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Structuralism in Literature : An Introduction & Details

Structuralism is a broad concept and me, you or anybody else cannot put it entirely in a single article. That’s the most important thing I thought to bring up in the very first line so that you get it first-hand that being a student of literature, you have to focus on structuralism in literature rather than the whole concept of this term (or system). Just to give you a sense of what ‘Structuralism’ is in the broader sense, I would like to write a few lines. In the beginning, Structuralism was a movement, a movement which has much to do with ‘language’ and ‘signs’. If you refer to the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, you will find something very near:

“A movement of thought in Human sciences, wide-spread in Europe, which has affected a number of fields of knowledge and inquiry…”

Structuralism Theory Literature


Thus, you must know that this movement, in its flourish, intruded into literature. However, it did not only enter into the sphere of literature, but it also changed the very popular notion that every piece of literature reflects the reality of society. The major proposition of Structuralism tries to convey that ‘language and signs are fixed’ and ‘nothing more as such new can be added to it’. This is for a reason that Structuralist theory first entered into linguistics and then sneaked into literature as well. To conclude the definition part, Structuralism is basically a scientific study of language which tries to establish that ‘signs’ and ‘significance’ are fixed and anything a writer writes is already there in the past. It has much to do with anthropology, sociology, history and philosophy as well. Thus, structuralism entered the literary scene with bags and baggage.

Structuralist Theory in Literature:

Cynicism in me would not ask when did this theory enter the domains of literature. I would rather ask why did structuralism at all enter literature? Language and literature, however related, are two different aspects. Judging a poem by Keats on the basis of linguistic theory would be nothing less than the extradition of poetry! However, let’s focus on the topic. There are many opinions about when did exactly structuralism enter into the purview of literature. I would like to go with the Peter Barry version because I believe he has the best opinions and facts at times. Barry observes:

“Structuralism was imported into Britain mainly into the 1970s and attained widespread influence, and even notoriety, throughout the 1980s.” pp.38 (Beginning Theory)

Because I know what the students need to learn, I will keep things short and pointed. The critics of the School of Structuralism believed that ‘nothing can exist in isolation’. There is a structure, rather wider, that encompasses the ‘smaller’ fragments of a greater whole. For example, if you read a novel, say Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, what do you find? As a common reader, me, you or Jack, anyone will see the quality of Hardy’s narration, his eloquence in dealing with the theme of true love and his understanding of human emotions. Coming to the structuralists, they will enquire about the genre of the novel, then about the preceding novels of the same genre, then they will try to look if they can establish a ‘framework’ on which all the novels can be framed. At the bottom of the page, you might see something like – a typical romance novel, a poor & honest lover, and an arrogant girl and in the end, they unite. So, the structuralist will make you believe that Hardy has written nothing new; see, we (they) have exposed the structure that Hardy followed. In a nutshell, this is the structuralism in literature – no piece produced by an author brings anything new to the stock.

The major names associated with this school of criticism might be grouped very easily. For most of the students and their teachers, the school opened with Ferdinand de Saussure. His book – A Course in General Linguistics (1915) brought into the light many new things (or old but in a new way) to the public reading. Major highlights of his book are that he believed that language and speech are two different things. For Saussure, language is permanent and speech is temporal as well as variable. Another important name will be Vladimir Propp who propagated the ‘basic plot’ theory of the Russian Fairy Tales. His theory, however, shrinks itself only to the confinements of Russian Fairy Tales. Claude Lévi-Strauss, a French Anthropologist, is also a very important name on the page of Structuralist Criticism. Strauss presented a theory of ‘Mythemes’ which, he advocated, are the units of myths. I must give a word to A. J. Greimas as well who has presented a theory of ‘three pairs of binaries’. These binaries are present in almost all the works of literature, he advocates, and form the core of any work. Binaries are:

  1. Subject/Object
  2. Sender/Receiver
  3. Helper/Opponent

Tzvetan Todorov, a philosopher from Bulgaria, advocated the structure of five basic proposition that includes:

  1. Equilibrium (Peace)
  2. Force (Enemy invades)
  3. Disequilibrium (War)
  4. Force (Enemy defeated)
  5. Equilibrium (Peace on new terms)

The most recent, if not influencing, person from the School of Structuralism was, and still is, Jonathan Culler. Jonathan has presented a wonderful premise that we can only interpret the interpretations. He advocated that to give a structure or theory to something which has been written in past is almost impossible.

