Formalist Theory Literary Criticism Essay

Literary analysis is a critical response to a literary text in the form of a critical essay or an oral commentary. It includes a thorough interpretation of the work. Such analysis may be based from a variety of critical approaches or movements, e.g. archetypal criticism, cultural criticism, feminist criticism, psychoanalytic criticism, Marxist Criticism, New Criticism (formalism/structuralism), New Historicism, post-structuralism, and reader-response criticism. Students in this course will write a critical essay based upon four literary texts for their ISU.

Archetypal Criticism

Archetypal criticism is a critical approach to literature that seeks to find and understand the purpose of archetypes within literature. These archetypes may be themes, such as love, characterizations, such as the hero; or patterns, such as death and rebirth. Archetypal criticism draws on the works of the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, literary critic Northrop Frye, and others. Unlike psychoanalytic critics, archetypal critics such as Frye do not attempt to explain why the archetypes exist.

Archetype: something that represents the essential elements of its category or class of things; the word is Greek for “original pattern” from which all copies are made, a prototype. Certain themes of human life (e.g. love, loss) character types (e.g. the rebel, the wise elder), animals (e.g. snake) and patterns (e.g. the quest, the descent into the underworld) are considered to be archetypal, forming a part of the collective unconscious (the sum of society’s inherited mental images). For example, a character in a TV series who continuously changes careers might be said to be the archetypal “seeker”.

Cultural Criticism

Cultural criticism is a recent movement in criticism that is interdisciplinary by extending the range of examined texts beyond just the literary works themselves to objects or practices that can be interpreted as representative of a culture’s beliefs, values, laws, for example. Practitioners of cultural criticism view a text in relation to the dominant or competing ideologies (belief systems) of the time and place in which the text was written. Works are therefore considered in light of their historical and cultural contexts. For example, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness may be read in terms of practices of European imperialists, race relations in Africa, or the economic history of ivory and other raw products in the continent.

Feminist Criticism

Feminist Criticism is literary criticism based on feminist theories. It considers texts with the knowledge that societies treat men and women inequitably. Feminist criticism will analyze texts in light of patriarchal (male dominated) cultural institutions, phallocentric (male centred) language, masculine and feminine stereotypes, and the unequal treatment of male and female writers. Feminist criticism developed primarily in the 1960’s and 1970’s, although it is evident in earlier works as well, for example in the works of Virginia Woolf and Mary Wollstonecraft. More recent feminist and gender studies investigate social constructions related to gender as they appear in literature.

Marxist Criticism

Based on the writings of Karl Marx (1818-1883) this school of thought contends that history and culture is largely a struggle between economic classes, and literature is often a reflection of the attitudes and interests of the dominant class. An often-repeated statement from Marx expresses a basic idea specific to this form of criticism. “It’s not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness”.

New Criticism

New Criticism is a movement in literary criticism that proposes close reading and textual analysis of the text itself. It is referred to as “New” because it operates contrary to the previously favoured focus on the author’s biography, the historical context, and the perceived parallels between these and the text. Practitioners focus on both the “external form” (e.g. ballad, ode) and the “internal forms” (e.g. structure, repetition, patterns of figurative language, plot/content, syntax/diction, tone, mood, context/setting, style, literary devices, theme). These practitioners reject consideration of the author’s intention and the affect on the reader as illegitimate. The movement is also referred to as formalism or structuralism.

New Historicism

New Historicism is a range of critical practices that examine works in their cultural and historical contexts. Practitioners of the critical movement developed it by examining a wide range of texts such as newspapers, advertisements, popular music, historical accounts, poetry, novels, and diaries. Practitioners believe that works cannot be viewed in isolation from history and culture. A reading of a work must take into account its intention, genre, and historical situation.


Post-structuralism refers to a critical approach to language, literature, and culture that questions or criticizes structuralism. Like structuralists, post-structuralists rely on close readings of texts; however, post-structuralists believe that language is inherently unstable in meaning and the meaning of the texts is ultimately indecipherable. The best known post-structuralist approach is deconstructionism.

Psychoanalytic Criticism

Psychoanalytic criticism is literary criticism grounded in psychoanalytic theory of the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Practitioners attempt to psychoanalyze the author’s unconscious desires, the reader’s responses, and the characters in the work. The last approach involves examining the text for symbols and psychological complexes. In addition to Freud, key figures are psychiatrist Carl Jung and, most recently, Jacques Lacan.

