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During the twentieth century new mode of literary criticism developed. This criticism was developed by Ferdinand de Saussure, Gerole Gennette, Greims and Todorov. Structuralists gave priority to how the meaning of the text is produced rather than the meaning itself. Structuralism is a psychological approach that emphasize studying the elemental structures of consciousness. Structuralists view society and its rule as expressions of deep structures, often binary codes that express our primary natures. A systematic study of such codes is semiotics, which was later hijacked by Post-structuralists as evidence that language alone provides a true reality.

Ferdinand de Saussure was the father of modern linguists. According to him, Sign = Signifier/Signified. Signifier is the sound image whereas signified is concept image. It is possible to find cultural link between signifier and signified. Structuralists view that every literary work contains a structure. The structure might be based on binary opposition or it might be narratology (the branch of knowledge or criticism that deals with the structure and function of narrative and its themes, conventions, and symbols). The function of the critic within structural criticism is to analyze the structure and find how one element or image or metaphor is linked to the other image or metaphor.

Genette in the essay, Structuralist Activity presents how it is possible to find the structure of the literary text. Within structuralist activity, the critic must separate different parts and link the relationship of one part to the other part. Analyzing literary work is finding out the narratology of the literary text. Greims views that structure of narrative is possible only by means of subject-verb-object relationship. He presents the binary opposition between subject and object, sender and receiver and helper and opponent. Similarly, Tzvetan Todorov presents the narratives on the basis of parts of speech.

Different structuralists view that there is underlying structure in the literary text. The function of the critic is to find out the structure. So, structuralists gave importance to the howness of the meaning, not the whatness of the meaning. It means rather than giving importance to the meaning, the process of the generating meaning is important for structuralists. Structuralists readers as well should seek the way literary text is structured.


Structuralism was mostly influenced by the schools of phenomenology and of Gestalt psychology, both of which were fostered in Germany between 1910 and the 1930s.  Phenomenology was a school of philosophical thought that attempted to give philosophy a rational, scientific basis. Gestalt psychology maintained that all human conscious experience is patterned, emphasizing that the whole is always greater than the parts.  It fosters the view that the human mind functions by recognizing or, if none are available, imposing structures.

Structuralism developed as a theoretical framework in linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure in the late 1920s, early 1930s.  De Saussure proposed that languages were constructed of hidden rules that practitioners knows but are unable to formulate.  In other words, though we may all speak the same language, we are not all able to fully articulate/formulate the grammatical rules that govern why we arrange words in the order we do.

Claude Levi-Strauss (1908 to 2009) is widely regarded as the father of structuralism.  In 1972, his book Structuralism and Ecology was published detailing the dogmas of what would become structural anthropology/structuralism.  In it, he proposed that culture, like language, is composed of hidden rules that govern the behavior of its practitioners.  What made cultures unique and different from one another are the hidden rules participants understood but are unable to formulate; thus, the goal of structural anthropology is to identify these rules. 

