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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, 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 texts
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 Ren 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. The term has often had a pejorative cast and has been used by opponents to
indicate either aridity or ideological deviance
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:
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). 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.

New Criticism was a formalist movement in literary theory that dominated American literary
criticism in the middle decades of the 20th century. It emphasized close reading, particularly
of poetry, to discover how a work of literature functioned as a self-contained, self-referential
aesthetic object.
New Criticism developed as a reaction to the older philological and literary history schools of the US
North, which, influenced by nineteenth-century German scholarship, focused on the history and
meaning of individual words and their relation to foreign and ancient languages, comparative
sources, and the biographical circumstances of the authors. These approaches, it was felt, tended to
distract from the text and meaning of a poem and entirely neglect its aesthetic qualities in favor of
teaching about external factors. On the other hand, the literary appreciation school, which limited
itself to pointing out the "beauties" and morally elevating qualities of the text, was disparaged by the
New Critics as too subjective and emotional. Condemning this as a version of Romanticism, they
aimed for newer, systematic and objective method.[2]
New Critics believed the structure and meaning of the text were intimately connected and should
not be analyzed separately. In order to bring the focus of literary studies back to analysis of the texts,
they aimed to exclude the reader's response, the author's intention, historical and cultural contexts,
and moralistic bias from their analysis. These goals were articulated in Ransom's "Criticism, Inc."
and Allen Tate's "Miss Emily and the Bibliographers."
In 1946, William K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley published a classic and controversial New Critical
essay entitled "The Intentional Fallacy", in which they argued strongly against the relevance of
an author's intention, or "intended meaning" in the analysis of a literary work. For Wimsatt and
Beardsley, the words on the page were all that mattered; importation of meanings from outside the
text was considered irrelevant, and potentially distracting.
In another essay, "The Affective Fallacy," which served as a kind of sister essay to "The Intentional
Fallacy" Wimsatt and Beardsley also discounted the reader's personal/emotional reaction to a
literary work as a valid means of analyzing a text. This fallacy would later be repudiated by theorists
from the reader-response school of literary theory. Ironically, one of the leading theorists from this
school, Stanley Fish, was himself trained by New Critics. Fish criticizes Wimsatt and Beardsley in his
essay "Literature in the Reader" (1970).[6]
Studying a passage of prose or poetry in New Critical style required careful, exacting scrutiny of the
passage itself. Formal elements such as rhyme, meter, setting, characterization, and plot were used
to identify the theme of the text. In addition to the theme, the New Critics also looked
for paradox, ambiguity, irony, and tension to help establish the single best and most unified
interpretation of the text.
Although the New Criticism is no longer a dominant theoretical model in American universities, some
of its methods (like close reading) are still fundamental tools of literary criticism, underpinning a
number of subsequent theoretic approaches to literature including poststructuralism,
deconstruction theory, and reader-response theory.

Reader Response theory

Reader Response critics reject one of the central tenets of the New Critical school that dominated
American literary theory for decades. They claim that the readers intellectual and emotional reaction
to the work is as ripe for anaylsis as the text itself. The readers interpretation of the text is influenced
by his or her personal background, and thus reading is not a passive experience of objective reality
but an active interaction between reader and author through the medium of the written word.
Reader-response theory recognizes the reader as an active agent who imparts "real existence" to the
work and completes its meaning through interpretation. Reader-response criticism argues that
literature should be viewed as a performing art in which each reader creates their own, possibly
unique, text-related performance. It stands in total opposition to the theories of formalism and
the New Criticism, in which the reader's role in re-creating literary works is ignored.

New Historicism:
Founded by Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, New Historicist critics attempted to bring
back historical and anthopological approaches that had been discarded by Russian Formalist and
American New Critics nearly a century earlier. New Historicist critics examine primary source
materials (such as political treatises and newspaper articles written at the time of the works
publication) and prevailing social mores and political ideologies to infer the societal elements that
may have influenced the author in the creation of the work.

An approach of Literary Criticism which was developed from the concepts and methods of structural
linguistics and structural anthropology that analyzes language and literature as structures.
Structuralist critics are primarily interested not in what makes a text unique but what it has in
common with other texts. As the name implies, the core idea of structuralism is that that the
underlying structural relationships of a text are deeply intertwined with the work's deeper meaning.
To understand a work, one must therefore take it apart piece by piece in order to see its underlying
principles. Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure wrote specifically about how the signifier-signified
relationship creates meaning in language.
Structuralism is concerned not so much with what things mean, but how they mean; it is a science
designed to show that all elements of human culture, including literature, are understandable as
parts of a system of signs. This science of signs is called "semiotics" or "semiology." The goal is to
discover the codes, structures, and processes involved in the production of meaning. "Structuralism
claims that human culture itself is fundamentally a language, a complex system of signifieds
(concepts) and signifiers. These signifiers can be verbal (like language itself or literature) or nonverbal
(like face painting, advertising, or fashion)" (Biddle 80). Thus, linguistics is to language as
structuralism is to literature. Structuralism : Taking its clue from linguistics and in its analyses of
culture and its institutions from structuralist anthropology, structuralism focuses on the conditions
that make meaning possible, rather than on meaning itself. It tries to map the structures that are the
actual carriers of meaning and the various relations between the elements within those structures.
Structuralism in literary studies may for instance examine the underlying structure of a specific genre
such as the detective novel; it may try to reduce the at first sight enormous diversity of characters
that we meet in stories and in novels to a limited number of roles that always occur in fixed relations
to each other; or it may study the narrative aspects of texts in order to systematize the narratological
possibilities the narrative strategies that are available to a writer.

