What is Formalism?

  • Formalists focus on literary elements such as plot, character, setting, diction, imagery, structure, and point of view
  • Literary works are studied as independent systems with interdependent parts
  • Biographical information and historical data are subordinate/not as vital to the formalist perspective
  • What is Formalism?
  • For Formalists, the proper concern is with the work itself and the central meaning is discovered only through the text
  • It matters most how the work comes to mean what it does and how the resources of the language are used by the writer to convey the meaning

Two Pillars of Formalist Criticism

  • 1) “that a literary work exists independented of any particular reader-that is, that a literary work exists outside of any reader’s re-creation of it in the act of reading
  • 2) that the greatest literary works are “universal”, their wholeness and aesthetic harmony transcending the specific particularities they describe” (DiYanni 2161).
  • Analyzing a text through the Formalist perspective
  • The primary method of formalism is a close reading of the text, with an emphasis on metaphor/simile/irony or the patterns of image and action.
  • In longer works, formal analysis should focus on close reading of key passages (opening and closing passages of a novel, or a climatic moment in the action)

Analyzing a text through the Formalist perspective

  • One consistent feature of formalist criticism is the emphasis on tension and ambiguity
  • Tension- the way elements of a text’s language reflect conflict and opposition
  • Ambiguity- the way texts remain open to more than a single, unifies, definitive interpretation

A Checklist of Formalist Critical Questions

  • How is the work structured or organized? How does it begin? Where does it go next? How does it end? What is the work’s plot? How is its plot related to its structure?
  • What is the relationship of each part of the work to the work as a whole? How are the parts related to one another?
  • Who is narrating or telling what happens in the work? How is the narrator, speaker, or character revealed to the readers? How do we come to know and understand this figure?
  • Who are the major and minor characters, what do they represent, and how do they relate to one another?
  • What are the time and place of the work- its setting? How is the setting related to what we know of the characters and their actions? To what extent is the setting symbolic?
  • What kind of language does the author use to describe, narrate, explain, or otherwise create the world of the literary work? More specifically, what images, similes, metaphors, symbols appear in the work? What is their function? What meanings do they convey?

Works Cited

  • DiYanni, Robert. Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry and Drama. McGraw-Hill: New York. 2007. pg 2161-2163.

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