Formalist Theory As A Lens To Review Essay

Formalism (1930s-present)

Summary:

This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.

Contributors: Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski, Elizabeth Boyle, Sebastian Williams
Last Edited: 2018-01-24 02:41:39

Form Follows Function: Russian Formalism, New Criticism, Neo-Aristotelianism

Formalists disagreed about what specific elements make a literary work "good" or "bad"; but generally, Formalism maintains that a literary work contains certain intrinsic features, and the theory "...defined and addressed the specifically literary qualities in the text" (Richter 699). Therefore, it's easy to see Formalism's relation to Aristotle's theories of dramatic construction.

Formalism attempts to treat each work as its own distinct piece, free from its environment, era, and even author. This point of view developed in reaction to "...forms of 'extrinsic' criticism that viewed the text as either the product of social and historical forces or a document making an ethical statement" (699). Formalists assume that the keys to understanding a text exist within "the text itself" (a common saying among New Critics), and thus focus a great deal on, you guessed it, form (Tyson 118).

Typical questions:

  • How does the work use imagery to develop its own symbols? (i.e. making a certain road stand for death by constant association)
  • What is the quality of the work's organic unity "...the working together of all the parts to make an inseparable whole..." (Tyson 121)? In other words, does how the work is put together reflect what it is?
  • How are the various parts of the work interconnected?
  • How do paradox, irony, ambiguity, and tension work in the text?
  • How do these parts and their collective whole contribute to or not contribute to the aesthetic quality of the work?
  • How does the author resolve apparent contradictions within the work?
  • What does the form of the work say about its content?
  • Is there a central or focal passage that can be said to sum up the entirety of the work?
  • How do the rhythms and/or rhyme schemes of a poem contribute to the meaning or effect of the piece?

Here is a list of scholars we encourage you to explore to further your understanding of this theory:

Russian Formalism

  • Victor Shklovsky
  • Roman Jakobson
  • Victor Erlich - Russian Formalism: History - Doctrine, 1955
  • Yuri Tynyanov

New Criticism

  • John Crowe Ransom - The New Criticism, 1938
  • I.A. Richards
  • William Empson
  • T.S. Eliot
  • Allen Tate
  • Cleanth Brooks

Neo-Aristotelianism (Chicago School of Criticism)

  • R.S. Crane - Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern, 1952
  • Elder Olson
  • Norman Maclean
  • W.R. Keast
  • Wayne C. Booth - The Rhetoric of Fiction, 1961

Formalism, also called Russian Formalism, Russian Russky Formalism, innovative 20th-century Russian school of literary criticism. It began in two groups: OPOYAZ, an acronym for Russian words meaning Society for the Study of Poetic Language, founded in 1916 at St. Petersburg (later Leningrad) and led by Viktor Shklovsky; and the Moscow Linguistic Circle, founded in 1915. Other members of the groups included Osip Brik, Boris Eikhenbaum, Yury Tynianov, and Boris Tomashevsky.

Although the Formalists based their assumptions partly on the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure and partly on Symbolist notions concerning the autonomy of the text and the discontinuity between literary and other uses of language, the Formalists sought to make their critical discourse more objective and scientific than that of Symbolist criticism. Allied at one point to the Russian Futurists and opposed to sociological criticism, the Formalists placed an “emphasis on the medium” by analyzing the way in which literature, especially poetry, was able to alter artistically or “make strange” common language so that the everyday world could be “defamliarized.” They stressed the importance of form and technique over content and looked for the specificity of literature as an autonomous verbal art. They studied the various functions of “literariness” as ways to separate poetry and fictional narrative from other forms of discourse. Although always anathema to the Marxist critics, Formalism was important in the Soviet Union until 1929, when it was condemned for its lack of political perspective. Later, largely through the work of the structuralist linguist Roman Jakobson, it became influential in the West, notably in Anglo-American New Criticism, which is sometimes called Formalism.

Victor Erlich’s Russian Formalism (1955) is a history; Théorie de la littérature (1965) is a translation by Tzvetan Todorov of important Russian texts. Anthologies in English include L.T. Lemon and M.J. Reis, eds., Russian Formalist Criticism (1965), L. Matejka and K. Pomorska, eds., Readings in Russian Poetics (1971), and Stephen Bann and John Bowlt, eds., Russian Formalism (1973).

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