Literary Approach - Structuralism

The Norton Introduction to Poetry
Editor: J. Paul Hunter, University of Chicago
(Norton & Company, 1999)


The Norton Introduction to Poetry: Structuralism


University of Chicago professor emeritus J. Paul Hunter defines critical approaches to evaluating poetry and prose in this excellent text published by Norton & Company. The book is now in its ninth edition with contributing editors Alison Booth, University of Virginia, and Kelly J. Mays, University of Nevada.

“For many formalists, literature is not referential. The words in a story, poem, or play no longer point outward to things, people, or the world they are supposed to denote, but point inward to each other and to the formal system they create. Structuralism focuses on the text as an independent aesthetic object and also tends to detach literature from history and social and political implications, but structuralism emphasizes systematic analysis, aspiring to make literary criticism a branch of scientific inquiry. It sees every literary work as a separate system. Structuralism has its roots in modern linguistic theory; it looks especially to the work of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), who founded structural linguistics in the early twentieth century. Flourished internationally in the early 1960s. Like formalism, it shows little interest in the creative process as such and has virtually no interest in authors, their intentions, or the circumstances or contents of criticism.”


Structuralism puts an author's words under a literary microscope. It is the language itself and the way it is used that a critic examines rather than exposing the work to interpretive analysis. Personal ideals and historical concepts no longer bask under a spotlight. A story or poem stands on its own without the backdrop of contrived evaluation. This formal method utilizes organized inquiry opposed to subjective scrutiny.