Reader-Response Criticism

Reader-response criticism is a critical approach that shifts the emphasis to the reader from the text or the work’s author and context. This approach focuses on the individual reader’s evolving response to the text. The readers, through their own values and experiences, “create” the meaning of the text and therefore there is no one correct meaning.

When analyzing a text, from which a student will write a major paper, it is advised that the student should first focus on the elements of a story: plot, setting, atmosphere, mood, character, theme and title.  The next logical approach is to look at the language (devices and patterns) and form of the text (structure). Then the student might consider any of the following approaches such as New Historicism, New Criticism, Archetypal Criticism or Cultural Criticism.

Formalism is a school of literary criticism and literary theory having mainly to do with structural purposes of a particular text. It is the study of a text without taking into account any outside influence. Formalism rejects (or sometimes simply "brackets", i.e., ignores for the purpose of analysis) notions of culture or societal influence, authorship, and content, and instead focuses on modes, genres, discourse, and forms.

In literary theory[edit]

In literary theory, formalism refers to critical approaches that analyze, interpret, or evaluate the inherent features of a text. These features include not only grammar and syntax but also literary devices such as meter and tropes. The formalistic approach reduces the importance of a text’s historical, biographical, and cultural context.

Formalism rose to prominence in the early twentieth century as a reaction against Romanticist theories of literature, which centered on the artist and individual creative genius, and instead placed the text itself back into the spotlight to show how the text was indebted to forms and other works that had preceded it. Two schools of formalist literary criticism developed, Russian formalism, and soon after Anglo-American New Criticism. Formalism was the dominant mode of academic literary study in the US at least from the end of the Second World War through the 1970s, especially as embodied in René Wellek and Austin Warren's Theory of Literature (1948, 1955, 1962).

Beginning in the late 1970s, formalism was substantially displaced by various approaches (often with political aims or assumptions) that were suspicious of the idea that a literary work could be separated from its origins or uses.[citation needed] The term has often had a pejorative cast and has been used by opponents to indicate either aridity or ideological deviance.[citation needed] Some recent trends in academic literary criticism suggest that formalism may be making a comeback.[1]


William H Thelin criticizes Maxine Hairston’s approach to teaching composition from a current-traditional standpoint, which she then mixes with the political. He claims that “No matter how sound the politics … the student would have no choice but to regurgitate that dogma in the clearest terms possible and to shift concentration onto matters of structure and correctness”.[2]

Mary Ann Cain writes that “formalism asserts that the text stands on its own as a complete entity, apart from the writer who produced it”.[3] Moreover, Cain says that “one can regard textual products as teachable and still maintain that being a writer is a "natural" act, one not subject to instruction.[3] Composition, like creative writing, has flourished under the assumption that students are already writers, or have the capacity to learn-and that everyone should be writers. Yet the questions composition tends to pose within this assumption are not so much about which aspects of writing can or cannot be taught, but how writing can be taught and under what conditions.[3] In regards to formalist composition, one must ask, “to what extent is this ‘need’ for ‘academic discourse’ real – any more than the need for more ‘imaginative writing’ is real-except to perform some function, to get something done?”.[3]


Formalism research involves studying the ways in which students present their writing.[3] Some ways formalism research is conducted involves allowing the text to speak to the readers versus cutting out unintended meaning in a written piece. Respectively, these two methods deal with language as the “master” writer versus a teacher as the “master” writer.

Russian formalism[edit]

Main article: Russian formalism

Russian Formalism refers to the work of the Society for the Study of Poetic Language (OPOYAZ) founded in 1916 in St. Petersburg (then Petrograd) by Boris Eichenbaum, Viktor Shklovsky and Yury Tynyanov, and secondarily to the Moscow Linguistic Circle founded in 1914 by Roman Jakobson. (The folklorist Vladimir Propp is also often associated with the movement.) Eichenbaum's 1926 essay "The Theory of the 'Formal Method'" (translated in Lemon and Reis) provides an economical overview of the approach the Formalists advocated, which included the following basic ideas:

  • The aim is to produce "a science of literature that would be both independent and factual," which is sometimes designated by the term poetics.[citation needed]
  • Since literature is made of language, linguistics will be a foundational element of the science of literature.
  • Literature is autonomous from external conditions in the sense that literary language is distinct from ordinary uses of language, not least because it is not (entirely) communicative.
  • Literature has its own history, a history of innovation in formal structures, and is not determined (as some crude versions of Marxism have it) by external, material history.
  • What a work of literature says cannot be separated from how the literary work says it, and therefore the form and of a work, far from being merely the decorative wrapping of an isolable content, is in fact part of the content of the work.

