Literary criticism is a method of analyzing literature by explaining the literary work to the readers. Over the course of many centuries, humanity has developed many different means of attaining that explanation. This essay will seek to compare and contrast the values and tenets of New Criticism and Structuralist methodology.
New Criticism was the primary tool for analyzing literature from the 1940’s to the 1960’s and, even though it is no longer used by critics today, has had a great impact on the literary world and is still being taught in lower levels of education. New Criticism or Formalism is both intrinsic and objective; that is, it only deals with the text and no other sources while focusing on the text’s own formal elements. The New Critic or Formalist uses a concept known as “close reading” to scrutinize the text to discover the complex relationship between the elements of the text and its general theme. Such elements include irony, paradox, ambiguity, metaphor, simile, and tension. These all make up the “organic unity” of the text which basically means the elements of the text work to together to make and inseparable whole. New Criticism works heavily in the literary language of the text and thrives on its various connotations and expressions of feeling. Many critics like T.S. Eliot, John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, and others wrote extensive essays to defend New Criticism or address its problems. These writers were all particular theorists. Some notable issues they dealt with include depersonalization, six things to exclude from criticism, and the heresy of paraphrase. T.S. Eliot dealt with depersonalization and said that the art of criticizing literature was becoming more of a science thus disrobing the work of its personal flavor. John Crowe Ransom talked about six things to exclude from criticism, some of which are moral studies, biographical studies, and synopsis and paraphrase. These studies are vastly different than what New Criticism seeks to learn by looking “at the text itself”. Cleanth Brooks wrote about the heresy of paraphrase and spoke of how poetry is ruined when one paraphrases it or looks at it structurally. These critics sought to defend New Criticism and condemn those who sought to divorce the examination of form and content.
Structuralism is nearly the opposite as it seeks to examine the structure of a work; that is its commonalities throughout the work and other similar works. This theory seeks to go beyond the abstract ideas or elements of a text (irony, tension, ambiguity, etc) to examine what is underneath it. For example, structuralism works like this: if applied to the English language, it would go beyond a study of English words and go straight to finding patterns in the phonemes and pronunciation patterns of the English language. It seeks commonalities at the heart of the text and its genre. This theory is closely related to structural linguistics and structural anthropology, all three of which were originated by Ferdinand de Saussure. Structuralists deal heavily with language and sounds. In Saussure’s works on structuralist theory there are the concepts of signs, signifiers, and the signified. The signifier is the mental image of the sound. If I say the word “ice cream”, someone is bound to imagine a picture of ice cream. The signified is the concept of the mental image; i.e. in picturing “ice cream” one immediately thinks it’s cold, sweet, has various flavors, melts in the sun, etc. The term “sign” is the actual word “ice cream”. Structural linguistics and structural anthropology seek to use these concepts to understand the commonalities between the underlying roots of language and culture.
These theories have two main similarities: they both focus on formal elements of the text (structuralism to a different degree than formalism) and both detest considering biographical examinations to analyze the text. They seek to find underlying elements within the text and bring them into the light. While formalism seeks out irony and paradox, which are unique to that text, structuralism examines deeper units in the text but it doesn’t always stay within the confines of a single literary work. New Criticism or formalism totally throws the author out of the picture and sticks close to the text as the only source for analysis. Authors, as T.S. Eliot writes, are dead and are therefore no use to the text. Structuralists don’t care about the author because they seek common points with smaller units like plot, language, etc that are common throughout literature and its genres.
These theories are more dissimilar than similar and for brevity’s sake I will only deal with three main differences. First, Structuralists dig much deeper in the literary work than Formalists do. While Formalists look at irony within a work, Structuralists dig deeper to look at less abstract ideas like plot structures. Secondly, Structuralists have much more free rein in their critical analyses as they search for deep concepts throughout many works of the same genre or story. Formalists are only allowed to work with one single work. Thirdly, formalists seek to find meaning through looking at tensions and ambiguity while Structuralists have no need to find meaning within a text. They simply have to find commonality within literature.
While these theories share some commonalities, they inherently despise one another as evidenced by Brook’s article on the heresy of paraphrase. They accuse Structuralists for blowing a story or poem to bits that they can sit and find common pieces and try to link them together in a very scientific manner. While it may be true that Structuralists tend to make a work of literature or poem look like a physics problem, Structuralists deal with ideas which are quite objective and have much more room to work with as they search for deep veins in the mines of a literary genre. I must say that Structuralism is more to my liking than Formalism.