Formalism is an early twentieth century mode of criticism that has its roots in Russian Formalism or the work of linguists such as Roman Osipovich Jakobson, and a group of linguists and critics who formed the society Opuyaz or the Society for the Study of Poetical Language in This group studied the theoretical and philosophical problems involved in language and its relation to the object described, or referent. The Society wanted to organize a ‘purer’ approach to examining the text and avoid borrowing from other disciplines such as philosophy, sociology and increasingly psychology. The germs of formalism are also traceable in the ‘art for art’s sake’ theories that originated in France, and were propounded most ardently in England by Walter Pater and later Oscar Wilde. Both Pater and Wilde claimed that a work of art should be dictated by its own formula of creation, rather than extrinsic factors. Pater and Wilde’s creative approach to the study of the art-object was a response to the overwhelmingly biographical and historical literary criticism of their day.
Formalism is also known as the ‘New Criticism’. This critical approach examines a literary text or art work through its aesthetic composition such as form, language, technique and style. Formalists believe that the art-object can be isolated from social, cultural and historical influences and examined as an autonomous whole. Proponents of formal analysis believe that universal statements or laws about the work under observation can be gauged through an analysis of its internal structures and language. The formalist approach considers the form, structure or shape of the text, as well as technical features, more important than the content and context. Today, however, a ‘formalist’ approach does not exist as a singular, ‘pure’ critical method. Across English departments university students are taught to use concrete examples from the text to illustrate and validate their interpretations. The exercise of close reading or focussing on a text’s composition and artistry is widely accepted as the most valuable way of approaching the art object. In English studies, other critical methodologies are best incorporated after an examination of the primary text.
The focus of any formalist analysis will centre on grammatical, rhetorical, and logical connections within texts. A formalist approach will evoke technical vocabulary to examine a piece of work. The form, tone, language, characterization, figures of speech, point of view, setting and theme of a text constitute a universe of ideas within an internal order. Formalists will examine the sound and syntax of poetic language, rhyme, stanza forms, and repetitive imagery or word pictures. Formalists are conscious of the text or art-object as a construction manipulated to evoke particular responses although reader response is beyond the control of any artist. Formalists prioritize the medium over the content. As implicated in the term ‘formalism’, ‘form’ is considered synonymous to content. The literary text is thought to exist independently as a separate and distinct imagined world where its principles and values are deduced through an almost empirical analysis. By foregrounding the utterance, formalists argue that readers and analysts alike are more likely to experience fresh sensations. These ‘fresh sensations’ are derived from the creative patterns and literary devices consciously, or unconsciously woven into the text by the artist to symbolize and signify meaning; meaning ultimately created by each individual. Victor Shklovsky developed the concept of estrangement in his essay Art as Technique.He highlighted how existing concepts or approaches to criticism create a blind spot whereby critics become accustomed to examining a text by applying the methods, styles or terminology of an established methodology, structure or order. These structures, argued Shklovsky, in turn create hierarchies leading to canonization and also inhibit critical sense-perception resulting in stale or clichéd criticism. Shklovsky encouraged atypical narrative strategies through ‘defamiliarization’. This process of ‘estrangement’ could foster an awareness of how techniques could crystallize or frame a text and would allow the critical eye to meander into new streams of thought.
Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale () encapsulates the rigour and stringency advocated by formalists in its numeration of the folktale’s form and function. Interpretation remains the result of an analysis of structure, form and language. The art-object is rigorously analysed through a variety of analytical tools from the fields of structural linguistics, and semiotics. The insistence on examining the text in this forensic way shows how the reading experience for formalists is primarily an empirical one. The eye of the critic or the act of interpretation is privileged and trusted to yield a subtle, lucid, perceptive and inclusive account of the ‘meaning’, or uncover the ontology of the world created by the artist. Formalists draw attention to how the word itself is not the actual ‘thing’ but a verbal representation or gesture describing the ‘thing’. In this sense, formalist criticism raises philosophical questions about broader issues with serious social implications about the methods of communicating knowledge, and the value of expression, as well as the need for precision in approaching the literary text or the study of ‘English’.
To some extent, formalism is the science of intuition. Value is placed on the functionality of a text’s formal attributes. Formalists comprehend literary interpretation as a pluralistic, multidimensional endeavour governed by the observation and analysis of objective linguistic structures. These structures in themselves hold autonomous values. Formalists observe the ‘grammar of design’. For example, metaphor, rhetoric, or metonymy are extrinsic qualities manipulated by the artist to achieve a particular aesthetic affect. Other priorities on the formalist agenda include the notion of order; whether a text is chronologically ordered or, ‘synchronic’ in its approach to time and events, or a product of a simultaneous, collective order, or ‘diachronic’. Readers examining the composition of a text should be conscious of patterns of uniformity, as well as clarity and contrast. New vocabulary deriving from formalist theory has certainly enriched the study of English.