The structuralist paradigm/image suggests that the structure of human thought processes is the same in all cultures, and that these mental processes exist in the form of binary oppositions. Some of these oppositions include hot-cold, male-female, culture-nature, and raw-cooked. Structuralists argue that binary oppositions are reflected in various cultural institutions. Structuralists aim to understand the underlying meaning involved in human thought as expressed in cultural acts.
Leading Figures:
Claude Lévi-Strauss: (1908 to 2009) “Father of Structuralism;” born in Brussels in 1908. Obtained a law degree from the University of Paris. He became a professor of sociology at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil in 1934. It was at this time that he began to think about human thought cross-culturally and alterity, when he was exposed to various cultures in Brazil. His first publication in anthropology appeared in 1936 and covered the social organization of the Bororo (Bohannan and Glazer 1988:423). After WWII, he taught at the New School for Social Research in New York. There he met Roman Jakobson, from whom he took the structural linguistics model and applied its framework to culture (Bohannan and Glazer 1988:423). Lévi-Strauss has been noted as singly associated for the elaboration of the structuralist paradigm in anthropology (Winthrop 1991).
Ferdinand de Saussure: (1857 to 1913) Swiss linguist born in Geneva whose work in structural linguistics and semiology greatly influenced Lévi-Strauss (Winthrop 1991; Rubel and Rosman 1996).  Widely considered to be the father of 20th c. linguistics. 
Roman Jakobson: (1896 to 1982) a Russian structural linguist.  Was influenced by the work of Ferdinand de Saussere and worked with Nikolai Trubetzkoy to develop techniques for the analysis of sound in language.   His work influenced Lévi-Strauss while they were colleagues at the New School for Social Research in New York.
Marcel Mauss: (1872 to 1952) French sociologist.  His uncle was Emile Durkheim.  He taught Lévi-Strauss and influenced his thought on the nature of reciprocity and structural relationships in culture (Winthrop 1991).
Jacques Derrida: (1930 to 2004) French social philosopher and literary critic who may be labeled both a “structuralist’ and a “poststructuralist” and was the founder of deconstructionism.  Derrida wrote critiques of his contemporaries’ works, and of the notions underlying structuralism and poststructuralism (Culler 1981).
Michel Foucault: (1926 to 1984) French social philosopher whose works have been associated with both structuralist and poststructuralist thought, more often with the latter. When asked in an interview if he accepted being grouped with Lacan and Lévi-Strauss, he conveniently avoids a straight answer: “It’s for those who use the label [structuralism] to designate very diverse works to say what makes us ‘structuralists’” (Lotringer 1989:60). However, he has publicly scoffed at being labeled a structuralist because he did not wish to be permanently associated with one paradigm (Sturrock 1981). Foucault deals largely with issues of power and domination in his works, arguing that there is no absolute truth, and thus the purpose of ideologies is to struggle against other ideologies for supremecy (think about competing news networks, arguing different points of view). For this reason, he is more closely associated with poststructuralist thought.

The Linguistic Background:
Twentieth-century linguists such as Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson define language as "that stable systemic ‘core’ that is susceptible to linguistic formalizations; everything else is mere ‘speech’, which is not language but the mere ‘performance’ of true language" (Groden 466).  In other words, anything that does not conform to the ‘system’ that Saussure, Jakobson, and their contemporaries laid out is merely a deviation from real language.
An important factor in linguistics is semiotics, "the domain of investigation that explores the nature and function of signs as well as the systems and processes underlying signification, expression, representation, and communication" (Groden 658).  In linguistics the ‘word’, either written or spoken, is the ‘sign’.  Saussure defines the ‘sign’ as a union between a concept and a sound image, which he calls the signified and the signifier (Groden 652).  The sound image is the word (either written or oral) that we use to define something, for instance, ‘bicycle’.  The concept is the idea of the bicycle that the sound image puts into the recipients head.  In Saussure’s definition the ‘thing’ itself has no place.  Words do not get their meaning from an inherent relationship with the things they represent, the connection is completely arbitrary but we recognize it "because it is defined as an element in a system, the ‘structural whole’ of language” (Groden 652).
Saussure called the system ‘langue,’ he called the individual utterances ‘parole’.  It is easy to confuse the system with the way it’s used, to think of ‘English’ as the set of English utterances.  Learning English is not, however, about memorizing a set of utterances.  You have to master a system of rules and norms which make it possible to produce and understand utterances.  The rules of langue may be unconscious but they are known to exist in our "ability to not only understand utterances, but to recognize grammatically well-formed or deviant sentences, to detect ambiguity, to perceive meaning relations among sentences, etc.  The linguist attempts to construct a system of rules that would account for this knowledge by formally reproducing it” (Culler 8).
Ferdinand de Saussure
The initial work of Ferdinand de Saussure in the early twentieth century is where Structuralism in literary criticism gets its base.  He based his examination on three basic assumptions:
  1. "The systematic nature of language, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” (Groden 697), which is to say that to study language scientifically one must examine the system or code, not just the utterances produced within the system.
  2. "The relational conception of the elements of language, where linguistic ‘entities’ are defined in relationships of combination and contrast to one another” (Groden 697).  Linguists call the individual sounds that make up      words, and in turn our language, ‘phonemes’.  What Saussure is saying here is that phonemes combine and contrast with each other in the system to make recognizable words.
  3. "The arbitrary nature of linguistic elements, where they are defined in terms of the function and purpose they serve rather than in terms of their inherent qualities” (Groden 697).  This, as we saw above, refers to the idea that the ‘word’ has no inherent relationship to the ‘thing’ it describes.  Signs cannot be studied by their causes, only their function.
Structuralists take these premises and apply them further than simply to words and sentences, they look for the structure behind the broader categories of poetry and narratives.

