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Mrs.

Catherine Wishart
Adjunct Instructor
Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.

What is the Formalist


Perspective?
Literature can be read through a variety of lenses.
The formalist perspective concentrates on the form of the

literature itself.
Formalist criticism regards literature as a unique form of human
knowledge that needs to be examined on its own terms
(Kennedy 1468).
Questions that may be answered from a formalist perspective
include:
What is the structure of the piece?
What imagery is used?
What symbols help convey a message?
What is the theme?

Why Use the Formalist


Perspective?

The formalist perspective began in Russia in the


early 1920s.
In 1917, the Russian Revolution occurred.
Prior to 1917, Russia romanticized literature and
viewed literature from a religious perspective.
After 1917, literature began to be observed and
analyzed. The formalist perspective allowed
literature to be viewed through a scientific lens.
Formalism allows the reader to analyze a
literary piece with complete objectivity.

A Formalist View of Literature


Discounts or Ignores Certain
The name of the author is not important.
Aspects of Literature
The time in which the author lived is not

important.
Any cultural impact on the authors life is not
important.
The political beliefs of the author are not
important.
The actual reader is not important.

Formalists Focus on
Formalists pay special
attention to the formal features of
Specific
Aspects
the text the style, structure, imagery, tone, and genre
(Kennedy 1468).

Not examined in isolation what gives a literary text its

special status as art is how all its elements work together to


create the readers total experience (Kennedy 1468).

Great literature is universal.


A universal message is a message that transcends time and
culture. A universal message reveals a great truth about the
human condition.
Specific passages in great works of literature can be

closely analyzed to determine its message and the


constructs utilized to convey the message.
Formalists analyze the tension and ambiguity in a piece:
Tension: the way elements of a texts language reflect

conflict and opposition (DiYanni 1561).


Ambiguity: the ways texts remain open to more than a
single, unified definitive interpretation (DiYanni 1561).

Formalism Ignores
Formalists believe that looking at the psychology and
Peripheral
Aspects
biography of the author
inform the writing process,
not the composition itself (Kennedy 1469).
Formalism does not evaluate or consider the religious,
moral, or political value of a piece.
Formalism does not evaluate or consider symbolism in
a piece.
Formalism strives to force literary or artwork to stand
on its own people (i.e., author, reader) are not
considered so the piece can be analyzed as a
separate, independent entity.
Because formalism ignores peripheral aspects, it is
very limiting in its effectiveness to analyze literature.

A Checklist of Formalist
Critical Questions
How is the work structured or organized? How does it begin? Where

does it go next? How does it end? What is the works plot? How is its
plot related to its structure?
What is the relationship of each part of the work to the work as a
whole? How are the parts related to one another?
Who is narrating or telling what happens in the work? How is the
narrator, speaker, or character revealed to readers? How do we come to
know and understand this figure?
Who are the major and minor characters, what do they represent, and
how do they relate to one another?
What are the time and place of the work its setting? How is the setting
related to what we know of the characters and their actions? To what
extent is the setting symbolic?
What kind of language does the author use to describe, narrate,
explain, or otherwise create the world of the literary work? More
specifically, what images, similes, metaphors, symbols appear in the
work? What is their function? What meanings do they convey? (DiYanni
1562).
(DiYanni, Robert. Literature Approaches to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. 2nd ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2008).

Works Cited
DiYanni, Robert. Literature Approaches to Fiction, Poetry,

and Drama. 2nd ed. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2008. Print.


Guerin, Wilfred L. et al. A Handbook of Critical Approaches
to Literature. 5th ed. NY: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.
Kennedy, X. J. and Gioia, Dana. Literature: An Introduction to
Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. Revised edition for
Burlington County College. NY: Pearson, 2011. Print.