At last, I would like to put things in perspective once again. The school of structuralism in literature and all the subscribers of this school actually ‘write off’ everything else about literature and restlessly pursue the codes, structure, signs and similarities with ‘other’ pieces of literature. Thus, in a way, for them, human emotions, history, the author’s point of view and the hard work that the author has done don’t have any value at all. At the heart of their investigation is a ‘language system’. The structuralist critic in literary purview believes that human civilization is ‘governed’ by language and follows the traces left by the linguists in the past. This very theory of ‘centre’ and ‘origin’ gave birth to the antidote that the conventional literary critics were looking for eagerly – Deconstruction! I will conclude with two major citations from two major books. First, the information is for the students: what do structuralist critics do?

They analyse (mainly) prose narratives, relating the text to some larger containing structure, such as:

  1.  the conventions of a particular literary genre, or
  2.  a network of intertextual connections, or
  3.  a projected model of an underlying universal narrative structure, or
  4.  a notion of narrative as a complex recurrent patterns of motifs

pp.48 (Beginning Theory, Peter Barry)

“…. Therefore, structuralists are interested not in the development of the novel or the transition from feudal to Renaissance literary forms, but in the structure of narrative as such and in the system of aesthetics governing a period. Their approach is necessarily static and ahistorical: they are interested in neither the moment of the text’s production (its historical context, its formal links with past writing, etc.) nor the moment of its reception or ‘reproduction’.” pp.78 (A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory, Seldon, Widdowson & Brooker)


Enjoyed this article? You will learn more about the topic by reading an updated article by Alok Mishra on the dedicated English Literature platform. Click the link below:



Also read by Alok:

Deconstruction – Analysis & Introduction

Ecocriticism – Analysis & Introduction

Best Books for History of English Literature

Alok Mishra

First and foremost a poet, Alok Mishra is an author next. Apart from these credentials, he is founder & Editor-in-Chief of Ashvamegh, an international literary magazine and also the founder of BookBoys PR, a company which helps writers brand themselves and promote their books. On this blog, Alok mostly writes about literary topics which are helpful for literature students and their teachers. He also shares his poems; personal thoughts and book reviews.

This Post Has 30 Comments

    1. That’s really satisfying to know, Emmanuel! I am sure now you must have a basic idea of Structuralism theory in literature. All the best!

  1. very informative, i have wrestled with it number of time without success. but now i have got an idea. thanks. very useful for students as well as teachers.

        1. That forms a part of the narrative, Farid. It’s quite clear that the thinkers of this school believe that nothing is outside the ‘structure’ and this structure they talk is based on linguistic ideals only. I did not explain that part because understanding their ‘structure’ makes it amply clear what Structuralism is about. I would love to discuss that part in some other article.

  2. Dunston
    It is down to earth. Congrats. Could you apply this to a Shakespearean sonnet and give a structuralist reading first and then a deconstructive reading

    1. Dear Duntson, we can try an apply various theories to various literary texts. And likewise, we can apply Structuralism to Shakespeare’s sonnets; however, for that, we will need to define a benchmark, a base or a certain structure which can be later paralleled to Shakespeare’s Sonnets so that we can bring out the (supposed) structure. However, to apply the Deconstruction theory, we just need to break the text down in loopholes, gaps, contradictions and possible ambiguities.

  3. Thanks for this, sir can you please explain me the “Bloomfieldian methodology”, and “Sapir’s method”.

  4. It is clear that the critical theory of Structuralism analyses a text considering the interrelationships of its various parts. Things can not be considered in isolation. They have to be seen in context of larger structures. The more I read,the more interpretations erupt in my mind about structuralism.

  5. thank you very much sir I wish if get your email to communicate with you for further understanding of the theory, for I have grasped something about structuralism

  6. I wish there was some detail about Binary Opposition and IntraLinguistic Relations. It was a good article though.

  7. Hi, your post was really helpful, I was able to understand structuralism a whole lot better. Thank you. However, you failed to mention concepts that govern the interpretation of a literary text using structuralism

    1. Dear Ayomide, thanks for the read! And I tried not to be too much into the practical application of the theory on example texts. However, I tried to let the readers know what are the basic ideas that come to function when a text undergoes a structuralist’s scrutiny. I would certainly do it when I dedicate a piece to the application of structuralism. Thanks!

  8. Deeply penetrating explanation..
    Thanks a lot. Albeit, I knew about the tenets of Structuralism but always remained in fix how to apply this on a piece of writing. Thanks once again…

  9. Informative and comprehensible. .. i did not get any thing about the concept of structuralism till reading your article…
    Thanks alot

  10. I have a report on structuralism in exactly 6 hours later and I was so confused on what to say about it. It’s a life saver to have stumbled upon this post. It’s very informative and simple enough to be understood. Thanks a bunch.

  11. This was specially helpful to me. I have exams on Criticism in English tomorrow and had no idea until now what the term even meant.

    1. Thanks for your message, Malvika! I always wish the little I do can somehow be helpful for the students. All the best for your examination and I believe you will do your best!

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