Structuralist Critics and their Theories:

Vladimir Propp
Vladimir Propp was a Russian Formalist scholar who paved the way for future Structuralists to come.  He was born in St. Petersburg Russia to a German family.  Propp studied Russian and German philosophy from 1913 to 1918 at the University of St. Petersburg and later became a professor at Leningrad University in the 1930’s until his death.  Propp was an outstanding folklorist, concentrating on fairy tales, heroic epic poetry, and historical semantics (Makaryk 449-50).  His most important contribution to the study of literature was his study of structural laws of folklore in "Morfologiia Skazki" (Morphology of the Folklore).  It stated that each folk tale begins with an initial situation where members of the story are introduced, then it is followed up with thirty–one functions which do not all have to be there but always occur in the same order (Glucksmann 56-57).

Gerard Genette

Gerard Genette was a literary theoretician and structuralist critic.  He studied at Ecole Normale Superieure and was primarily interested in poetics and rhetoric.  His earliest published books were "Figures 1, 2 and 3", which consist of essays which focus on authors and methods and literary criticism. (Makaryk 333)  He is renowned for his studies on narrative discourse.  Genette believes that a narrative consists of a story, discourse, and narration; which are all related by tense, mood, and voice.  He theorized that there are three binary oppositions that exist within narrative.  The first is diegesis and mimesis (narrative and representation).  Secondly, there is narration and description (active and complimentive).  The last opposition is narrative and discourse (pure telling and telling). Gerard believes that narrative is nearly always impure, depending on the writer and readers’ opinions.  He believed that the highest degree of purity in writing is in Hemmingway and Hammett (Makaryk 334).
A. J. Greimas

A.J. Greimas was a semiotician, who studied law at the University of Grenoble.  He later joined the military and escaped to France when his country was invaded.  He then obtained his doctorate with his primary thesis in fashion and secondary thesis in social life (Makaryk 345).  Greimas later taught the history of French language and became a founder of the Paris school of Semiotics.  Anthropology, folklore, linguistics, mythology, and phenomenology influenced his work (Makaryk 346).  He theorized that within narrative there are three pairs of binary oppositions, the first being subject/ object, which is connected with desire, search and aim.  Secondly there is sender/receiver, which is connected with communication.  The last opposition is helper/opponent, connected with auxiliary support and hindrance (Hawkes 92-93).  Greimas thought of narrative in terms of relationships between entities.  He broke down Propp's thirty-one functions into twenty, which can be divided into the following three categories (Hawkes 94):
            1. Contractual: concerned with establishing or breaking of contracts or rules
            2. Performative: concerned with the actions of the characters
            3. Disjunctive:  concerned with the sequence of events and how they relate to each other

