Sunday, 9 November 2014

What is structuralism in literary criticism?- basic tenets of structuralism


           Structuralism was an intellectual movement that originated in France in1950s. The movement was first seen in the works of French anthropologist, Claude Levi Strauss and literary critic, Roland Barthes. The essence of structuralism is the belief that things cannot be understood in isolation; they have to be viewed in the context of larger structures they are part of. The proponents of this movement strongly opines that all elements of human culture, including literature, may be understood as parts of a system of signs
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         Though structuralism started in 1950s and 1960s its roots can be traced back to the theories of the Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure. He may be rightly acclaimed as the one who has given a new direction to linguistics with his study of language as a synchronic system rather than a diachronic system.
          Mainly there are three important things that attracted the structuralists, in what Saussure said about linguistic structures: Firstly, Saussure emphasized that the meanings that we attribute to words are purely arbitrary and these meanings are maintained by convention only. Words are mere unmotivated signs and there is no inherent connection between a word and what it designates. Secondly,he argued that the meaning of words are relational, ie.no word can be defined in isolation from other words or the defenition of any word depends upon its relation with adjoining words. For ex.  the word hut depends for its precise meaning on its position in a paradigmatic chain( a chain of words related to each other in meaning or function). The paradigmatic chain in this case might include: Hovel  Shed  Hut  House  Mansion  Palace. The meaning of any one of these words would be altered if any one of the others were removed from the chain. Similarly, we could not have the concept of day without the linked concept of night, no notion ofgood without the bad. Thirdly, for Saussure, language constitutes our world. It doesnt just record it or label it. Meaning is always attributed to the object or idea by human mind and constructed by and expressed through language. It is not already contained within the thing. Saussure gives the famous example of the four seasons of the year. We have four distinct names ( spring, summer....)but actually, the year runs continiously without any breaks or changes. So Saussure's thinking stressed the way language is arbitrary, relative and constitutive and this way of thinking greatly influenced the structuralists, because it gave them a model of a system which is self-contained, in which the individual items relate to other items and thus creates larger structures. Saussure's contributions like langue and parole gave the structuralists a way of thinking about larger structures.
           To structuralists, a text is a self- sufficient system. Structuralist criticism may be called text-oriented approach. Structuralist critics have rejected the term work in favour of text. This is done for the purpose of emphasising that all literature is subject to a set of codes and conventions and is not a product of an author's unique mind. They also reject the idea that a text represents an inherent reality as to them all signification is arbitrary. They also reject the traditional concept of the author as aunique figure producing a unique work. The believe that, what the author has produced is the product of a linguistic system.
        The French anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss applied the structuralist outlook to the interpretation of myth. He suggested that the individual tale(parole) from the cycle of myths did not have a separate and inherent meaning but could only be understood by considering its position in the whole cycle( the langue). So in interpreting the Oedipus myth, he placed the individual story of Oedipus within the context of the whole cycles of tales connected with the city of Thebes.
        Though, structuralist criticism in its beginnings turned its attention on prose works, later it began to examine poetic works and poetics itself. Jonathan Culler, a structuralist critic, stated that a critic should focus attention on the reader's interpretation of the texts rather than on how the authors write them. It seems that Culler shares the idea presented by Roland Barthes in his The Death of the Author. Barthes expresses this concept rather vividly when he says- " as institution the author is dead".
       Structuralism has also made its impact on narratology too. Here the critics analyze the structural components of a narrative, how they interrelate and how they help the basic story -line.


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