In terms of literature, what is the Formalist theory?

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Formalism, with is often associated with Russian literary theory of the 1920s, but also with the New Criticism being developed in Cambridge in the same period, focuses on the text (the words themselves) of a work of literature. It does not look at the biography of the author, the history...

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Formalism, with is often associated with Russian literary theory of the 1920s, but also with the New Criticism being developed in Cambridge in the same period, focuses on the text (the words themselves) of a work of literature. It does not look at the biography of the author, the history of the times in which the text was composed, or at the sources which influenced a text. These types of literary criticism, known respectively as biographical criticism, historical criticism, and source study, were believed to interfere with an encounter with the text as text.

Formalism focuses on what elements make a work literary, and what differentiates—what is added—that makes a literary text different, say, from a scientific paper. Formalists focus on language—metaphor, symbol, and so on—and such elements as ambiguity, irony, paradox, and unity within a text.

The formalist method of focusing on the text itself solved problems such as a tendency to read a work of literature too much through the life of the author—for instance, arguing that Emily Brontë "must have" had a lover to write Wuthering Heights or to get sidetracked into debates over whether Francis Bacon was Shakespeare. It also allowed students who didn't have the advantages of years and years of education in Latin and Greek, and who therefore might not immediately understand allusions in texts, to have access to literature. It was also considered a "scientific" approach to literature that offered a "methodology" at a time when science was considered all-important.

Though formalist techniques are still the backbone of how we approach literature, the idea of isolating a text from its historical context or its author has fallen out of fashion. Most literature classes try to layer on a number of different critical methods.

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Formalism is a school of literary criticism that separates a work from the influences of culture, authorship, and society or politics; that is, a work is analyzed purely on its own intrinsic worth. Along with Structuralism, Formalism emerged when science and sociology took on importance in the early part of the twentieth century. In a sense, then, the Formalist theory calls for the analysis of a work of literature's composition and structure, the mechanics of the literary work such as genre and the inherent features such as the syntactical structure and the use of literary devices such as symbol, tropes, meter, rhythm, figures of speech (especially in poetry).

In a novel such as Fitgerald's The Great Gatsby, for instance, a Formalist approach to this work would include how the author juggles time (as part of the element of setting) in the telling of the background of Jay Gatsby; it would also analyze Fitzgerald's marvelous use of symbols and imagery and the trope of recapturing the past. On the other hand, this approach would ignore the tableau of the Jazz Age that Fitzgerald so craftily presents in this novel and the portrayal of the Eastern society with its hierarchy as reflective of the historical period in which the work is set.  Also, when Fitzgerald inserts popular songs from the Jazz Age, such as "Three O'Clock in the Morning," a Formalist criticism would not include a discussion of how this song is reflective of the culture of the Roaring Twenties; instead, it may discuss how this song reflects a mood.

Statements by characters would be analyzed simply on their own merit. For instance, when Nick Carraway calls Daisy and Tom Buchanan "careless people," a Formalist criticism would analyze how the Buchanans are selfish and unfeeling toward others, not caring what happens to others:

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy--they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

However, other types of criticism would include the observation that Nick's epithet for the Buchanans also implies that they do not care what is done to others so long as they have their social position and reputation intact (societal analysis). Thus, they typify the wealthy socialites of the East that Fitzgerald himself so disliked (authorship analysis).

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