Tzvetan Todorov

The work of Tzvetan Todorov shifts from an emphasis on literature as writing to an emphasis on the connected activity of reading (Hawkes 95).  He is another major critical thinker who seeks to establish a scientific account of narrative structure.  He believes that all narratives need proposition, which is the smallest, most basic unit of narrative.  This can be an agent (i.e. a person) or a predicate (i.e. an action).  He also uses the story of Oedipus Rex, an abstract yet universal myth to stress his theory, which could also be referred to as an algebraic formula (Selden 75):
            -X is King                                           -X marries Y
            -Y is X’s mother                                 -X kills Z
            -Z is X’s father
 In this example, the first three (king, mother, father) propositions denominate agents.  These are specific people or nouns.  The first and last two propositions contain predicates or actions: to be a king, to marry and to kill.  He then goes on to present two higher levels of organization:
1.)    Sequence: a group of propositions form a sequence
2.)    Text: a group of sequences form text.
The basic sequence is made up of five propositions which outline a basic state of narration that is "disturbed" and then "re-established."  For example (Selden 76):
                        EQUILIBRIUM¹ (stability or peace)
                        FORCE¹ (a disruption of peace i.e. enemy invades)
                        DISEQUILIBRIUM (climax i.e. war)
                        FORCE² (in order to restore peace i.e. enemy is defeated)
                        EQUILIBRIUM² (peace on new terms or a form of compromise)

 A succession of sequences form a text and this text can be organized in several different ways:
            1.) Embedding: a story within a story, digression
            2.) Linking: a string of sequences
            3.) Alteration: interlacing of sequences                                   
            4.) Conglomeration: a mixture of all these forms

Todorov tried to identify the fundamental narrative units which come together to form larger structures in text.  He aimed to develop a "universal grammar" which not only underlies all languages and signifying systems, but also acts as a guidebook for all language and lays out even the most basic functions and responsibilities of all human beings (Hawkes 97).

Claude Levi Strauss

Levi Strauss was a popular French anthropologist who was most well known for his development of structural anthropology.  Some reasons for his extreme popularity are identified in his refusal to see western civilization as privileged and unique, his emphasis on form over content and in his insistence that the "savage" mind is equal to that of the "civilized."  He spent a great deal of time studying the behaviour of North and South American Indian tribes and believed that men ofevery culture shared identical characteristics.  He believed that man moves from a natural to a cultural state as he develops language and becomes more educated in specific studies of discipline which he also believes to be inherent rather than learned. He derived structuralism from a school of linguistics where the focus was not on the meaning of the word, but the pattern(s) the word(s) form(s).  This linguistic model of binary opposition is essential for understanding the human mind.  Stories are written by humans, about humans, and for humans, therefore they ultimately reflect all that is human (Clarke 30-31).
Strauss also introduced units of myth which he called "mythemes" and organized these units into binary oppositions.  He noted that reoccurring patterns found in myths were not culture-specific but ultimately universal, the answer being found in structure, not context.  Myths are a form of complex language because they have to be told orally to exist.  Both myth and language share many characteristics. For example they are both compiled of certain functions organized according to specific rules, these functions then form specific relationships with each other, and they are based on opposites which also provide the foundation for the structure (Piaget 121-22).  This structural method of evaluation brings order out of chaos.  Since myth is oral literature it is constantly evolving and being reinterpreted/modified to fit the social structure and beliefs of the time.  Strauss was not interested in the narrative sequence as much as in the structural pattern which gave the myth meaning.  Therefore, as long as the functions occur, order is not necessarily as important.  The myth "grows" but the structure of the myth stays the same (Hawkes 33).

