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ETI 309-Introduction to Contemporary Western Literature. Literary Theory I: Formalism and Structuralism. What is Literary Theory?.

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Eti 309 introduction to contemporary western literature

ETI 309-Introduction to Contemporary Western Literature

Literary Theory I:

Formalism and Structuralism

What is literary theory
What is Literary Theory?

  • The body of ideas and methods used in the practical reading of literature; a description of the underlying principles (the tools) by which we attempt to understand literature

  • Literary theory

    • formulates the relationship between author and work

    • develops the significance of race, class, and gender for literary study, both from the standpoint of the biography of the author and an analysis of their thematic presence within texts

    • offers varying approaches for understanding the role of historical context in interpretation as well as the relevance of the linguistic and unconscious elements of the text

Literary theory
Literary Theory

  • Literary (also designated as critical, or cultural) theory can be understood as the set of concepts and intellectual assumptions on which rests the work of explaining or interpreting literary texts

  • It refers to any principles derived from internal analysis of literary texts

  • Modern literary theory began to emerge gradually in Europe in the 19th century

Traditional literary criticism
Traditional Literary Criticism

  • Traditional literary criticism tended to track influence, establish the canon of major writers in the literary periods, and clarify historical contexts and allusions within the text.

  • Literary biography was, and it still is, an important interpretive method.

  • The key unifying feature of traditional literary criticism was the consensus within the academy as to the both literary canon and the aims and purposes of literature.

  • What literature is, why we read literature and what we read were questions that subsequent movement in literary theory were to raise.

Russian formalism
Russian Formalism

  • An interpretive approach that emerged in Russia during WWI and spread to Europe after WWII

  • A group of Russian linguists and critics argued that everything from rhyme patterns in poetry to narrative strategies in fiction should be the primary concern of literary study

  • The Formalists claimed that study of literature should have a scientific basis through objective analysis of the motifs, devices, techniques and other ‘functions’ that comprise the literary work

Russian formalism1
Russian Formalism

  • The Formalists placed great importance on the literariness of texts (qualities that distinguished the literary from other kinds of writing)

  • Neither author nor context was essential for the Formalists; it was the entire narrative that spoke, and form was an essential component of the content

  • The approach, which emphasizes literary form and the study of literary devices within the text, shares some similarities with Anglo-American New Criticism and French Structuralism

Russian formalism2
Russian Formalism

  • Formalist theory may be roughly divided into two areas of inquiry:

    • Semiotic, seeing the text as a series of strategies and devices intended to defamiliarize the reader’s approach to literature

    • Mimesis, investigating the laws of literary evolution

  • Formalist analysis of literary texts is often a close and detailed examination of such features as specific tropes of language, or metrical patterns

Russian formalism3
Russian Formalism

  • The Formalist method of reading is concerned with

    • describing the procedures and techniques of a literary work (e.g. narration and plot construction in fiction or the use of rhyme, rhythm, euphony, and alliteration in poetry)

    • being alert to how texts disrupt our expectations by using language in new ways

  • Three important formalistic contributions to Literary Studies:

    • The belief in a distinction between poetic language and ordinary language,

    • The importance of defamiliarization, a concept which has not yet outlived its usefulness,

    • The distinction between fabula and sjužet.


  • How does the work use imagery to develop its own symbols? (i.e. making a certain road stand for death by constant association)

  • What is the quality of the work's organic unity "...the working together of all the parts to make an inseparable whole..." ? (i.e. does how the work is put together reflect what it is?)

  • How are the various parts of the work interconnected?

  • How do paradox, irony, ambiguity, and tension work in the text?

  • How do these parts and their collective whole contribute to or not contribute to the aesthetic quality of the work?

  • What does the form of the work say about its content?

  • Is there a central or focal passage that can be said to sum up the entirety of the work?

  • How do the rhythms and/or rhyme schemes of a poem contribute to the meaning or effect of the piece?


  • An intellectual movement which began in France in the 1950’s, and imported to England in the 1970’s, attaining widespread influence

  • Its essence is the belief that things could not be understood in isolation—they have to be seen in the context of the larger structures they are a part of

  • It initially relied on the ideas of Saussure who regarded the signifier (words, marks, symbols) as arbitrary and unrelated to the concept, the sign


  • Saussure’s main interest was how language actually worked; he saw language as a system of signs which are arbitrary, after which they become conventions (Dr. Seuss-nerd)

  • Meaning is not a kind of core or essence inside things; rather, meaning is always outside

  • Meanings are attributed to things by the human mind, not contained within them (think of the link between the word “bread” and what it refers to)

  • According to Saussure, the whole system of language is based on minimal differences (e.g. way, pay, hay, day, say, lay, ray) and as such, form and meaning cannot be separated


  • Signs (e.g. tree, love, table, child) all refer to concepts—not unrelated to the real world, but clearly the product of generalization and abstraction

    • If we did have the word “horse” but not the word “pony” would we still see ponies as ponies or would we see them as horses much like all other horses because our language does not offer us an alternative?

    • If so, we can say that language precedes thought and constitutes the framework within which thought must necesssarily operate, which then might mean that our reality is, in fact, constituted by language.


  • shed hut house mension palace

  • Compare the following terms

    • freedomfighter—terrorist

    • poll tax—community charge

    • seven colors of the spectrum

    • four seasons

      **Meaning is arbitrary and relational; language constitutes reality


  • In literary theory, structuralism is an approach to analyzing the narrative material by examining the underlying invariant structure, which is based on the linguistic sign system.

  • It focuses on the conditions that make meaning possible, rather than the meaning itself.

  • Literary structuralism seeks out basic deep elements in stories and myths, which are combined in various ways to produce the many different versions (e.g Romeo and Juliet; West Side Story).


  • How should the text be classified in terms of its genre? (i.e. what patterns exist within the text that make it a part of other works like it?)

  • Analyze the text's narrative operations...Can you speculate about the relationship between the text and the culture from which the text emerged? (i.e. what patterns exist within the text that make it a product of a larger culture?)

  • What patterns exist within the text that connect it to the larger "human" experience? (i.e. can we connect patterns and elements within the text to other texts from other cultures to map similarities that tell us more about the common human experience?--This is a liberal humanist move that assumes that since we are all human, we all share basic human commonalities)

  • What are the semiotics of a given category of cultural phenomena, or 'text,' such as high-school football games, television and/or magazine ads for a particular brand of perfume...or even media coverage of an historical event?