Symbolism of Birds

VERNEUIL, Maurice Pillard (1869-1942). L'Animal dans la décoration. Paris- Librairie centrale des Beaux-arts, [1897] Birds Snails

Birds are much older than we are — living dinosaurs. Across cultures, birds function as smart collaborators with humans. We now know how smart (some) birds really are, but we have long had a sense of their canniness. The smartest bird in the world is currently thought to be the New Zealand Kea, which isn’t so great if you live in New Zealand and the kea is chewing the bits of rubber off your car.


Birds are frequently utilised in tales of transmogrification. Wings are frequently stuck onto chimerae. This surely has something to do with humans’ long-held wish-fulfilment fantasy of being able to fly.

Take the Ancient Greek mythological siren.

Bird symbolism in the Greek imagination was common. Reverse-engineering the meaning of all these story-birds isn’t easy. For instance, we’ll never know for sure why Sirens took the form of a hybrid bird-woman, but we do know that in ancient mythology birds represented a number of things:

  • oracles
  • enchantresses
  • messengers of deities
  • mediators (between the human world and the supernatural realm)

Over the centuries, however, the Siren transformed. In the Middle Ages, the spread of Christianity throughout Europe saw the Siren morph from a bird-woman into a fish-bodied being, who personified the dangers of both the sea and female sexuality. The seventh-century medieval bestiary Liber monstruorum diversis generibus, or the “Book of Monsters,” is one of the earliest examples of this transition, describing Sirens as sea-girls who “are like human beings from the head to the navel, with the body of a maiden, but have scaly fish tails, with which they always lurk in the sea.” Illustrations from the period clearly reveal the difference; the Sirens now have voluptuous bodies, perform erotic moves, and exhibit brazen tactics of seduction, such as staring longingly into mirrors and combing their hair. These Sirens no longer symbolized the spirit, but rather, the pleasures of the flesh.

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Dad Jokes, Puns and Related Words


Puns are often simple wordplay for comedic or rhetorical effect.


Puns are at the heart of “Dad Jokes”, though in Dad Jokes, the “dad” generally pretends he doesn’t understand the speaker’s intended meaning. The Dad feigns stupidity, the Victim knows he’s only playing stupid, and the joke succeeds if it elicits a groan from the Victim.

The Victim: “I’m hungry.”
The Dad: “Hello, Hungry. Pleased to meet you.”

Both Victim and Dad understand that the victim needs to eat; the Dad pretends to believe the Victim’s name happens to be homophonous with the common adjective ‘hungry’.

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Owl At Home by Arnold Lobel

Owl At Home is a 1975 picture book written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel. The book comprises five very short early reader stories about a kind, anxious and lonely owl. These owl stories, along with the frog and toad stories come from the second phase of Lobel’s creative career, in which he tapped into his own emotions and acknowledged he was writing “adult stories, slightly disguised as children’s stories”.

Owl lives by himself in a regular Western-style dream house (with the upstairs, the hearth, and everything you’d expect to see in a picture book dream house). Although published in the 1970s, there’s nothing 70s about this dream house — there are 1800s/early 1900s details, such as the candle beside the bed. (There doesn’t seem to be electricity.) Picture books set in this era feel atemporal to a modern audience. I’m not sure if this house is in fact inside a tree, because we don’t get an establishing shot.

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The Jockey by Carson McCullers

American writer Carson McCullers published “The Jockey” in 1941, when she was just 24, which seems young, until you realise she’d published “Sucker” at the age of 17 and a novel at age 22.

McCullers belonged to a generation who spent their youth living through world war. Surely that affords a measure of maturity. She had also endured a number of strokes, which were to eventually paralyse one half of her body. She was married by the time she wrote this. Apparently, when her husband forged his signature to get the money she received for this story from the New Yorker, that was the last straw, and she (temporarily) left him. They reunited later, he tried to persuade her to double suicide with him, she refused, and he suicided on his own.

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I Live On Your Visits by Dorothy Parker

I Live On Your Visits by Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) is remembered as one of America’s greatest wits. If you watch Gilmore girls, you’ll be familiar with her name, as Rory is depicted reading a 1976 edition of The Portable Dorothy Parker. The creator of Gilmore girls, Amy Sherman-Palladino, was clearly a huge fan, naming her production company Dorothy Parker Drank Here. I feel the character of Miss Patty is straight out of Dorothy Parker’s world.

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Dance In America by Lorrie Moore

Rauschenberg painting

“Dance In America” is a short story by Lorrie Moore and can be found in the collection Birds Of America, published in 1998. Find it also in The Collected Short Stories. “Dance In America” first appeared in The New Yorker in 1993.

Louise Erdrich reads Lorrie Moores short story “Dance in America” and discusses Moore with The New Yorker’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman.

This story may get you thinking about big ideas such as:

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The Illustrations of Charles Keeping

Charles Keeping (1924 – 1988) is one of my favourite 20th century illustrators. He rose to prominence by illustrating Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novels for children.

