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Estrangement and Its Role on Tolstoy’s Mission of Social Reform

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There were indeed a great number of things that made Leo Tolstoy such a relevant figure in the literary tradition. He was deeply interested in politics and social issues of 19th-century Russia, including class struggles and issues regarding the rights and freedoms of the serfs. Later in his life, Tolstoy partially renounced his luxurious lifestyle, naming his wife as keeper of the state and thus proclaiming his deep commitment and support for the social reform he so viewed as necessary. Many of his later short stories are then influenced by his ideas regarding social justice, focusing on the correction of society as a whole.

In stories such as Strider, The Story of A Horse, Tolstoy achieves this through the representation of various problems inherent to human nature (namely people’s wastefulness of resources and the absurdity of notions of property) through the experience of a horse. Leo Tolstoy’s technique is later categorized by Viktor Shklovsky in his renowned Art as Device as a form of ‘ostranenie’, suggesting that Tolstoy makes use of this literary device through the description of things and events as if “seen for the first time, as if happening for the first time” (Shklovsky 163). Thus, Tolstoy uses the innate naiveness and ignorance of Striver to successfully use defamiliarization for the representation and acknowledgment of critical social issues of 19th-century Russian society. In his text, Shklovksy highlights a number of occasions in Tolstoy’s story in which enstrangement is used to focus the audience’s attention toward these social issues, such as his mention of Striver’s analysis on human notions of property and the text’s emphasis on humanity’s incessant destruction of nature.

Nevertheless, Shklovsky merely scratches the surface of both examples’ importance as prime examples of the use of enstrangement in literary art, and as a method of revolutionary change, thus falling in an ironic state of automatization. Furthermore, Shklovsky also fails to mention one of the most evident forms of defamiliarization presented in the story: the portrayal of the main character himself as a humanized horse. Through the thorough analysis of Tolstoy’s use of enstrangement in Strider The Story of A Horse as described in Shklovsky’s Art as Device, this essay will argue that, in his emphasis on the role of enstrangement in art forms, and the politics of enstrangement themselves, Shklovsky himself fails to ‘see’ Tolstoy’s clever use of defamiliarization as a method of revolutionary social change, forcing his audience to truly conceive the issue of their society and seek the correction of a faulty reality. To truly understand the importance of Shklovsky’s views on Tolstoy’s use of enstrangement, especially as presented in Striver, one must first understand what he means by ‘enstrangement’ itself, as well as the role of automatization on the matter of defamiliarization. Shklovsky defines automatization as the process of making active, daily operations reflexive. In other words, he describes automatization as the process through which an action becomes so familiar that its basic characteristics become immediately recognizable to the senses, but no longer carry the depth and the importance that they once did. Shklovsky then presents art as a solution to this fundamental issue, suggesting a method of forcing the audience to ‘see’ rather than only ‘recognize’ things through what he calls “the complication of the form”, presenting familiar things in an unfamiliar manner. This is, in essence, what Shklovsky defines as enstrangement.

Later in Art As Device, he brings forward three main politics or requirements for enstrangement in artistic representations, namely the distinction of poetic and everyday language in which poetic language reassembles previously established representations and traditions, the inherent reformative quality of literary history, and the role of poetic form in this historical system of revolutionary change. When discussing enstrangement in artistic representations and different forms of enstrangement, Shklovsky identifies a number of examples of this particular literary device in two of Tolstoy’s well-known works: War and Peace and Strider. Nevertheless, there is a number of qualities in the latter, including its portrayal of humane sentiments and social questions from the perspective of a horse, that makes it stand out from the other. There is evidently a point to be made about the symbolism of Strider himself and his role as a defamiliarizing figure in Tolstoy’s method of enstrangement, but since this point may be extensive, it would likely be more helpful to first discuss some of the other instances of enstrangement in the story pointed out by Shklovsky in his article. One of the first examples of enstrangement in Tolstoy’s Strider discussed by Shklovsky in Art as Device is the main character’s monologue regarding social practices and ideas of ownership. In the story, Strider spends some time wondering and explaining— to the best of his abilities— human notions of property, which he describes in the following manner, Men are guided in life not by deeds but by words. They like not so much the ability to do or not do something as, the ability to speak of various subjects in conventionally agreed upon words… They have agreed that of any given thing only one person may use the word mine, and he who in this game of theirs may use that conventional word about the greatest number of things is considered the happiest… And men strive in life not to do what they think right, but to call as many things as possible their own. I am now convinced that in this lie the essential difference between men and us.