According to Eichenbaum, Shklovsky was the lead critic of the group, and Shklovsky contributed two of their most well-known concepts: defamiliarization (ostraneniye, more literally, 'estrangement') and the plot/story distinction (syuzhet/fabula). "Defamiliarization" is one of the crucial ways in which literary language distinguishes itself from ordinary, communicative language, and is a feature of how art in general works, namely by presenting the world in a strange and new way that allows us to see things differently. Innovation in literary history is, according to Shklovsky, partly a matter of finding new techniques of defamiliarization. The plot/story distinction separates out the sequence of events the work relates (the story) from the sequence in which those events are presented in the work (the plot). Both of these concepts are attempts to describe the significance of the form of a literary work in order to define its "literariness." For the Russian Formalists as a whole, form is what makes something art to begin with, so in order to understand a work of art as a work of art (rather than as an ornamented communicative act) one must focus on its form.

This emphasis on form, seemingly at the expense of thematic content, was not well-received after the Russian Revolution of 1917. One of the most sophisticated critiques of the Formalist project was Leon Trotsky's Literature and Revolution (1924)[citation needed]. Trotsky does not wholly dismiss the Formalist approach, but insists that "the methods of formal analysis are necessary, but insufficient" because they neglect the social world with which the human beings who write and read literature are bound up: "The form of art is, to a certain and very large degree, independent, but the artist who creates this form, and the spectator who is enjoying it, are not empty machines, one for creating form and the other for appreciating it. They are living people, with a crystallized psychology representing a certain unity, even if not entirely harmonious. This psychology is the result of social conditions" (180, 171). The Formalists were thus accused of being politically reactionary because of such unpatriotic remarks as Shklovsky's (quoted by Trotsky) that "Art was always free of life, and its color never reflected the color of the flag which waved over the fortress of the City"(source?)(164). The leaders of the movement suffered political persecution beginning in the 1920s, when Joseph Stalin came to power, which largely put an end to their inquiries. But their ideas continued to influence subsequent thinkers, partly due to Tzvetan Todorov's translations of their works in the 1960s and 1970s, including Todorov himself, Barthes, Genette and Jauss.

The Prague Circle and structuralism[edit]

Main article: Prague linguistic circle

The Moscow Linguistic Circle founded by Jakobson was more directly concerned with recent developments in linguistics than Eichenbaum's group. Jakobson left Moscow for Prague in 1920 and in 1926 co-founded the Prague Linguistic Circle, which embodied similar interests, especially in the work of Ferdinand de Saussure.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^“Formalism and its Malcontents: Benjamin and de Man on the Function of Allegory”, Jim Hansen, New Literary History, 2004, Vol. 35, No. 4, 663.
  2. ^Thelin, WIlliam H. "Advocating Language: An Ethical Approach to Politics in the Classroom". The Ethics of Writing Instruction. Michael Pemberton, ed. Stamford: Ablex Publishing, 2000.
  3. ^ abcdeCain, Mary Ann. "Problematizing Formalism: A Double-Cross of Genre Boundaries." College Composition and Communication. 51:1 Sept 1999. 89-95.

Further reading[edit]

  • Lemon, Lee T., and Marion J. Reis. Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1965.
  • Shklovsky, Viktor. Theory of Prose. Trans. Benjamin Sher. Elmwood Park: Dalkey Archive, 1990.
  • Trotsky, Leon. Literature and Revolution. New York: Russell and Russell, 1957.
  • Wellek, René, and Austin Warren. Theory of Literature. 3rd. rev. ed. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.
  • Erlich, Victor. Russian Formalism: History—Doctrine. 3rd ed. New Haven: Yale UP, 1981.


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