 I have always had a strong feeling that Charles was a true genius… it is my belief that he came to maturity very slowly (not in terms of technique, at which he was a master from his earliest days) but from the point of view of his self-confidence as an artist. … he was all the time growing and developing as a man whose whole life, heart and mind, was dedicated to exploring the human situation in a universe that he found both beautiful and terrifying.

Mabel George, Keeping’s editor

Charles Keeping wrote and illustrated Alfie and the Ferryboat (1968), which is now hard to get. Alfie is a young boy who lives in Woolwich on the River Thames. The boy is friendswith a sailor called ‘Old Bunty’. The boy also has a dog. Alfie’s mission is to find Old Bunty. He ends up on the Woolwich Ferry which functions as a fantasy portal, taking him to ‘the other side of the world’.

The illustrations for Alfie and the Ferryboat were highly experimental at the time and still wonderful.


Factory Art

A visitor from the international specialist and cultural history exhibition for the butchers’ trade in Hamburg sent this postcard to loved ones at home in 1907. The perfecting of the assembly line production, however, met with mixed feedback: The American author Upton Sinclair describes in his novel “The Jungle” (“The Jungle”, 1906) the daily work in the slaughterhouses of Chicago – a gloomy vision of the dehumanization industry
Poster designed by Pushwagner for Parsons Spaghetti Factory, London, 1971
Poster designed by Pushwagner for Parsons Spaghetti Factory, London, 1971
1950 Stevan Dohanos
1950 Stevan Dohanos
American illustrator Herbert Paus, 1880-1946, for the Popular Science magazine in the late 1920s
American illustrator Herbert Paus, 1880-1946, for the Popular Science magazine in the late 1920s
Louis Haghe - The Great Exhibition - Moving Machinery 1851
Louis Haghe – The Great Exhibition – Moving Machinery 1851

Defamiliarisation and the Estrangement Effect in Literature

The Mystery of the Strange Messages


[Defamiliarisation is] taking something and trying to see it anew and then noticing what you might not have seen before.

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen

To defamiliarise is to make the familiar seem unfamiliar. Defamiliarisation is one of the writing techniques in the Modernist’s toolkit. By presenting something as unfamiliar to an audience, storytellers and artists require the audience to look at it afresh. Defamiliarisation challenges the audience.

It is the function of art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.

Anais Nin (1968)

The term “defemiliarisation” was coined by Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky in his essay “Art as Device” (1917). He called it “ostranenie“, which may also translate to “making it strange”.



Storytellers sometimes write in everyday prose, but at the other end of the spectrum we have highly poetic language. Highly poetic language defamiliarises.

‘Multivocality’ is another language related defamiliarisation technique. When a single work contains a multitude of ‘voices’ (dialects, idiolects, familects etc.).

The more foreign the language, the more defamilising it’ll be. (Peak ‘foreign’ is when the storyteller uses actual foreign language.)


Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (1877) was written it in the last years of Sewell’s life ‘to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses’. The story is written from the horse’s first ‘person’ point of view. In fact, Black Beauty was the last of the great first person narratives in the Listen-to-my-life series. Readers were used to reading about horses from the point of view of humans — by imagining what it’s like to be a horse, Sewell successfully defamiliarised her readership. The book Black Beauty laid the foundation for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

This form of defamiliarisation is not limited to children’s books; Tolstoy also wrote a book from the point of view of a horse (Kholstomer).

Sticking to horses for a minute, BoJack Horseman says a lot of new things about contemporary life (depression, asexuality and so on) by making use of a horse as main character, surrounded by other animal characters. There are many reasons storytellers make use of animals instead of humans in stories, and can seem odd when the ‘animals’ are 100% anthropomorophised (animal only in form).

Defamiliarisation is one reason a storyteller may choose animals as main characters.

Futurama makes use of aliens to defamiliarise.

Some stories focus on the ‘oddballs’ of society — social outcasts who enable the Normals to see their unquestioned customs from a new/satirical point of view. Eleanor Oliphant is an excellent example. A similar but Japanese example is the main character of Convenience Store Woman. These two characters see the world differently than most. They are the sort of people many would shun in real life. But the novels require us to empathise with them, and as we better understand their worldview, perhaps we become more tolerant of difference ourselves. The other useful function of the oddball main character: We see the ridiculousness of everyday life.

TV and film offers less opportunity for interiority than the written word, but the character of Doc Martin is another example of the defamiliarised oddball, shining a light on human foibles as they commonly emerge at the local doctor’s surgery.


Setting, likewise, exists on a continuum between realistic and total fantasy. Fantasy exists partly to defamiliarise our own environments, requiring us to critique what we had previously taken for granted. In this way, fantasy is really about the real world.

Another major defemiliarisation technique: Don’t let the audience forget they are watching fiction. Don’t encourage them to become fully absorbed in the story. We have a word for this: metafiction.


Carnivalization‘ is a means to achieve a distance from cruel aspects of reality.

