Formalistic Approach

What is the Formalistic Approach?

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davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Formalism, in all its various manifestations, looks to a text as precisely that: a text. Not as a cultural artifact, nor a piece of autobiography, nor an expression of one's cultural, ethnic, or racial identity— a text. A piece of written work which should be approached entirely on its own terms. When we read a poem we examine the technical elements that make it recognizable as a poem: cadences, rhyme, structure, meter, and so on. Outside elements such as the cultural context in which the text was written can indeed be used, but never as an end in themselves but only as a means to illuminate the work as a structural whole.

The main advantage of the formalist approach is that it allows us to cut away some of the myriad accretions which have attached themselves to written texts in recent years. For formalists, the meaning of the text lies within and must be patiently teased out by close reading and in-depth textual analysis. Outside interpretations can be of use, but all too often they serve to confuse and mystify, providing us with a bewildering array of competing perspectives that tell us more about those who hold them and the baggage they bring to the interpretive task than they do about the actual piece of work itself.

Yet for critics, the formalist approach is at best naive and at worst exclusionary in that it ignores marginalized voices and prevents them from bringing their unique standpoint (be it related to gender, race, or culture) to bear upon the work and providing new insights. A formalized text is a dead letter ensconced in a glass case. Its decontextualized nature prevents it from living and breathing, from gaining a new and vigorous life in an ever-changing society. Formalism seeks to privilege a specific reading, one that is closely allied with the hegemony of Western culture.

Neither approach can, by itself, provide us with a wholly adequate picture. For its part, formalism can appear too restrictive and too prescriptive in what counts as meaningful interpretation. That said, it serves a valuable purpose in taking us back to the text itself, and forcing us to re-examine the importance (if not necessarily the all-embracing self-sufficiency) of its structural elements.


thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The term "formalism" when applied to literary criticism refers to several different types of 20th century literary criticism. The first group of critics referred to as "formalists" were the New Critics, a movement that had two sources. The first form or New Criticism was practiced by poets such as Tate, Ransom, Eliot and Pound. These were distinguished poets who in their study of literary works were interested in the technical qualities of literary works, reading with a practitioner's eye to detail. Their successors, such as Wimsatt, often teaching returning WW II veterans who were less well-prepared than a previous generation of students, focused on "close reading" as a pedagogical technique. Another group, including Richards and the Chicago School were neo-Aristotelians, concerned with the relationship of poetics to rhetoric. Finally, the structuralists were interested in applying the techniques of linguistics to literary study. Historicist critics tend to lump all of these groups together as "formalists", and even apply the term formalist to deconstructionists (Derrida and his epigones) because despite their differences they all share in a decontextualized approach to criticism.

filips | Student

The formalistic approach is a way of looking at a literary work regardless of generally established terms such as: the name of the author, the author's background, or any biographical detail. This approach expanded after 1930 especially with English and American critics, who therefore are called formalists.

This critical approach interprets the inherent features such as :syntax, grammar and literary devices (tropes). It focuses on : language,form, structure,organization and multiple meanings.

Thus the reader is invited to look closely at the literary work (especially short prose and poetry) for what it is, for the connotative and denotative value of the words, not at the outside aspects related to who and why wrote it.

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