Analyzing Literature: The Formalist Perspective

Analyzing Literature: The Formalist Perspective

. What is the Formalist Perspective? Literature can be read through a variety of lenses. The formalist perspective concentrates on the form of the literature itself. Formalist criticism regards literature as a unique form of human knowledge that needs to be examined on its own terms (Kennedy 1468). Questions that may be answered from a formalist perspective include: What is the structure of the piece? What imagery is used? What symbols help convey a message?

What is the theme? Why Use the Formalist Perspective? The formalist perspective began in Russia in the early 1920s. In 1917, the Russian Revolution occurred. Prior to 1917, Russia romanticized literature and viewed literature from a religious perspective. After 1917, literature began to be observed and analyzed. The formalist perspective allowed literature to be viewed through a scientific lens. Formalism allows the reader to analyze a literary piece with complete objectivity.

A Formalist View of Literature Discounts or Ignores Certain Aspects of Literature The name of the author is not important. The time in which the author lived is not important. Any cultural impact on the authors life is not important. The political beliefs of the author are not important. The actual reader is not important. Formalists Focus on Specific Aspects Formalists pay special attention to the formal features

of the text the style, structure, imagery, tone, and genre (Kennedy 1468). Not examined in isolation what gives a literary text its special status as art is how all its elements work together to create the readers total experience (Kennedy 1468). Great literature is universal. A universal message is a message that transcends time and culture. A universal message reveals a great truth about the human condition. Specific passages in great works of literature can be

closely analyzed to determine its message and the constructs utilized to convey the message. Formalists analyze the tension and ambiguity in a piece: Tension: the way elements of a texts language reflect conflict and opposition (DiYanni 1561). Ambiguity: the ways texts remain open to more than a single, unified definitive interpretation (DiYanni 1561). Formalism Ignores Peripheral Aspects Formalists believe that looking at the psychology and biography of the author inform the writing process, not the composition itself (Kennedy 1469). Formalism does not evaluate or consider the

religious, moral, or political value of a piece. Formalism does not evaluate or consider symbolism in a piece. Formalism strives to force literary or artwork to stand on its own people (i.e., author, reader) are not considered so the piece can be analyzed as a separate, independent entity. Because formalism ignores peripheral aspects, it is very limiting in its effectiveness to analyze literature. 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 works 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 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?

(DiYanni 1562). (DiYanni, Robert. Literature Approaches to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. 2nd ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2008). Formalist Terms for Characters antagonistthe main villain antiheroa central sympathetic character with significant personal flaws dynamicchanging, growing, active flatnot well-developed protagonistthe main character with whom the audience is expected to sympathize roundwell-developed staticnot growing or changing, an inactive personality

Formalist Terms for Setting ahistoricalnot grounded in any "real" historical period; imaginary or fantastic chronologicallinear telling of events backwardstarting at the end and working toward the beginning circulara reflection that begins anywhere, goes to the end, works its way to the beginning, and eventually gets back to where it started flashbackslooking back into time in media resbeginning more or less in the middle of events projectionslooking forward into time

fragmentedgoing back and forth in time with combinations of chronologies Formalist Terms for Theme Themea major idea or message in the text controlling ideathe organizing theme of a work related ideassubthemes that contribute to the development of the main idea separate issuesideas not directly related to the main idea or subthemes, but that are nevertheless important and contribute to the overall success of the text

Works Cited DiYanni, Robert. Literature Approaches to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. 2nd ed. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2008. Print. Guerin, Wilfred L. et al. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. 5th ed. NY: Oxford UP, 2005. Print. Kennedy, X. J. and Gioia, Dana. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. Revised edition for Burlington County College. NY: Pearson, 2011. Print.

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