An example of ‘carnivalization’ common in fiction for younger readers is use of allegorical names for people and places, which would never occur in real life, but which say something meaningful about the story at hand. (Gogol and Evelyn Waugh do this also.)

An example of an author for adult readers who has perfected the use of carnivalization is Franz Kafka. The technique is strangely accepted in the work of Kafka, but is often questioned by critics when the same thing appears in children’s books. (The children! The children! Won’t somebody think of the children!)


There are various ways storytellers can juxtapose.

Bathos is one kind of juxtaposition:

Bathos is a story-telling technique that follows serious ideas with the commonplace or ludicrous. The juxtaposition of these ideas creates humor.

TV Tropes

Here’s a fairly complete list of them.


Based on the Viktor Shklovsky’s ideas about defamliarisation, you’ll hear some similar terms.

Not surprising, perhaps, German language has a word which means “making strange something that is known or familiar”: Verfremdung.

Verfremdungseffekt = Estrangement effect.

This German term was coined by German playwright Bertolt Brecht and defined later by Gerhard P. Knapp, University of Utah in the article Verfremdungseffekt (2006). Knapp’s paper helped the word catch on.

Some people translate Verfremdungseffekt into English as “alienation effect”. “Alienation” isn’t a great translation due to its connotation of being “put off”. Storytellers who make use of these effects are not aiming to put audiences off. (What storyteller wants to do that?) Instead they are aiming to get audiences thinking critically about the work.

Since the original German is a bit of a challenge to remember and spell, many shorten it to “V-effekt”. As you can see, it’s a fairly recent term. Before 2006, English speakers used a different translation — in 1964 John Willett translated Bertolt Brecht’s term as “distancing effect”. Both “estrangement effect” and “distancing effect” are different translations of the same German word.

But what is it, and how is it different from Viktor Shklovsky notion of defamiliarisation?

Verfremdungseffekt” is used to describe storytelling techniques which deliberately ask an audience discard the idea that the ‘reality’ of the stage is a true representation of reality.

These days, plays and film have different basic functions: Plays make use of all sorts of distancing techniques, whereas the proximity of the camera to character, combined with editing techniques, means modern film is better suited than the stage to creating immersive verisimilitude.

Basically, V-effekts refers to the techniques which make a fictional work meta. V-effekts include:

  • breaking the fourth wall by having a character talk directly to an audience
  • reminding a theatre-goer that they are sitting in a theatre, perhaps by using minimal backdrops
  • stories within stories (moving through diegetic levels)
  • prologues

The point of metafiction and the V-effekts which create it: Audiences are not meant to feel overwhelmingly emotionally invested in the story. Rather, we are meant to sit at a distance and consider the moral questions/dilemmas/politics/ideologies of the story in a more intellectual way.


Bertolt Brecht was a little suspicious about stories (specifically plays) which drew their audience in and made them feel things deeply. He considered such plays manipulative. He felt that if an audience was sucked in to a story, this lulled them into a dull, unthinking, zombie-like state. This state could switch off the critical faculties.

Brecht (1898 – 1956) had good reason to think people needed to switch on their critical faculties and keep them switched on. He lived in a time which required Germans to either go with or actively resist Nazism. Too many failed to resist. Brecht saw how emotion (e.g. fear) can be dangerously contagious. Also, someone who strongly empathises emotionally is not necessarily good in understanding another’s perspective. (They’re too busy feeling and don’t have the spoons to understand.)

It’s useful to make a distinction between types of empathy. Brecht wanted his audiences to feel cognitive empathy for his characters, but not necessarily affective empathy: He wanted audiences to understand the plight of characters, but not to feel their plights deeply.

  1. ‘Manipulative’ has negative connotations. Is it ‘manipulative’ for a work of fiction to create real emotion in an audience?
  2. Can you think of examples of stories which made you feel deeply and also made you think about real world issues?
  3. Think about your favourite stories. Do they make use of V-effekts? Or do you prefer stories which aim to immerse you fully inside a fictional world?
  4. Can you think of any fully immersive stories which succeed in conveying a hugely problematic ideology, made worse by the very fact that the stories themselves are so good?
  5. As much as Brecht despised fully immersive stories, he tried his darndest to write an intellectually engaging play in Mother Courage and Her Children. Audiences loved the play, but Brecht accidentally created a highly empathetic character in the stubborn old woman. Is it even possible to write a good story without requiring the audience to immerse themselves in it, and align themselves with the fictional characters?


The modern writerly ideal of full immersion is exemplified in the definition of fictional dream, below:

Fictional dream. The illusion that there is no filter between reader and events, that the reader is actually experiencing what [they are] reading. The stronger the fictional dream, the more immediate the story. Disrupting the fictional dream is usually bad. Pointless digressions, expository lumps, lists, turgid prose, unrealistic characters, or a premise with holes in it, all disrupt the fictional dream. (John Gardner)

A Glossary of Terms Useful When Critiquing Science Fiction