Formalist Criticism – A Guide

A discreet school of thought, Hawthorne criticism has much of its emphasis on formalist analysis of the text. Emerged between the 1940s and 1950s, many colleges, institutes, and universities adopted the approach and started practicing it. Many of them called it ‘New Criticism’ an innovative way of creating and interpreting the text. This new way of thinking and writing about the text was a reaction in opposition to the commentary.

Commentary considered subjectivity an integral part of any text analysis. The author’s personal circumstances and character plays a vital role in constituting the meaning of the text. Not only this, according to it, the historical context and cultural events are also significant factors in producing the meaning.

Many New Critics did not only accept the approach of formalist criticism. However, it also insisted on incorporating objectivity in the text analysis. Accepting the idea, they believed that literary work must be understood and analyzed in isolation. There should not be any intervening biographical, political, social and other extrinsic factors impacting the text analysis.

Furthermore, the approach of formalist analysis rejected the author’s intention. In fact, the approach considers it irrelevant than the text’s effect on the readers. It is only ‘words written on the page’ that was important and counted. There has to be some scientific accuracy when a critic explores the embedded meaning from the content and form of the text.

Soon, the approach became widely accepted phenomena and critics begin to apply it. However, to scaffold a clear understanding of formalist criticism, it is vital to study the approach in a wider context.

What Does Formalism Mean?

Over the past few decades, formalists have achieved considerable success when it comes to purging criticism, specifically about analyzing literature. Many of them have provided theoretical defects in the literal productions.

According to them, literature encapsulates many verbal signs, which do not physically imitate anything but encode a vast amount of information. It follows the conventions of written language. These signs, in the literary work, formulate a unique and distinct verbal system, testifying vicarious experience to create a casual relationship with the text.

To put it simply, what a critic receives and experiences as a reader is ‘language’. A text contains literary forms, which are one of the important aspects of critical discourse. Formalism in literature refers specifically to unique inquiry style that focuses on some important features of literary texts.

Mainly formalism excludes intellectual, biographical and historical contexts while analyzing a text. The word ‘Formalism’ is derived from the central belief of the Formalists approach. It signifies literature work as a piece of a content that aims to detach fallacious from it. Typically, considering literary forms important while eliminating superfluous perspectives, Formalists endeavor to trace the developmental evolution of different literary forms.

In the formalism definition, new critics attempt to explain why the structure analysis of language is important. Moreover, they have focused on language and symbols in order to demonstrate the paradoxes, ambiguities, and tensions of the text. They further gauge the author’s success in constructing meanings and resolving linguistic symbols in the overall formal unit of the work. For example, ‘The Scarlet letter’ has careful images patterning, symbolic narrative techniques and strong narrative point of view, making itself a subject of formalistic analysis.

Historical Perspectives of Formalist Criticism

The formalist theory is not a product of a single approach; however, there are many schools of thoughts, which favored the approach in different eras. Upon tracing the history, you will see the terminology ‘Formalism’ is a combination of different approaches. Many of them diverge from each other but encapsulate the same theme.

In the broader spectrum, formalism was one of the dominant academic studies in the domain of literature. It gained popularity in the United Kingdom and the United States after the Second World War in the 1970s. Particularly, authors and analysts attributed this new approach with the’ New  Critics’ such as T.S  Eliot, I.A Richard,  and John Ransom.

In Europe, on the other hand, formalism theory or formalism primarily emerged out from the work of authors like Viktor Shklovsky, Roman Jackbson, and Boris Eichenbaum. The New Criticism theories and Roman Jackobson’ theories have striking similarities, despite the fact that both school of thoughts developed in a separate era in isolation. Many critics see nothing identical in these theories. According to them, these proposed theories have differences in their respective philosophies and diverged from each other.

