Beautiful Ideas: Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose

Beautiful Ideas: Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose

Academic work in the humanities and social sciences often gets a bad rap: people just don’t always understand the point of it, or they associate it with high school and undergraduate essays. And then, there are also logistical issues: academic books are expensive and often unavailable at community libraries; written for specialized audiences, they can also be dense and difficult to read. But for every person out there wondering why the world needs another essay on Shakespeare, there are a dozen academic ideas that shed light on our histories and cultures – that help us understand our world. In this series we make snippets of those ideas, old and new alike, more available.

Viktor Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose, published in 1925 and still available today, is advertised as  as “one of the most important works in the history of literary theory.” It’s written for people who work on novels, and especially those who work on literary form – the how a thing is written as much as the why and what of it. Written in a period when people simply assumed that novels were meant to imitate life, Shklovsky argues that they, in fact, help us perceive life. His study ranges from Don Quixote to Sherlock Holmes, Dickens to Tristram Shandy.

My favorite part of Theory of Prose comes very early on. Shklovsky writes,

“And so, held accountable for nothing, life fades into nothingness. Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war.

If the complex life of many people takes place entirely on the level of the unconscious, then it’s as if this life had never been.

And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By ‘estranging’ objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and ‘laborious.’”


Richard Mauch, Galanter Herr auf Sommerwiese, c. 1921, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Beautiful. For Shklovsky, art extends life – by making the familiar unfamiliar, it invigorates our attention and in so doing ensures that even minor things make an impression on us. Who among us hasn’t driven or walked a familiar path, only to arrive at the destination with no memory of the trip? Art has the capacity to remind us of the curve in the road, even the sound of cars driving by.

Shklovsky illustrates his point, arguing that Tolstoy “estranges” us by refusing to call a thing by its name. For instance, in “Shame” Tolstoy describes a flogging without ever using the word, focusing instead on the violent particularities of the beating. And in “Kholstomer” he describes “property” from a horse’s perspective, shedding new light on the human concept of ownership. One might also think of William Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow and white chickens, of Wallace Stevens’ “concupiscent curds” (ice cream!) or of Virginia Woolf’s description of Big Ben’s chimes in Mrs. Dalloway:

“For having lived in Westminster – how many years now? over twenty, – one feels even in the midst of traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air.”

Literature returns us to the state of unfamiliarity that helps us see our world – like travelers to distant lands who, suddenly, view the world anew. It helps us toward a kind of mindfulness. It estranges us from the familiar, forcing us to perceive our homes, our families, our friends, our towns, our cats, our dogs, even our work. It makes a stone feel stony.


Henryk Weyssenhoff, Defunct Colors, 1919 [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image: Georges Seurat, The Stone Breaker, 1883-4, The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C. [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Hill is the Project Director, NEH for All at the National Humanities Alliance and former member of the Books@Work team.