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Structuralism Literary Theory

Structuralism is a way of understanding culture and meaning in the arts by relating the individual piece of art (a novel, a painting, a symphony) to something larger. In Structuralist theory, the relationship between cultural phenomena is a web, network, or structure, which exists underneath the way we think and act, and produce art. 

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Structuralism Literary Theory

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Structuralism is a way of understanding culture and meaning in the arts by relating the individual piece of art (a novel, a painting, a symphony) to something larger. In Structuralist theory, the relationship between cultural phenomena is a web, network, or structure, which exists underneath the way we think and act, and produce art.

Structuralism is used in philosophy, history, anthropology, and literary theory.

Structuralism literary theory: writers

Structuralism comes from a branch of language study called ‘structural linguistics’. This approach was originally developed by a French linguist called Ferdinand de Saussure.

Saussure developed an approach to the study of language which saw the linguistic sign (a word) as the relationship between a ‘sound image’ (a spoken word or written word), which he called a ‘signifier’, and the concept itself, which he called the ‘signified’. This differed from earlier ways of understanding the relationship between words and things. Until Saussure, words and the things they denoted were thought to have a direct relationship.

The word 'tree' denoted a physical tree in the real world. So the word 'tree' meant 'an actual, physical tree'. Saussure realised that this is not how language works. Instead, the word/sound ‘tree’ represents a mental image (or concept) of a tree rather than a real tree. This is because language (and the concepts it uses) is a property of the mind. As such, language allows us to understand and interpret the world through a system of signs (words+concept).

Rene Magritte illustrated this in his painting This is Not a Pipe (1929), 'Ceci n’est pas une pipe'. The point Magritte is making is that a painting of a pipe is not really a pipe. It is a representation of a pipe only. In a similar way, a pipe (like the one in the painting ) exists in the mind when we use the word 'pipe'. When we hear the word ‘pipe’ we imagine a pipe. The pipe is a mental image of a real pipe.

After Saussure’s work, others took up the idea in their own fields, most notably Claude Levi-Strauss, another Frenchman, in the field of anthropology. Other important names in Structuralism include Emile Durkheim in sociology and Jacques Lacan in psychoanalysis. Structuralism became more and more important and influential in the 1960s. Why did it become so popular? Partly because it seemed to offer one approach which could be applied universally across academic disciplines. After World War Two and the rise of Nazism, a unifying approach was an attractive idea.

Structuralism literary theory and criticism

Because linguistics and literary theory are closely related, the ideas proposed in linguistics by Saussure were easily adapted to the study of literature. When a literary text is studied using Structuralism, the text is connected to a wider ‘structure’. This might include the kind of literature the text is part of (its genre), or the universal ways stories are told around the world.

In this case, the structuralist mines the text for certain common themes or patterns. The idea here is that human consciousness has universal features, and it is the job of the literary critic to find them and explain them. Any literary text can be reduced to its basic parts. Once that is done, the text can be compared to other stories with a similar narrative structure.

For example, ‘Boy meets girl. Girl finds herself in danger of some kind. Boy rescues girl’. This is a common story in books and films. No matter what style of writing this narrative structure is found in (an epic poem, a novel, a play), the basic parts of the story are the same. It’s a classic hero+tension+resolution kind of story.

So a novel or a poem, or a painting, gives information about something much deeper (the underlying structure of consciousness).

Structuralists believe that the underlying structures which organise rules and units into meaningful systems are generated by the human mind itself and not by sense perception.¹

This means that our minds manage information so that it becomes meaningful. It is the mind itself which makes meaning out of the world around us.

Structuralism literary theory examples

Structuralism uses some basic questions to interpret literary texts:

1. Are there any patterns in text A which are similar to patterns in text B? Structuralism is interested in similarities between texts.

2. Are there any opposites in the text which are set against each other? In Structuralism, opposites are called ‘binary oppositions’, such as good/evil, light/dark, tall/short etc.

In his book Literary Theory (1983), Terry Eagleton says that Structuralism represents a ‘remorseless demystification of literature’.² This means that when Structuralism is applied to a literary text, it strips the text of its aesthetic form and subjective meaning and reduces it to its bare essentials. All that is left is the underlying structure.

Eagleton writes:

… the literary work, like any other product of language, is a construct, whose mechanisms could be classified and analysed like the objects of any other science.2

As such, Structuralism is explicitly anti-individual and to a certain extent, anti-artist. It is not interested in individuality or artistic creativity in and of itself, nor as a unique manifestation of an author's personality. It is only interested in the underlying and shared structures of consciousness found in the work of art or literature. It is a unifying approach. But as it unifies, it also obliterates. This idea is found in a famous essay by Roland Barthes called 'The Death of the Author' (1977).

Take a popular example: Romeo and Juliet (published in 1597). The story is beautifully written, of course. The language is memorable, and productions are put on all over the world. But stripped down to its bare essentials, the story is simple: ‘Boy meets girl. They fall in love. They kill themselves.’ There is also a parallel plot: ‘a conflict between two families’. The two levels of the plot are interrelated and affect each other during the course of the play. The Prologue provides the ‘structure' of the whole:

Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. From forth the fatal loins of these two foes A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life; Whose misadventured piteous overthrows Do with their death bury their parents' strife. The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love, And the continuance of their parents' rage, Which, but their children's end, nought could remove, Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage; The which if you with patient ears attend, What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

A structuralist interpretation focuses on the overall plot and the binary oppositions in the play. In Romeo and Juliet, the main binary opposition is love/hate; it is found throughout the play in the opposition between Romeo and Juliet’s love for each other, compared to the hatred that the two families have for each other.

Main characteristics of Structuralism literary theory

The main characteristics of Structuralism in literary theory are as follows:

1. A focus on the underlying structure of a literary text.

2. The meaning of a text is in the inter-relationship of its parts.

3. Binary oppositions are key to understanding a text.

4. The individuality and personality of the author are unimportant. What matters are the deep structures.

5. Literary texts are constructs. Meaning does not come from inside the text. Instead, meaning comes from the relationship of each part of the text with other parts.

Structuralism - Key takeaways

  • Structuralism is a way of understanding culture and meaning in the arts by relating the individual piece of art (a novel, a painting, a symphony) to something larger.
  • Structuralism comes from a branch of language study called ‘structural linguistics’.
  • Structuralism is explicitly anti-individual.
  • Structuralism is about a shared structure of meaning.
  • Binary oppositions are key to understanding a text.

References

  1. Nasrullah Mambrol, Structuralism, literariness.org, 2016
  2. Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory, 1983, 106

Frequently Asked Questions about Structuralism Literary Theory

Structuralism is about looking for the underlying structure in a literary text. It's an approach which comes from linguistics and semiology. 

Structuralism looks for patterns. One important pattern is known as binary oppositions. These are opposites, like light/dark, male/female, and good/evil. 

The main idea of Structuralism is that art has a unifying structure. 

The main thinkers in Structuralism are Ferdinand de Saussure, Claude Levi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan, and Emile Durkheim.  

Ferdinand de Saussure.

More about Structuralism Literary Theory

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