Sunday, June 14, 2015

ANNA KARENINA "Остранение" ("Making It Strange") and Laska the Dog

(24) ОСТРАНЕНИЕ and Laska the Dog

The word "ostranenie," usually translated as "making it strange," is a word that the Russian critic Shklovsky coined to describe one of Tolstoy's favorite devices. Tolstoy likes to show things in unique ways, from unique vantage points. He loves describing a scene from the viewpoint of a naive observer, a character who is completely alien to the action surrounding him. One of the most famous examples of this is the description of an opera in War and Peace, through the eyes of young Natasha Rostova, who has never been to the opera before and has no idea what is going on:

"In the second act there was scenery representing tombstones, and there was a round hole in the canvas to represent the moon, shades were raised over the footlights, and from the horns and contrabass came deep notes while many people appeared from right and left wearing black cloaks and holding things like daggers in their hands. They began waving their arms. Then some other people ran in and began dragging away the maiden who had been in white and was now in light blue. They did not drag her away at once, but sang with her for a long time, and then at last dragged her off, and behind the scenes something metallic was struck three times and everyone knelt down and sang a prayer. All these things were repeatedly interrupted by the enthusiastic shouts of the audience."

As is obvious from the passage above ostranenie is often used for ironic aims, sometimes to ridicule an institution. After all, institutions viewed by a child or naive observer with no preconceived opinions often appear ludicrous. Since Lyovin in AK is a rather naive type, who refuses to accept the conventional behavior of society, Tolstoy often shows him observing certain things that the author wishes to to be ironic about. One example of this involves Lyovin's participation in the zemstvo elections (Part VI, Ch. 28, p. 680).

Another example of "making it strange" is the way the dazed Lyovin (who has just gone through a horrendous childbirth that was more painful for him than for his wife!) looks at his newborn son:

"Give him to me," she [Kitty] said, hearing the baby's cry. "Give him to me, Lizaveta Petrovna, and he will look at him."
"To be sure, his papa shall look at him," said Lizaveta Petrovna, getting up and bringing something red, and strange, and wriggling.
"Wait a minute, we'll make him tidy first," and Lizaveta Petrovna laid the red wobbling thing on the bed, began untrussing and trussing up the baby, lifting him up and turning him over with one finger and powdering him with something.
Looking at the tiny pitiful figure, Lyovin made strenuous efforts to discover in his heart some trace of fatherly feeling. He felt nothing but disgust. But when the baby was undressed and he caught a glimpse of wee, wee little hands, little feet, saffron colored, with little toes too; and positively with a little big toe different from the rest, and when he saw Lizaveta Petrovna bending the little sticking-up arms as though they were soft springs and putting them into linen garments, such pity for the little creature came upon him, and such terror that she would hurt it, that he held her hand back" (Part VII, Ch. 16, p. 747).

The reader can only pause in admiration here, savoring Tolstoy's wonderful description of a new-born baby, from the viewpoint of a dazed first-time father.

Tolstoy is daring enough a writer to try even getting inside the skin of a dumb animal. He once wrote an entire story ("Kholstomer") from the viewpoint of a horse. Just as he is able to invest nearly all his human characters with a roundness and verisimilitude that is rare in world literature, so he can also portray a rounded, believable dog. This is Lyovin's bitch Laska, certainly one of the best dogs ever portrayed in creative writing. Especially good are the scenes of the hunt, shown through the eyes of the dog. Tolstoy sometimes uses the canine viewpoint to show the superiority of animal instinct over human rationality. Here we have Laska catching the scent of the birds and setting about finding them:

"They were here, but where precisely she could not determine. To find the very spot she began to make a circle, when suddenly her master's voice drew her off. 'Laska! Here?' he asked, pointing her to a different direction. She stopped, asking him if she had better not go on doing as she had begun. But he repeated his command in an angry voice, pointing to a spot covered with water, where there could not be anything. She obeyed him, pretending she was looking so as to please him, went around it, and went back to her former position, and was at once aware of the scent again. . . . . . . The scent of them reached her, stronger and stronger, and more and more defined, and all at once it became perfectly clear to her that one of them was here, behind this tuft of weeds, five paces in front of her; she stopped, and her whole body was stiff and rigid. On her short legs she could see nothing in front of her, but by the scent she knew it was sitting not more than five paces off. She stood still, feeling more and more conscious of it, and enjoying it in anticipation. Her tail was stretched straight and tense and wagging only at the extreme tip. Her mouth was slightly open, her ears raised. One ear had been turned wrong side out as she ran up, and she breathed heavily but warily, and still more warily looked around, but more with her eyes than with her head, to her master. He was coming along with the face she knew so well, though the eyes were always frightening to her. He stumbled over the stump as he came, and moved, so she thought, extraordinarily slowly. She thought he came slowly, but he was running" (Part VI, Ch. 12, p. 620-21).

There you have, by the way, for one of the first times in world lit, Tolstoy anticipating the age of cinema by showing the dog in making-it-strange viewpoint, as we view a scene through that dog's eyes in slow motion.

In this magnificent scene Tolstoy seems to have such a perfect intuition into the mental workings of an animal that you find it hard to believe he was never a dog himself. The physical descriptions of Laska are near perfect. One of the pleasures of reading creative literary fiction is the thrill of discovering the one detail that adds utter life and vitality to the artist's portrayal of a scene. In this scene that perfect detail is the ear turned wrong side out as Laska stands in a rigid pointing position, waiting for Lyovin to approach [let us here recall the ear motif in the novel, represented most prominently by Karenin's protuberant ears]. A close second to the inside-out ear is the quivering tip of the tail.

Of course, even such a great master as Tolstoy makes mistakes. The perfect rightness of the scene is lost when he begins putting words into the mind of a dumb animal:

"'Fetch it, fetch it!' shouted Lyovin, giving Laska a shove from behind.
'But I can't go,' thought Laska. 'Where am I to go? From here I feel them, but if I move forward I shall know nothing of where they are.' But then he shoved her with his knee, and, in an exited whisper, said, 'Fetch it, Laska.'
'Well, if that's what he wishes, I'll do it, but I cannot answer for myself now,' she thought, and darted forward as fast as her legs would carry her between the hummocks" (621).

This description has some of the same faults as that describing long detailed eye communication between Kitty and Varenka, with all of the words that the eyes are saying expressed exactly (see Part II, Ch. 30, p. 228). Eyes cannot really put things in words and neither can dogs. Although these words in human word-speak may express almost the exact feelings of Laska at the moment, the very fact of giving the thoughts of the dog in words creates a false note.

So even great artists make mistakes, but so much of Tolstoy is so wonderfully done (such as the first hunting passage given above) that the reader is eager to forgive him for his lapses.

(for a detailed treatment of ostranenie, see David Lodge, The Art of Fiction, p. 52-55)


  1. Nice Article...what does the drawing represent? Thanks!

  2. Sorry to be so long in getting back to you. These are two illustrations by a Soviet artist for the novel, "Anna Karenina." The top one shows Lyovin (Levin) and Stiva in the famous hunting scene with Laska the dog. The bottom one shows Karenin consulting with officials