Derrida, deconstruction
Post-structuralist authors all present different critiques of structuralism, but common themes include
the rejection of the self-sufficiency of the structures that structuralism posits and an interrogation of
the binary oppositions that constitute those structures.[5 A major theory associated with
Structuralism was binary opposition. This theory proposed that there are certain theoretical and
conceptual opposites, often arranged in a hierarchy, which human logic has given to text. Derrida
describes the task of deconstruction as the identification of metaphysics of presence
or logocentrism in western philosophy. Metaphysics of presence is the desire for immediate access
to meaning, the privileging of presence over absence. This means that there is an assumed bias in
certain binary oppositions where one side is placed in a position of one over another, such as good
over bad, speech over the written word, male over female among other
oppositions. Poststructuralism is unthinkable without structuralism, but in its radical questioning of
the structuralists faith in language and in objective analysis it seriously undermines structuralisms
achievements. In its deconstructionist form, primarily associated with Jacques Derrida, it focuses on
language and argues that language, even if we have no alternative, is a fundamentally unstable and
unreliable medium of communication. Because we rely on language in articulating our perception of
reality and in formulating our knowledge of that reality, human perception and knowledge are
fundamentally flawed. In a related move, poststructuralism argues that we have no genuine
knowledge of our self, and that our identity, too, is prey to the indeterminacy of language. The
deconstructionist criticism that bases itself upon these and other arguments shows how the
instability of language always undoes the apparent coherence of literary texts.

Whereas the Marxists borrowed theories and terms from political philosophy, the school of
psychoanalytic literary theory turned instead to psychologist Sigmund Freud and his method of
treating patients afflicted with neuroses. Taking cues from his seminal The Interpretation of Dreams,
and writings on neuroses and the unconscious mind, psychoanalytic interpretations attempt to
decode the psyche of the author by inferring the psychological states of the characters and
symbolism in the text.

Psychoanalytic criticism adopts the methods of "reading" employed by Freud and later theorists to
interpret texts. It argues that literary texts, like dreams, express the secret unconscious desires and
anxieties of the author, that a literary work is a manifestation of the author's own neuroses. One may
psychoanalyze a particular character within a literary work, but it is usually assumed that all such
characters are projections of the author's psyche.

One interesting facet of this approach is that it validates the importance of literature, as it is built on
a literary key for the decoding. Freud himself wrote, "The dream-thoughts which we first come across
as we proceed with our analysis often strike us by the unusual form in which they are expressed; they
are not clothed in the prosaic language usually employed by our thoughts, but are on the contrary
represented symbolically by means of similes and metaphors, in images resembling those of poetic
speech" (26).

Like psychoanalysis itself, this critical endeavor seeks evidence of unresolved emotions, psychological
conflicts, guilts, ambivalences, and so forth within what may well be a disunified literary work. The
author's own childhood traumas, family life, sexual conflicts, fixations, and such will be traceable
within the behavior of the characters in the literary work. But psychological material will be expressed
indirectly, disguised, or encoded (as in dreams) through principles such as "symbolism" (the
repressed object represented in disguise), "condensation" (several thoughts or persons represented
in a single image), and "displacement" (anxiety located onto another image by means of association).

Despite the importance of the author here, psychoanalytic criticism is similar to New Criticism in not
concerning itself with "what the author intended." But what the author never intended (that is,
repressed) is sought. The unconscious material has been distorted by the censoring conscious mind.


Postcolonial studies critically analyses the relationship between colonizer and colonized, from the
earliest days of exploration and colonization. Drawing on Foucaults notion of discourses, on
Gramscis hegemony, on deconstruction, and, as the case may be, on Marxism, it focuses on the
roleof texts, literary and otherwise, in the colonial enterprise. It examines how these texts construct
the colonizers superiority and the colonizeds inferiority and in so doing have legitimated
colonization. It is especially attentive to postcolonial attitudes attitudes of resistance on the part
of the colonized and seeks to understand the nature of the encounter between colonizer and
colonized .

Feminist criticism examines the consequences of the social construction of gender in literary
works, and the role gender plays in the writing, reading and interpreting of literature. Feminist
criticism concern itself with stereotypical representations of genders. It also may trace the history of
relatively unknown or undervalued women writers, potentially earning them their rightful place
within the literary canon, and helps create a climate in which women's creativity may be fully realized
and appreciated.

One will frequently hear the term "patriarchy" used among feminist critics, referring to traditional
male-dominated society. "Marginalization" refers to being forced to the outskirts of what is
considered socially and politically significant; the female voice was traditionally marginalized, or
discounted altogether.

Feminist criticism is concerned with "...the ways in which literature (and other cultural productions)
reinforce or undermine the economic, political, social, and psychological oppression of women"
(Tyson). This school of theory looks at how aspects of our culture are inherently patriarchal (male
dominated) and "...this critique strives to expose the explicit and implicit misogyny in male writing
about women" (Richter 1346). This misogyny, Tyson reminds us, can extend into diverse areas of our
culture: "Perhaps the most chilling example...is found in the world of modern medicine, where drugs
prescribed for both sexes often have been tested on male subjects only" (83).

Feminist criticism is also concerned with less obvious forms of marginalization such as the exclusion
of women writers from the traditional literary canon: "...unless the critical or historical point of view
is feminist, there is a tendency to under-represent the contribution of women writers" (Tyson 82-