Literary Criticism

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What is formalist criticism?

A formalist approach studies a text as only a text, considering its features, such as rhymes, cadences, and literary devices, in an isolated way, not attempting to apply their own opinion 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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Formalism, as the name implies, deals with the form of the text. That is, formalists view literary language as distinct from other forms of language, and concern themselves with studying the verbal qualities of the text independent of external psychological or historical factors. This may sound similar to New Criticism, which also taught that the text itself should be the primary object of study, but formalism predates New Criticism and has a different set of assumptions.

These "formal" qualities include everything that marks a text as "literary"—diction, style, plot, and so on—but also more fundamental qualities, such as the narrative voice and intentionality, the problem of narrative chronology, and other problems of verbal representation. In this sense, formalism is more explicitly "linguistic" than New Criticism, which is primarily concerned with aesthetic effects, whereas formalism is more concerned with investigating the ways in which language creates these effects.

Some examples of formalist approaches to literature can be found in Vladmir Propp's "Morphology of the Russian Folktale," which broke the folktale into discrete components which could be used to construct a kind of "grammar" or syntax common to all folk tales. Mikhail Bahktin's study of Rabelais ("Rabelais and his World") introduces the notion of "carnival" as a metaphor for describing the interrelations of discrete discourses or "voices" within a text. Roland Barthes' "S/Z" reduces the text of a Balzac short story to a series of "codes" that contain or produce the literary meaning of the work.

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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 political interpretations of texts are all very well, but once we have stripped away all the outer layers of textual interpretation, the text in its original incarnation still remains with all its formal elements in place. Any approach that ignores these elements is likely to miss what is most vital and most important about a text. Then, literary criticism becomes the study of what critics say about a text rather than the text itself. Different interpretations are perfectly valid—indeed, the whole critical enterprise would be impossible without them—but according to formalists, such interpretations exist to clarify and explain what is already there in the text instead of replacing it altogether.

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Formalist criticism is one way that a reader can approach his understanding of a text.  When a reader looks at a poem, play, story or novel from a formalist perspective, he is looking solely at the work as something to be dissected, so he looks for all of the literary techniques and devices that an author uses to create the text and its meaning.  He does NOT look at the author's life, he does NOT consider the text from a historical or psychological perspective; he does NOT consider how this text is like other texts -- those are all other modes of literary criticism.

Think of "Twinkle Twinkle" as an example.  With formalist criticism the reader would notice the repetition of the word twinkle and consider connotation and denotation of the word.  It would notice the first person speaker of the poem.  He would note the use of simile in the 4th line (like a diamond in the sky). He would note the refrain of the first two lines in lines 5 and 6, and he would mark the meter and the ryhme scheme.  Once the poem was literarily dissected, then the reader can consider how those elements work together to create the meaning of the poem as a whole. 

You can read more about this mode of criticism at the site listed below.

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