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What is Formalist criticism?

A formalist approach studies a text as only a text, considering its features—for example, rhymes, cadences, literary devices—in an isolated way, not attempting to apply their own say as to what the text means. In general, formalists are focused on the facts of a text, because they want to study the text, not what others say about it. 


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Formalist literary criticism focuses on the text as the major artifact worthy of study rather than, say, the author him or herself, the historical time period during which the text was written, how the text responds to gender roles or class concerns during the period, or anything else that exists outside of the text's world itself. It is a mode of criticism that came about in response to the more author-centered focus that dominated the literary world prior to the twentieth century.

One noted French literary critic, Roland Barthes, actually wrote an essay called "The Death of the Author" in 1967 in which he advocated for a complete rejection of the author as a way into a text's meaning. He argued that the text must be separated from its author and studied on its own terms in order to free it from the one interpretation its author might have intended and open it up to the possibility of having multiple interpretations that are more dependent on the reader than the writer—perhaps even ones that the author never considered him or herself.

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In the field of literary criticism, a formalist approach is one that studies a text as a text and nothing more. For example, a formalist reading of a poem would focus on its rhythms, rhymes, cadences, and structure. It would not seek to locate the poem in a wider political or cultural context except insofar as it helped to improve the reader's understanding of the text itself.

Critics of formalism argue that it looks upon the text as an isolated artifact to be kept in a glass case and treated with hushed, unthinking reverence. The text is a living, breathing thing, critics say, and its meaning shifts over time. It is unfixed and subject to multiple interpretations, none of which can provide finality. On this account, a text is a process and not a thing; it is dynamic and not set in stone.

Advocates of formalism would counter that cultural, historical, and...

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