Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

3 Jun 2011

(Short Story) Kholstomer: The Story of a Horse by: Leo Tolstoy

(Reaction) Life As We Don't Know It: Ruminations Brought About by a Horse by: Michelle Rose Solano

One of the most well known styles of writing employed by Leo Tolstoy is defamiliarization. One good example of this can be found in his work Kholstomer: The Story of a Horse. The story is narrated and seen from the point of view of Serphukovsky, a horse. Every part of the story can be seen from the Serphukovsky's perspective, which is why ordinary things to us human beings such as private property take on a different light.

The words 'my horse' referred to me, a living horse, and seemed as strange to me as the words 'my land,' 'my air,' 'my water.' But the words made a strong impression on me... only after the most diverse experiences with people did I understand... In life people are guided by words, not by deeds... Such are the words 'my' and 'mine,' which they apply to different things, creatures, objects, and even to land, people, and horses... And the one who says 'mine' about the greatest number of things is, according to the game which they've agreed to among themselves, the one they consider the most happy...

According to philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, philosophy and the act of philosophizing - pondering and asking questions to one's self - begins with traumatisms or gropings. This trauma or groping about begins with an experience outside our comfort zone, a separation from the world we know, a shock to our system and way of life. Just as Serphukovsky's dealings with men have lead to his realizations and ponderings, so too is reading this story a jarring from the life we know, or don't know.

The concept of ownership, of owning land, animals and even people is not new to our daily life. Nobody questions it because that is just the way it is. Because of Serphukovsky, we are suddenly forced to think about the constructs we allow ourselves to live in - the game and the rules of life we have come to accept unwittingly. Is it right to label everything we believe to be our own? We all know that the answer to that should be no. Yet every day we hear words like he's my driver, she is our maid, that is her boyfriend and it is perfectly normal to us. No one has ever protested from these labels or said, You're wrong! She is not yours, you cannot own a living person! because to us it is not right or wrong, it just is.

Defamiliarization plays a keen role in the philosophy of Kholstomer because it shows the reader how each phenomenon or experience we humans go through are missed by our eyes because we have accepted all things to be just so. We fail to look beyond what we see because that is all there is, or so we tell ourselves. Seeing things through a horse's viewpoint allows us to look more closely at things that we used to take for granted because we have labeled them ordinary or just normal.

Near the end of the story Serpukhovsky explains why his life has led him to the truth that the horse is a nobler animal than the man: The actions of men... are guided by words - ours by deeds. In the history of man, men of honor are those who are known to keep their word. A gentleman's agreement is referred to a contract between individuals who did not sign any document or legally formalize their understanding but will still abide by the rules of conduct because they are bound by their word of honor. So, just as Serpukhovsky has claimed, we humans are guided by our words, but only the exceptionally honorable of our kind follow these words with deeds. If this was not the truth, if all men are honorable, then there would have been no need to create the label men (or women) of honor. If this was not the truth, if we all lived our lives by deeds and not by labels, there would be no need for us to ponder on stories of noble steeds and selfish men.


This story is not what you'd call light reading. Read it with a strong cup of coffee on your most comfy couch if you are a fan of serious Russian Literature, existentialism, Philosophy of Man, or if you want to impress your philosophy teacher.

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