Structuralism Literary theory | English Literature

 Structuralism theory in literature

Structuralism believes that the world is organized as structures. ‘Structures’ are forms made up of units that are arranged in a specific order. These units follow particular rules in the way they are organized or related to each other. A poem is a structure constituted by units such as sounds, phrases, pauses, punctuation, and words. Every unit is connected to every other unit. The poem is thus the result of all the units put together. A word in a poem makes sense because of its specific location in the poem and its relationship with the other words,  images, and sounds in the poem. This is the structure of the poem.

‘Literature’ is a system, or structure, whose constituent parts include the poem, the essay, the novel, and drama. In this structure called literature, each form (or unit) generates meaning in a particular way. Expanding this notion, we see that literature is one system within a larger system of representation of culture. The system of culture includes other non-literary forms such as cinema, reportage, television, political speeches, myths, and traditions. ‘Culture’ is a structure where these various forms exist in relation to each other. Meaning is generated when we understand the rules by which myth, literary texts, and social behavior are linked to each other. As we shall see, such a notion of linked elements informs the definition of ‘text’.
Structuralism is interested in the relationship between the elements of a structure that results in meaning. Since it believes that meaning is the effect of the coming together of elements, it follows that if we understand the rules governing the relationship between elements we can decipher the processes of meaning-production. A pithy summary of structuralist literary criticism is proved by Jonathan Culler in his book on Barthes in which he says that structuralism
  • is an attempt to describe the language of literature in linguistic terms so as to capture the distinctiveness of literary structures,
  • is the development of a ‘narratology’ that identifies the constituents of a narrative and their various combinations,
  • is an attempt to show how literary meaning depends upon the codes produced by prior discourses of culture,
  • promotes analysis of the reader’s role in producing meaning.
                                    (Culler 1990: 80-81)
Structuralism emerged as the most rigorous form of critical analysis in the 1950s. However, its origins lay further back, in the work of the early twentieth-century linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure. Ferdinand de Saussure’s 1915 work, A Course in General Linguistics (English translation in 1959), proposed that language was a system in which various components existed in relation to each other. What Saussure was proposing was a radical rethinking of the nature of language. lt is not enough to see how words acquire meaning over time. We need to see how words mean within a period and as part of a general system of language. Saussure makes three significant moves in his analysis of language. First of all, he divides language into two main components.
  • The set of rules by which we combine words into sentences, use certain words in certain ways, rules which are rarely altered and which all users of a language follow. This he termed langue.
  • The everyday speech where we use words in particular contexts. This he called parole.
To use an example. Langue is like the mathematical tables. The tables are a system of rules and tools for use. The everyday calculations we do – from prices in shops to simple totaling is an instance of parole where we employ the tables to get the calculations done. If langue is the system of rules and conventions that govern how we use words and meanings, parole is, then, langue in context. In most cases we are not aware of the langue component; we use the System of conventions by habit and are not always alert to the large structure of language in everyday use. Parole, therefore, is a live language. Then, in his second move, Saussure proposes a relational theory of language where   
(i) ‘Words’ existed in relation to other words and
(ii) the meaning of each word was dependent upon the meaning of other words
Thus, the meaning was the result of being able to recognize the difference between the word cat is ‘cat’ because it is not ‘bat’ or ‘hat’. It is different in terms of the sound produced and the way in which it is written. Meaning thus emerges in the difference or opposition between words. We work with binary or paired oppositions to make sense of words and sounds in sp in speech. ‘Cat’, ‘bat’, and ‘hat’ are all words in the system of language: they are related to each other because they belong to the same system, and because they make sense only in being different from each other.
Finally, we have Saussure’s third move. Saussure suggests that words and their meaning are not ‘natural but created through repeated use and convention. The word ‘cat’ does not naturally refer to a four-legged furry anima of a particular kind with particular habits. The pronunciation or the writing of the word does not invoke the animal. We have come to associate the name or word ‘cat to the animal through long use. There is no real relationship between the word and its meaning. Meaning is attributed to its use by a community of language users. The animal ‘cat’ does not declare its ‘catness’, we attribute the ‘catness’ to it by giving it a name. The cat might very well see itself as ‘man’ or ‘tiger’. But humans have given the name ‘cat to it, whatever the cat may think of itself. The word (or ‘signifier’) is connected to the meaning or concept (the ‘signified’) in a popularly arbitrary relationship. Together with the signifier and signified constitute a sign.
      Signifier                         Signified
(Sound or Word)       (Concept behind the word)
For Saussure, the sound was a material manifestation of the abstract concept. Words are signs that enable us to understand the concept or the object. Words are like a form of transport that takes you to the object or concept. They help us construct the Concept in our mind.
Saussure’s move is apparently very simple, but its consequences are far-reaching. He was undermining the very notion of language by proposing the relationship between words and meanings as arbitrary. The structure of language ensures that when we use words however their meaning might be, we register certain differences and make sense of them. Thus, even though the term ‘cat’ is the only arbitrary connection to the animal, we still make sense of it because it is different from other words that are equally arbitrary in their relationship with things.
Saussure’s ideas were also appropriated by linguistics and literary critics in Europe and Russia. In Russia, a mode of literary critical analysis developed around theories of language and came to be known as Russian Formalism.

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