In a famous essay about short stories, Edgar Allen Poe wrote that the genre affords a reading in one sitting, and so we can give our full concentration to the story. Not unlike the best sermons, we enter the world of the storyteller and emerge profoundly changed. When reading a great short story, I am riveted in my chair, my gaze glued to the page. Anton Chekhov is one writer who evokes such a response.
Literary scholars have defined a crucial element in Chekhov’s stories by the Russian word, ostranenie. This term means “defamiliarization” or more colloquially “make it strange.” Chekhov offers little windows into life, often about ordinary people and commonplace events, yet somehow they are “made strange” by an unusual perspective.
One example of ostranenie is found in a story called “Grisha” about a boy of the same name. At two years and eight months, this little guy is led by his nanny into the crowded city market for the first time. Chekhov narrates normal activities, such as merchants selling produce and people dining in restaurants; and yet, these sights and sounds and smells are all completely new to the child. We see the world through his eyes and the things we take for granted are suddenly full of wonder and awe.
The saga of the Gospel of John in chapter twenty-one is another example of ostranenie. On the surface, we read descriptions of ordinary things: fishing trips and cookouts. But details are added that make the account strange. Why did Simon Peter put on clothes before jumping into the sea (John 21:7)? Why are we told that there were exactly one hundred and fifty-three fish in the net (John 21:11)? Speculation abounds across the centuries. Augustine once observed that the numbers one through seventeen add up to 153, but he neglected to explain the significance of this fact. Raymond Brown, a twentieth century scholar, suggests that the exactness is intended to substantiate the accuracy of the eyewitness (see John 21:24).
I think the point, however, relates to the reader. Chekhov knew that making details strange would enable his readers to remember his stories. I have been in countless outdoor markets in cities across the world; yet Grisha’s experience sticks out in my mind. The skill of Chekhov makes an ordinary situation extraordinary: the strange details encourage my imagination to shift from the details of the surroundings to the interior thoughts of the characters.
I think this is the case with the Gospel of John. Why did Peter put on clothes before jumping into the sea? What if he was so amazed at the sight of the risen Lord that he didn’t know what to do? If getting dressed before going swimming seems counterintuitive, just try to imagine how mind-blowing it would be to see Jesus, once hanging on the cross, now standing on the shore.
What is the significance of 153 fish? Well, if this number sticks in your mind because it seems so specific, maybe you will more easily recall the miraculous catch (John 21:6). Maybe you’ll even begin to notice the significance of seemingly minor details in your life; perhaps they, too, reflect the strange way of God in our world.