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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2145

Article abstract: Todorov, a structuralist critic of literature and poetry, turned his talents toward analysis of human behavior during the Holocaust of World War II, examining the virtues that inspired heroic conduct and the forces that produced horrific evil in the concentration camps.

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Early Life

Tzvetan Todorov was born on March 1, 1939, in Sofia, Bulgaria, to Todor Borov Todorov, a university professor, and the former Haritina Todorova, a librarian. After taking his M.A. in philology at the University of Sofia in 1963, he emigrated to France and enrolled at the University of Paris. Roland Barthes directed his doctoral thesis, which was published in 1967 as Littérature et signification (literature and meaning). Todorov took his doctorat de troisième cycle (equivalent to the Ph.D.) in 1966 and his doctorat ès lettres in 1970. He was appointed to his post as a director of research at the French Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique in 1968. In 1970, he helped to found the journal Poétique, of which he remained one of the managing editors until 1979. With Gérard Genette, he edited the Collection Poétique, the series of books on literary theory published by Éditions de Seuil, until 1987.

Life’s Work

Although his work is clear, systematic, and analytically rigorous, Todorov’s theoretical stance shifted radically over the years from that of a “scientist” to that of a “humanist” and “moralist.” He also moved from a consideration of only literature to a wider evaluation of social reality and morality. His early work, beginning with Littérature et signification, the published version of his 1967 doctoral thesis, to the late 1970’s, most clearly aspired to being scientific. During that period, Todorov was the most representative of the French structuralist literary theoreticians. His reputation as a moral philosopher stemmed largely from his later works, including Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps.

Todorov frequently discussed the opposition between “poetics,” the study of the general laws of literature, and what he variously called “description,” “interpretation,” “commentary,” “criticism,” and “exegesis”—the study, from various perspectives, of the individual literary work. While Todorov recognized the value of these activities, he, like most of the French structuralists, was primarily a poetician rather than an exegete.

Todorov observed that one sense of “structuralism” is “the study of abstract structure.” Poetics is by definition structuralist in this broad sense because the object of poetics is an abstract structure, the general laws of literature. Yet his work was also structuralist in a narrower sense. In Literature and Its Theorists, he said that Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957) is structuralist in that it combines two traits: an “internal approach to literature” and a “systematic attitude.” In The Fantastic, however, he judged Frye’s theory to be insufficiently “internal” and “systematic” because the categories that make up Frye’s classificatory scheme were all “borrowed … from philosophy, psychology, or a social ethic.” Because Frye did not indicate that he used these categories in special literary senses, “they lead us outside of literature.” Thus, to take an “internal” approach to literature in Todorov’s sense is to try to understand literature as constituted by its own categories and the relations between those categories.

What most clearly distinguishes Todorov’s work from other internal, systematic theories of literature is its heavy reliance on structural linguistics and on semiotics as sources for the basic categories in terms of which it describes the systems of literature. Although French structuralist poeticians generally agree that their adoption of linguistic categories is authorized to some extent by the fact that language and literature are both sign-systems, they disagree among themselves about just how intimate the relationship between language and literature is. Todorov, however, hypothesized rigorous homologies between language and literature; in The Poetics of Prose, he quoted with provisional approval poet Paul Valéry’s dictum: “Literature is, and can be nothing other than, a sort of extension and application of certain properties of language.” In Grammaire du Décaméron, an examination of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron: O, Prencipe Galetto (1349-1351; The Decameron, 1620), he adopted the “methodological hypothesis” of a kind of deep-structural identity between language and literature: Underlying all sign-systems is a “universal grammar,” which is also universal in the sense that “it coincides with the structure of the universe itself.”

Todorov devoted a great deal of attention to the theory of genre. In The Fantastic, his most extended discussion of genre, he considered a given genre as a system of interrelated features. According to Todorov, texts belonging to the historical genre of the “fantastic” have three basic features. The first is verbal: The “implicit reader,” whose perception, unlike that of the actual reader, “is inscribed in the text with the same precision as the movements of the characters,” must hesitate between the natural and supernatural explanations of a narrated event. The second feature is both syntactic and, because it results in the thematization of the fantastic hesitation, semantic: A central character may also (although not necessarily) experience the fantastic hesitation, thus helping to promote the first feature by providing a model within the story for the implicit reader’s hesitation. The third feature “transcends” the three aspects of literature, being a requirement for a particular “mode” of reading: The fantastic text must “refuse an allegorical or ‘poetic’ interpretation” because both of these modes of reading interfere with the evocation of the fiction, and the first, defining feature of the fantastic is precisely the implicit reader’s attitude toward the fiction.

Todorov generalized his notion of genre to include all forms of discourse established by social convention. “Scientific discourse,” for example, displays certain relatively constant “generic” traits, including the exclusion of “reference to the first and second persons of the verb, as well as the use of other tenses than the present.” This development is in part a consequence of Todorov’s questioning the possibility of distinguishing between “literature” and “nonliterature” on the basis of purely structural, internal features.

By 1973, Todorov had decided that there probably is no structural trait or group of traits that is possessed by every instance of what is called literature and that is not possessed by any instance of nonliterature. If there is some greatest common denominator of what is called literature, it is not structural but “functional”; that is, literature may perhaps be distinguishable from other discourses not by what it is, but by what it does. The role of poetics has been primarily “transitional”: Because it has focused on the most “opaque” discourses, it has sharpened its audience’s awareness of discourse as such; all the “genres of discourse” should now be given the careful attention that has hitherto been accorded to literature.