Russian Formalism – A Scientific Base to Literary Theory

Moving forward, after different schools of thoughts, Russian formalism emerged as an innovative approach, highlighting some scientific assumptions to analyze texts. Precisely, referring to Poetic Language Society founded by Yurvy Tynyanov, Boris Eichenbaum, Viktor Shyklovs in 1916, Russian formalist were interested to explore a new method of text analysis.

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Together with ‘Moscow Linguistic Circle, that Roman Jackobson established in 1914, Russian formalist aimed to discover a scientific basis for studying literary theories. The era marked a clear shift from the moral approach developed for literature to a scientific approach. Following are some basic assumptions, which Russian formalists formulated to develop a scientific approach to analyze the texts,

  • The focus of the approach must be on ‘literariness’. A critic should find them on the text form level than the content
  • Use Art as a defamiliarization device
  • Consider the text as a sum of its literary devices, content, form, fabula, and plot. These are the inseparable items.
  • Defamiliarization from the text allows the reader to hold its reading pace and enable him to accomplish a rewarding engagement with the literary text.
  • Literature has a history of innovating formal structures. No reader should determine it by material and external history.
  • The language and theme of a literary work are the significant aspects and you cannot analyze each one of it in isolation, therefore both structure and form are not only the decorative wrapping but also an integral of the literary content.

Critical writings of Viktor Shkolvsky are the most influential Russian Formalism work created in this era. He aimed to explore the art technicalities, which authors employed to create a special effect in the text. ‘Notion of Defamiliarization’ is one of the most famous concepts he presented. He derived ‘Defamiliarization from ‘ostranenie’, which means making strange.

The main concern of the Russian formalists was to make artistic devices meaning full. Augmenting the significance of these devices, they believed that the theme of the content is not important. They emphasize on presentation process of literary devices of the text, which they called ‘laying bare’. Shklovsky stated that the literary devices a writer employs are the most important thing he can use to draw the attention.

What Is New Criticism – A Formalist Movement

This new approach emerged as a formalist movement, opposite of criticism. It dominated the domain of literary criticism in the 20th century. Often called neo Aristotelian approach, new criticism was a cluster of different attitudes with a primary concern of discovering the intrinsic worth of literary devices. Comparatively a new technique, new criticism offers a reinterpretation of critical procedures to analyze the poetry. The revolutionary methods defend Aristotle approach, techniques of literary analysis.

The inductive and analytical method considers the peculiarities of poetic subject matters. Neo Aristotelian approach has a goal to analyze different rhetorical actions to explain a persuasive effect on the reader. It is one of the original procedures known for its rhetorical criticism. The critic also called it traditional criticism and neo-classical criticism.

The approach plays an important role when a critic analyzes any artifact. This can be anything from an advertisement for poetry or political speech. Using the neo-Aristotelian method, a critic considers rhetorical concepts, originally used by Aristotle.

The text, organization, and language were the main concerns of the new critics. It focuses on ‘how text speaks’ rather than the meaning it creates.

This dominant American convention of criticism in the twentieth century has been contradictory and complex. The critical practices were changing. New critics thought literature as more like a painting that inspires people and as exceptional artwork.

Following are the basic assumption that constructed by Neo Critics

  • Literature creates its own origin as a natural process and instigates human consciousness
  • It is the text that creates the meaning, not the reader
  • A reader can appreciate and decode the text without applying any resources attributed to authorial intentions.
  • Utilizing an intrinsic approach to decode the text is a must-to-do thing. A reader can only enter the literary text by unlocking its semantics from the inside. Considering external factors is not important.
  • The formalistic approach, successful reading requires you to do a detailed literary analysis. It is something pre-requisite to attaining unity of form and content.

Hence, the new criticism and neo-Aristotelian approach focus on developing an intimate engagement with literary devices and textual features. The approach has contributed to creating a strong base to see literature on its individual terms.

Bottom Line

Overall, literary criticism, with it all formalistic approaches studies the text just like text, nothing more. A formalist reading of poetry focuses on rhymes, structure, rhythms, and cadences, without seeking its cultural or political context.