This passage demonstrates, as pointed out by Shklovsky, the use of enstrangement through the description of notions of property as if encountered for the first time. Nevertheless, Shklovsky only focuses on enstrangement’s most basic qualities as found on the text, but fails to acknowledge and point out specific examples of the politics of enstrangement or its importance for in a greater issue. In matters of the previously mentioned politics of defamiliarization, and the reformative quality of literary history, Shklovsky spends some time explaining that, in enstrangement, the process does not rely so much on the creation of images as in their reorganization. In other words, the process of enstrangement is partly implemented by “accumulating verbal material and finding new ways of arranging it and handling it; it is much more about rearranging images than about creating them”.

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Thus, in the example from Strider regarding notions of ownership, one can witness this same characteristic of defamiliarization. Concepts of property discussed in the story such as ‘mine’ or ‘my’ are, either directly or indirectly, present on the everyday life of the text’s main intended audience, as are images depicting notions of property such as the owning of a property in which one has never lived in, or the ownership of a pet. These concepts are familiar to the reader, automatized as part of a cycle of human ideas of proprietorship. However, their reorganization as unfamiliar, as new through their portrayal and analysis from the perspective of a horse is what produces a sense of true, in-depth recognition of greater social issues. In a historical context, this is important due to the meaning of the address in a broader social context. He was deeply concerned with class inequality in 19th-century Russiam and was a vocal advocator for the rights and freedoms of the peasant class. In his article Leo Tolstoy and Social Justice, John Randolph Fuller makes mention of Tolstoy’s involvement in controversial issues of Russian society, explaining that “what he did best was judge the government’s treatment of the poor and persecuted’.

Through his writing, Tolstoy addressed these issues, calling the reader’s attention to the acknowledgment of society’s faults in the road for its correction and improvement. Strider’s questioning of the absurdity of human notions of property and wealth, and his emphasis on the distinctive negative qualities of people, all through the implementation of enstrangement, are ultimately used to force the reader to ‘see; these issues in their own societies and seek the correction of their situation. Shklovsky’s succumb into automatization in the search for examples of enstrangement in a number of literary texts is seen again as he briefly mentions the death of Strider and of Serpukhovskoy as portrayed in the text. Although he does highlight Tolstoy’s method of defamiliarization through the rearrangement of images, he does not specify details in the passage that use enstrangement to convey a deeper message. He even goes as far as to say that “the motif of the erotic pose in which a bear or another animal fails to recognize a human… is identical to the one used in ‘Strider’, this, I believe, is obvious to everyone”.

Shklovsky’s assumption of the clarity with which enstrangement can be recognized in Tolstoy’s story is fairly dangerous to his argument of enstrangement as a form of correcting automatization, especially considering that, in his mention of the passage regarding the death of Strider and Serpukhovskoy, Shklovsky seems to only focus on that of the latter subject, ignoring the great significance of the comparison of both deaths and their effects on nature as a whole over the use of enstrangement as a method of revolutionary change in the literary tradition. In this passage of Tolstoy’s story, the narrator emphasizes the fundamental distinction between both species, horse and human, in their contributions to nature. The narrator explains the way in which, even in death, Strider contributes to the ecosystem through his innate liberty of human absurd attachments, while Serpukhovskoy serves as a demonstration of the extent of human pollution and wastefulness, stating that, Just as for the last twenty years his body that had walked the earth had been a great burden to everybody, so the putting away of that body was again an additional trouble to people… the dead who bury their dead found it necessary to clothe that swollen body, which at once began to decompose, in a good uniform and good boots and put it into a new expensive coffin… to take it to Moscow and there dig up some long-buried human bones and right in that spot hide this decomposing maggoty body in its new uniform and polished boots and cover it all up with earth.

