a resource for studying literary theory


FormalisimFormalism is an early twentieth century mode of criticism that has its roots in Russian Formalism or the work of linguists such as Roman Osipovich Jakobson, and a group of linguists and critics who formed the society Opuyaz or the Society for the Study of Poetical Language in 1915. This group studied the theoretical and philosophical problems involved in language and its relation to the object described, or referent. The Society wanted to organize a ‘purer’ approach to examining the text and avoid borrowing from other disciplines such as philosophy, sociology and increasingly psychology. The germs of formalism are also traceable in the ‘art for art’s sake’ theories that originated in France, and were propounded most ardently in England by Walter Pater and later Oscar Wilde. Both Pater and Wilde claimed that a work of art should be dictated by its own formula of creation, rather than extrinsic factors. Pater and Wilde’s creative approach to the study of the art-object was a response to the overwhelmingly biographical and historical literary criticism of their day.

Formalism is also known as the ‘New Criticism’. This critical approach examines a literary text or art work through its aesthetic composition such as form, language, technique and style. Formalists believe that the art-object can be isolated from social, cultural and historical influences and examined as an autonomous whole. Proponents of formal analysis believe that universal statements or laws about the work under observation can be gauged through an analysis of its internal structures and language. The formalist approach considers the form, structure or shape of the text, as well as technical features, more important than the content and context. Today, however, a ‘formalist’ approach does not exist as a singular, ‘pure’ critical method. Across English departments university students are taught to use concrete examples from the text to illustrate and validate their interpretations. The exercise of close reading or focussing on a text’s composition and artistry is widely accepted as the most valuable way of approaching the art object. In English studies, other critical methodologies are best incorporated after an examination of the primary text.

The focus of any formalist analysis will centre on grammatical, rhetorical, and logical connections within texts. A formalist approach will evoke technical vocabulary to examine a piece of work. The form, tone, language, characterization, figures of speech, point of view, setting and theme of a text constitute a universe of ideas within an internal order. Formalists will examine the sound and syntax of poetic language, rhyme, stanza forms, and repetitive imagery or word pictures. Formalists are conscious of the text or art-object as a construction manipulated to evoke particular responses although reader response is beyond the control of any artist. Formalists prioritize the medium over the content. As implicated in the term ‘formalism’, ‘form’ is considered synonymous to content. The literary text is thought to exist independently as a separate and distinct imagined world where its principles and values are deduced through an almost empirical analysis. By foregrounding the utterance, formalists argue that readers and analysts alike are more likely to experience fresh sensations. These ‘fresh sensations’ are derived from the creative patterns and literary devices consciously, or unconsciously woven into the text by the artist to symbolize and signify meaning; meaning ultimately created by each individual. Victor Shklovsky developed the concept of ‘estrangement’ in his 1917 essay Art as Technique. He highlighted how existing concepts or approaches to criticism create a ‘blind spot’ whereby critics become accustomed to examining a text by applying the methods, styles or terminology of an established methodology, structure or order. These structures, argued Shklovsky, in turn create hierarchies leading to canonization and also inhibit critical sense-perception resulting in stale or clichéd criticism. Shklovsky encouraged atypical narrative strategies through ‘defamiliarization’. This process of ‘estrangement’ could foster an awareness of how techniques could crystallize or frame a text and would allow the critical eye to meander into new streams of thought.

Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale (1928) encapsulates the rigour and stringency advocated by formalists in its numeration of the folktale’s form and function. Interpretation remains the result of an analysis of structure, form and language. The art-object is rigorously analysed through a variety of analytical tools from the fields of structural linguistics, and semiotics. The insistence on examining the text in this forensic way shows how the reading experience for formalists is primarily an empirical one. The eye of the critic or the act of interpretation is privileged and trusted to yield a subtle, lucid, perceptive and inclusive account of the ‘meaning’, or uncover the ontology of the world created by the artist. Formalists draw attention to how the word itself is not the actual ‘thing’ but a verbal representation or gesture describing the ‘thing’. In this sense, formalist criticism raises philosophical questions about broader issues with serious social implications about the methods of communicating knowledge, and the value of expression, as well as the need for precision in approaching the literary text or the study of ‘English’.

To some extent, formalism is the science of intuition. Value is placed on the functionality of a text’s formal attributes. Formalists comprehend literary interpretation as a pluralistic, multidimensional endeavour governed by the observation and analysis of objective linguistic structures. These structures in themselves hold autonomous values. Formalists observe the ‘grammar of design’. For example, metaphor, rhetoric, or metonymy are extrinsic qualities manipulated by the artist to achieve a particular aesthetic affect. Other priorities on the formalist agenda include the notion of order; whether a text is chronologically ordered or, ‘synchronic’ in its approach to time and events, or a product of a simultaneous, collective order, or ‘diachronic’. Readers examining the composition of a text should be conscious of patterns of uniformity, as well as clarity and contrast. New vocabulary deriving from formalist theory has certainly enriched the study of English.

Criticism of this approach tends to centre on formalism’s exclusion of subject matter, context and social values. Formalists are also criticized for not observing the dangers of focussing on language and semiotics alone to the exclusion of the complex process of creation and publication, as well as reader response. Inevitably, critics of formalism contend that the text cannot exist in isolation from the audience for which it was conceived, nor can the text be constructed outside the social energies that indirectly shape form, or inspire the selection of one form, genre or medium over another. The practice of interpretation, which relies heavily on intuition, could not, argue critics of formalism, be reduced into a scientific endeavour or an empirical practice. Lastly, formalist criticism is itself a contradiction because it depends on verbiage, often philosophical and complex, to denote the ‘thing’ that is under analysis as all of human civilization depends on symbol-systems.


Image ‘Symbolic Reconciliation–Structure #1002’ by David Hoffman (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), via Flickr