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Defamiliarization applied to Mark Twain’s Short Stories

Lodge defines defamiliarization as “making strange” (Lodge, David). Writers use defamiliarization to achieve many things, from adding a hidden meaning or underlying theme, to adding a sense of ambiguity or sending a political message. Lodge gives the example of famous Russian writer Victor Shklovsky, who argued that “the essential purpose of art is to overcome the deadening effects of habit by representing familiar things in unfamiliar ways” (Lodge, David). Mark Twain uses defamiliarization to add underlying messages to many of his stories, mostly to highlight problems of corruption and ignorance in the upper class during his time.

Mark Twain’s use of defamiliarization is clearly evident in his short stories “The Story Of The Bad Little Boy Who Didn’t Come To Grief” and “The Story Of The Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper.” In the first of the two stories, Mark Twain uses defamiliarization to introduce a naive narrator who conflates reality with the Sunday School stories. This narrator assumes that the stories taught by the Church explain all of human life as it is, defamiliarizing the stories from reality. The opening sentence of the first story (“Once there was…bad boys are nearly always called James”) shows how the narrator is surprised, even slightly annoyed, that the bad boy in the story is named Jim, as opposed to James (the name given to bad boys in the Sunday School stories). Throughout the story, the narrator repeatedly acts surprised when the character of the bad boy does not get punished for his actions, and does not learn his lesson. The narrator’s confusion is seen in the line (“Once he climbed up…he stole as many apples as he wanted”) and is shortly followed by (“Nothing like it in any of the Sunday School stories”). This causes the narrator to sound naive as the narrator bases his understanding of reality around the teachings of stories taught in Sunday School. Defamiliarization allows Mark Twain to refute the teachings of the Church and the religious community, and portray now successful people are usually evil and corrupt. By doing this, Twain is able to expose the hypocrisy of American society as a whole, a Christian society which claims to be founded on justice, freedom, and equality, but in reality promotes materialism.

The second story, “The Story Of The Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper,” acts as a complement to the first, as instead of following the actions of the bad boy, the story follows a good boy. This character is the complete opposite of the character of the bad boy, listening to the teachings of the Sunday School stories, and applying them in his life. Mark Twain uses defamiliarization in a similar manner, as he separates the actions of the good boy from reality. The good boy does everything right (“He always obeyed his parents…he acted so strangely”) yet society always views him in a different way. Although the good boy follows the teachings of the Sunday School, he never gets the same reward or recognition (“But somehow, nothing ever went right…in the books”). Every time the good boy tries to help someone, or advise someone, the complete opposes of what was supposed to happen, happens. Defamiliarization allows Mark Twain to connect this story with the previous story, showing the faults and the hypocrisy of the religious community and American society as a whole. Mark Twain is sending the message that those who adhere to the teachings of the religious community, and believe that the good and just always prevail, are ostracized from society and viewed differently in a negative way.

Mark Twain use of defamiliarization is very evident in his story “Eve’s Diary,” Twain’s twist on the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. “Eve’s Diary” is told through the perspective of Eve, and details the journey of Eve’s life. In the Biblical version, a major part of both Adam and Eve’s life journey was them getting kicked out of the Garden of Eden, however, Mark Twain barely mentions the event (“After the Fall”) and this is part of Twain’s use of defamiliarization. Twain focuses on small conflicts between Adam and Eve, and through Eve’s perspective, the reader is introduced to a flurry of different emotions and discoveries (“At first I couldn’t make out what I was made for…to search out the secrets of this wonderful world”). This focus on emotion and discovery through Eve’s perspective portrays Eve in a different way to the reader. The Biblical story of Adam and Eve shows Eve as the one who eats the apple, which ultimately results in the banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. However, Mark Twain defamiliarizes the banishment from the Garden of Eden, and portrays Eve as a passionate and intelligent being. Mark Twain uses defamiliarization again to refute basic teachings of the Church, and to portray the ignorance of the religious community to different ideas.

Finally, Mark Twain uses defamiliarization for a different reason in his short story, “A True Story, Repeated Word For Word As I Heard It.” Twain uses defamiliarization to portray the divide between racial and social classes by introducing a narrator who comes from a white, upper class background. The narrator portrays the ignorance of the upper class towards the troubles of other social classes by asking why the African American servant “Aunt Rachel” why she never had any troubles in her life (“Why I thought…never seen your eye when there wasn’t a laugh in it”). Aunt Rachel replies with a detailed account of her life experiences, talking about her hardships and her struggles. The narrator allows Aunt Rachel to complete her story without interruption because the narrator can’t relate to the troubles of other classes and/or races. His lack of comment also shows the utter shock and shame that the narrator feels when he realizes his own ignorance of very important issues in his society. Mark Twain uses the defamiliarization of Aunt Rachel’s experience to attack the people of the upper class who are completely ignorant of the oppression of other races, along with the suffering of African Americans in the United States of America.

In conclusion, Mark Twain applies Lodge’s definition of defamiliarization to many of his short stories to send different political and social messages. Twain uses this defamiliarization to expose the ignorance and hypocrisy of the American and religious community during his time, and is able to do that without directly attacking any certain group.

Works Cited

Lodge, David. The art of fiction. Vintage, 2011.

Twain, Mark. The best short stories of Mark Twain. Edited by Lawrence I. Berkove, Modern Library, 2004.


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