Todorov’s rejection of the idea of an essential opposition between literature and nonliterature seems to align him with poststructuralism. Yet Todorov never denied the value of structuralism; he only denied that by itself it can account for every important dimension of literature. Moreover, his ideas about the way language works put him into clear opposition to what Robert Scholes, in Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English (1985), calls “hermetic interpretation,” the current of poststructuralism that “sees texts as radically self-reflective and non-referential.” For example, the grounding premise of Todorov’s analysis of indirect verbal signification, Symbolism and Interpretation, that there is an essential difference between the way one arrives at the “direct,” or “literal” sense of a given utterance and the way one arrives at its “indirect,” or “symbolic” sense, is directly contrary to deconstructive thought about language, as Todorov recognizes.

In Symbolism and Interpretation, Todorov analyzed two different interpretive strategies in detail: “biblical exegesis,” which is a form of what he calls “finalist” interpretation, interpretation that takes the content of the text to be interpreted as a given (the given content of biblical exegesis was Christian dogma) and that sees its primary task as showing how one may get from the text to the given truth; and “philological exegesis,” which is a form of what he calls “operational” interpretation, interpretation that takes the ways of getting from a text to its meaning as a given and that sees its task as restricted to determining that meaning, without asking whether it is “true.” What most strikingly distinguishes Todorov’s work in this area, both from poststructuralism and from his own earlier structuralism, is his rejection of a purely “operational” interpretive strategy, one that renounces any consideration of questions of “truth.”

Todorov saw that in rejecting operational “relativism,” one risks lapsing into a finalist dogmatism; in Literature and Its Theorists, he explored the thought of twentieth century literary aestheticians in an attempt to find a way to “transcend” this “dichotomy.” The form that Todorov finally suggested the critical “search for truth and values” should take is partly inspired by ideas advanced by Mikhail Bakhtin. Todorov called for a “dialogic criticism”—one that does not try to deny, either by rendering the critic’s “voice as inaudible as possible” or by assuming a position of mastery with regard to the literary text, that it partakes of what Bakhtin saw as the essential “dialogism” of all discourse, its orientation toward the discourse of other subjects. Taking truth as “an ultimate horizon and a regulating idea” rather than as “given in advance,” the critic should attempt to engage in a dialogue with the author of the text he or she is studying, granting the author as far as possible full status as a speaking subject and equal partner in the exchange.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, Todorov turned his attention increasingly to questions of ethics and morality in such works as On Human Diversity (1989), The Morals of History (1991), Les Abus de la mémoire (1995; the abuses of memory), and La Vie commune (1995; the common life). One of his most influential of these later works is Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps, in which he examined the heroic virtues—strength, courage, and solidarity—that maintain humanity during the toughest times, despite the evils and morals laid bare by people’s experiences in the Nazi and Soviet concentration camps during the Holocaust of World War II.


Todorov’s greatest influence was in structuralism. A synthesizer and organizer, Todorov helped to define the program of structuralist poetics by providing it with its most coherent and comprehensive manifesto in his An Introduction to Poetics, and he helped to give structuralist poetics its most important forum, as a cofounder and coeditor of the journal Poétique. In addition, although he was not the first to attempt to formulate a grammar of narrative syntax, he did develop the structural parallel between narrative and the sentence in greater detail and with greater rigor than anyone before him.

Nevertheless, Todorov will also be remembered for his positive view of human moral behavior in the face of brutality such as that of the Holocaust. This turn toward what has been named Todorov’s “critical humanism” characterizes an important late twentieth century return to the components of moral behavior, and how moral behavior is sustained and propagated, in a century marked by increasing violence.

Additional Reading

Culler, Jonathan. Structuralist Poetics. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973. A balanced overview of structuralist criticism. Covers many of Tzvetan Todorov’s important ideas in passing, including his contributions to the structuralist concepts of character, genre, narration, plot, and theme.

Gorman, David. “Tzvetan Todorov: An Anglo-French Checklist to 1995.” Style 31, no. 4 (Winter, 1997): 702-729. A comprehensive listing of all of Todorov’s French publications through 1995 and of all of the English translations of them. Includes Todorov’s many important translations of works from Slavic languages into English.

Jefferson, Ann. “Structuralism and Post-Structuralism.” In Modern Literary Theory: A Comparative Introduction, edited by Ann Jefferson and David Robey. 2d ed. London: B. T. Batsford, 1986. Discusses Todorov’s work in the context of an overview of structuralism and narratology. Focuses on Todorov’s readings of Boccaccio’s Decameron (which she finds unsuccessful) and of the stories of Henry James (which she finds much more successful).

Marchitello, Howard, ed. Tzvetan Todorov and the Writing of History. South Central Review 15, no. 3–4 (1998): 1–104. Includes an important new essay by Todorov, “The Morality of the Historian,” and five essays by literary critics who use that essay to respond to the “critical humanism” of Todorov’s writings of the 1980’s and 1990’s. The most valuable treatment available of his recent work.

Merquior, J. G. From Prague to Paris: A Critique of Structuralist and Post-Structuralist Thought. London: Verso, 1986. Devotes a few pages to approval of Todorov’s shift toward humanism and away from “structuralitis” in the 1980’s.

Scholes, Robert. Structuralism in Literature: An Introduction. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974. Relies on Todorov’s theory of reading as the model for showing how structuralism works when applied to specific texts. Also discusses his theory of genres and his analysis of Boccaccio’s Decameron.

Bibliography updated by William Nelles

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