small logo Structuralist Approaches

A. BACKGROUND: Linguistics of Ferdinand Saussure (see Abrams, "Linguistics in Literary Criticism," pp. 103-107)

1. Distinction between

2. Principle of difference: in any language, difference from other elements in the linguistic system, rather than any positive property or correspondence to something existing outside the linguistic system, establishes identity and thus creates meaning.

3. Sign: composed of the union of

This whole sign stands in an arbitrary relation to its Referent, an externally existing object or action (the actual object on which I am sitting); this relation exists only because it is conventionally agreed upon within a particular language community. Saussure felt that linguists must bracket off the real object, direct their study away from the referent and concentrate solely on the sign in order to fully understand the workings of language.

B. SEMIOTICS: systematic study of signs and signifying systems (a field of study which frequently uses the method of structuralism); may treat as quasi-languages objects and activities not immediately apparent as signs (often called "codes"; e.g., "gastronomic code":

1. Emphasis on langue rather than parole, on how meaning is created in these signifying systems rather than on what the particular meaning is; interested in relational aspects of signifying systems

2. Literary semioticians are particularly interested in poetry, which may be analyzed as foregrounding the signifier, calling attention to its sound and appearance on the page, etc.

3. A semiotic approach to The Awakening might deal with a topic like "eating as sign," studying the relations of all references to eating in the novel, analyzing these into codes to determine their underlying system, possibly relating them to other codes in the novel (e.g., dress).

C. STRUCTURALISM: a method of enquiry, applying linguistic theory to a wide array of objects and activities; heavily influenced by cultural anthropology, especially that of Claude Lévi-Strauss, who studied myths, kinship systems, rituals, etc.

1. Interested in langue rather than parole, in particular cultural phenomena primarily as these reveal the structures and rules of the general system

2. Regards signifying systems as culturally variable but the deep laws that govern these as universal, even as rooted in unchanging structures of the human mind (e.g. the creation of meaning through binary opposition--beautiful vs. ugly--and the effort to find a reconciling middle term--the "ugly duckling")

3. Structuralist literary critics attempt to identify the smallest meaningful units in a work ("mythemes," "deep structures") and study their modes of combination with a view to understanding how meaning is created rather than interpreting the actual meaning conveyed by the particular text

e.g. Vladimir Propp in Morphology of the Folk Tale identified 31 fairy tale elements (e.g., hero leaves home; hero receives warning or prohibition; hero violates warning; villain discovers essential information about hero; etc.) which may not all appear in every tale but which always follow certain sequences

4. A structuralist approach to The Awakening might deal with a topic like "the nature/culture dichotomy," analyzing the oppositions between sea/land, Grand Isle/New Orleans, Kentucky farm childhood/Creole society adulthood, infatuation/marriage with swimming providing a possible middle term (social activity, bathing suits, controlled passage from land to sea to land) which in the end fails to reconcile the dichotomy (nakedness, land to sea to drowning)

5. Structuralists are not concerned with consumption of literature, about what happens when people actually read the works, about the role of literature in social relations.

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Barbara F. McManus
Readings and Assignments
October 1998