The narrator’s emphasis on humanity’s absurd practices for the establishment and maintenance of status and wealth even after death, and their lack of meaninful contributions to nature and to society serves to bring reader’s attention to the frequency with which they see such practices take place around them. The repetitive mention of burial clothing and coffins, reassembled with negative connotations of wastefulness rather than the traditional personal respect that is attached to them forces the reader to truly see and not merely recognize the depth of society’s issues from a global perspective. In this case, then, the politics of enstrangement (more specifically the reformative quality of literary history and the role of poetic form in this historical system of revolutionary change) hold a much more significant meaning than that presented by Shklovsky in Art as Device, through the use of poetic form to reassemble traditional images and ideas of burial practices in order to highlight their negativity rather than their positive aspects, thus emphasizing the issue of human wastefulness and calling for the correction of society. In regards to the first point made earlier about the symbolism of Strider himself as a fundamental method of enstrangement in the story, it is important to acknowledge Shklovsky’s negligence in ignoring the horse’s significance as a defamiliarizing object in the text.

Since he so emphasizes enstrangement’s quality of rearranging images for “the complication of the form”, as well as Tolstoy’s method of such by referring to things and events as if “seen for the first time, as if happening for the first time”, one may find it strange that he failed to acknowledge the horse as an altered image himself through his portrayal of humane sentiments, morals, and philosophies. The humanization of the horse and his ability to talk also cause in the audience a sense of defamiliarization, as well as his portrayal of feelings that are familiar to those of the readers. Early in the story, as Strider speaks about his experiences around humans, he begins to explain a number of struggles he has had to deal with throughout his life, “I was thrice unfortunate: I was piebald, I was a gelding, and people considered that I did not belong to God and to myself, as is natural to all living creatures, but that I belonged to the stud groom.” From an automatized perspective, people have become used to recognizing and dismissing the signs and struggles of less fortunate people and those who have been born in a disadvantageous position. Through the use of horse breeds and characteristics as a method of categorizing the status of a horse, the reader is forced to prolong their thinking about the issue, noticing patterns between the experiences of Strider and those of less fortunate members of society. Due to Tolstoy’s deep concern with social injustice issues in 19th-century Russia, and his strong advocacy for the rights of the peasant class, Shklovsky’s failure to recognize the significance of the use of enstrangement in Strider demonstrates an accidental (and ironic) fall on automatization, present even in his negligence to recognize the character of Strider himself as a demonstration of defamiliarization in the story.

Overall, the concept of enstrangement or defamiliarization as a form of combating automatization in everyday life through artistic representations emphasized by Shklovsky in Art as Device is highlighted and demonstrated through Leo Tolstoy’s Strider: The Story of a Horse in a number of occasions through the reassembling of images regarding notions of property, burial practices, and the life of other species as opposed to that of humans to bring out their negative connotations and force the reader to truly notice the social issues through the text. Nevertheless, Shklovsky falls into a cycle of automatization himself as he fails to acknowledge both the specific instances in which the politics of enstrangement are reflected in these passages, as well as the greater significance of defamiliarization in the case of Tolstoy’s Strider. In his emphasis on the role of enstrangement in art forms, and the politics of enstrangement themselves, Shklovsky himself fails to ‘see’ Tolstoy’s clever use of defamiliarization as a method of revolutionary social change, forcing his audience to truly conceive the issue of their society and seek the correction of a faulty reality.

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Estrangement and Its Role on Tolstoy’s Mission of Social Reform. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from
“Estrangement and Its Role on Tolstoy’s Mission of Social Reform.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022,
Estrangement and Its Role on Tolstoy’s Mission of Social Reform. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 3 Feb. 2023].
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