Jonathan Culler

Culler believed that history and the author were unimportant to the study of literature, beliefs that were similar to theorists such as the New Critics. However, Culler also believed that the text, what was actually written, was equally unimportant.  He felt that the structure of language produces reality as opposed to language reflecting reality (Selden 85), or the idea that language uses us, as opposed to us using language.  Basically this means that because our language is structured the way it is, words are a group of letters that grouped together form sound and meaning to the reader, each reader will interpret these words somewhat differently in a sentence (Sims). Works can only be written a certain way and everything we try to express in literature is governed by the confinements on our language system.  Culler was not really interested in what interpretations people come up with but how they come up with them, what systems they followed to reach their conclusions, and what interpretive conventions we use to get the meanings (Selden 82).  Culler said that poets and novelists would stay within certain conventions based on their knowledge of what a poem is and what a novel is.  Similarly, readers can recognize prose or poetry even if it is written in a strange way, for example, if the line breaks are taken out of a poem so that is looks like prose. It would be harder for the reader to analyze a poem written in this was but s/he would still recognize it as a poem.  Culler also makes a distinction between the competent reader and writer, and the non-competent reader and writer (Fish).  The competent writer will always write in a way so that the competent reader understands.  A competent writer knows to write poetry in a certain way so it is recognizable as poetry.  People automatically read prose and poetry differently.  They will look for metaphor and metonymy in poetry but not in prose.  At this point, structuralism has moved away from only being based on folklore and myth. 
Metaphor and Metonymy as Elements of Structuralism:
Jakobson created another important concept within Structuralism; namely, a combination of metaphor and metonymy.  In order to fully understand both parts of the concept it is important to know the definitions of both.
Metonymy: A figure of speech that replaces the name of one thing with the name of something else closely associated with it.  (i.e. the press - for journalists, the Crown - for royalty) (Baldick 135).
Synecdoche is another form of metonymy. Synecdoche is when the name of a part is substituted for that of the whole.  For example, hands - for manual laborers (Baldick 221).
Metaphor: A figure of speech in which one thing, idea, or action is referred to by a word or expression normally denoting another thing, idea, or actions - this suggests a common quality shared by the two (Baldick 134).
Jakobson studied aphasia with regards to its impacts on poetics (Selden 78).  According to the national website ( aphasia is: An impairment of the ability to use or comprehend words, usually acquired as a result of a stroke or other brain injury.  The primary symptom is an inability to express oneself when speaking, however, in some cases, reading and writing or understanding of speech can be the more impaired language modality.
The Barthes clothes model can be applied as an example.  This is explained using the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the model.  The vertical dimension takes objects and substitutes them one for the other (ex. sweater—shirt—jacket—vest—blouse).  The horizontal dimension takes the objects and makes a sequence out of them (ex. slacks—blouse—blazer) (Selden 78).  Therefore the vertical dimension relates to the langue and the horizontal dimension relates to the parole.  When Jakobson studied aphasia he noticed that children usually lost one dimension or another which hindered their ability to communicate.  He defined each dimension even further as:
            Contiguity disorder—the inability to combine elements into a sequence (Selden 78-79)
            Similarity disorder—the inability to substitute an element for another (Selden 79)
Thus, this becomes a system of either substitutions or combinations when applied to structuralism.  Since contiguity disorder is related to combinations, metaphor is directly linked.  Also, similarity disorder is related to substitutions, which directly relates to metonymy. 
For example:
Vertical dimension= langue = substitutions = similarity disorder = metonymy  
Horizontal dimension = parole = combinations = contiguity disorder = metaphor
This is important because Jakobson believed that in regular speech people unconsciously tended to favour one or the other (Selden 79).  For example, a poet might express their preference in their literary style.  In general, it is believed that individuals lean toward either the metaphoric or metonymic when writing.
In conclusion, structuralism is fundamental to critical theory and thought.  Most structuralists create formulas or frameworks that are predictable, operating in almost a mathematical sense.  They believe that language is merely a system of signs that in turn grant meaning.  Language is nothing without context to support it within the particular system in which it operates.  Structuralists are interested in systems of difference and multiple examples of these binaries can be found in both literature and everyday life occurrences.

Works Cited

Baldick, Chris.  The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms.  Oxford University Press:  New York, 1991.
Clarke, Simon. The Foundations of Structuralism: A Critique of Levi-Strauss and the Structuralist Movement. The Harvester        Press: Great Britain, 1981.
Culler, Jonathan D. Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature.  Cornell UP: New York, 1975.
Glucksmann, Miriam. Structuralist Analysis in Contemporary Social Thought. Routledge & Kegan Paul: Boston, 1974.
Groden, Michael and Martin Kreiswirth.  The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism.  Johns Hopkins UP: Baltimore, 1994.
Hawkes, Terence.  Structuralism and Semiotics. Methuen & Company Limited: London, 1977.
Makaryk, Irena R. Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory. University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 1993.
Piaget, Jean. Structuralism. Basic Books Publishing: New York, 1970.
Selden, Raman, Peter Widdowson, and Peter Brooker.  A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory.  Prentice Hall:  New York, 1997.


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