment in the travelogue, sometimes astonished, and sometimes admiring, at the technological changes going on in America in that period.

Challenge

Describe something apparently unremarkable in a way that makes it seem quite unfamiliar.

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