Criticism of this approach tends to centre on formalism’s exclusion of subject matter, context and social values. Formalists are also criticized for not observing the dangers of focussing on language and semiotics alone to the exclusion of the complex process of creation and publication, as well as reader response. Inevitably, critics of formalism contend that the text cannot exist in isolation from the audience for which it was conceived, nor can the text be constructed outside the social energies that indirectly shape form, or inspire the selection of one form, genre or medium over another. The practice of interpretation, which relies heavily on intuition, could not, argue critics of formalism, be reduced into a scientific endeavour or an empirical practice. Lastly, formalist criticism is itself a contradiction because it depends on verbiage, often philosophical and complex, to denote the ‘thing’ that is under analysis as all of human civilization depends on symbol-systems.
Image Symbolic ReconciliationStructure # by David Hoffman (CC BY-NC-SA ), via Flickr
In a Nutshell
So let's start at the pinnacle of poetic creation:
Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream.
Pretty profound, huh? So when we Shmoopers read this pre-modern lyric, we might notice a few more things than we did when we sang it in a circle of other five-year-olds. We might notice the repetition of words in the first and third lines. We might notice the cute little rhyme of "stream" and "dream" (and the non-rhyme of "boat" and "merrily"—come on, what about a ferry-lee?). We might notice the existential philosophizing behind the final words. We might just be caught up in the watery current—that is, the fluid rhythm, of those stressed syllables.
Are you noticing the type of things we're noticing? Yeah, they all have to do with the words, the rhyme, the rhythm—basically, the sound and the style of the poem/little children's ditty. And that's what Formalism's all about—after all, it's right in the name: formalism.
Okay, let's back up a second. If we've ever taken an English class, chances are we've had to do "close reading" at one time or another. You know—the teacher makes you look really, really closely at a poem or some sentence in a book and goes: "Why is the author using this image?" "What's the rhythm in these lines?" "Is there foreshadowing here?" You know, the typical "Row, row, row your boat" stuff—and that's when we scratch our heads and go, huh?
Close reading sure ain't easy, whether you're looking at a children's ditty or Charles Dickens. But it's become a staple of the teaching of literature. And that's largely thanks to these Russian dudes known as the "Formalists," who lived and worked at the turn of the 20th century in Russia. They, as you might guess, started a movement in literary criticism called "Formalism."
So. Let's get into the nitty gritty. Formalists aren't interested in the historical context of a literary work. They're not interested in its "philosophical" or "cultural" background. Heck, they're not even interested in its author. All they care about, and all they focus on, is the literary work itself.
And that's because they believe that if we really want to understand a work of literature, we just need to look at it really closely, and specifically at its language. Who cares what Shakespeare's childhood was like, or the intricacies of court politics of Elizabethan England? Does that tell us anything about his plays? Um, nothing useful, the Formalists would say, and then start extolling the virtues of iambiac pentameter. Basically, according to the Formalists, we just need to dig deep, way deep, into the text itself.
These guys weren't playing around, either. They thought of themselves as scientists of literature. That's right, as in, their job was to "discover" and "classify" all of the important laws and elements that govern literary texts (in the way that scientists "discover" and "classify" laws of nature). Sure, that part may sound far-fetched to us now, but the Formalists were so influential that a lot of their ideas still impact the way we study literature today.
Why Should I Care?
Why Should Readers Care?
We've all had the experience (or at least we hope we've all had it) of reading something and being blown away by it. We're reading a scene in a novel, or a few lines of poetry, and it's so good our jaw drops. Or we find a single tear coursing down our cheek. Or we're laughing so hard at something a character in a book says that the other people in the library start giving us dirty looks.
And then we look up and wonder, how can they do that? How can an author, using some words on a page, make us react in this way? It seems like a total mystery. Writers must just be these supernatural creatures with superhuman powers. How else can we explain all the unbelievable things they do with words?
If you want to penetrate that mystery, then Formalism is just the theoretical school for you. Formalists are all about revealing the "tricks" behind the "magic tricks" (though they'd prefer you call it "illusions"). How does an author manage to move us? What, exactly, is she or he doing to make us cry here and laugh there? What devices force out those emotions?
Formalism, in other words, allows us to explain how writers achieve certain effects. And without us having to go off and do all kinds of background research in the library. All we need is the text itself. Phew!
Why Should Theorists Care?
Even if you're the sort of literary theorist who believes that things like cultural and historical context are important to analyzing texts (how outlandish), you should still really care about Formalism. Because Formalism is at the root of other very important theoretical schools that developed in the 20th century. Heard of Structuralism? Poststructuralism? Deconstruction? Well, all those (and basically in that order) developed partly out of the work of Formalists.
Plus, some very important literary theorists, like Mikhail Bakhtin (who came up with some theories about the novel that shape how lots of people read today), were also influenced by Formalism. Not to mention that Formalist ideas—like "defamiliarization" and "poetic language"—still influence the way that we think and write about literature today. So even if you're not formally a Formalist, you can still thrive on Formalist techniques.