All literary theory has as its task defining what literature is and how it should be studied. As part of this work, literary theorists are concerned with answering a number of questions, among them, what are the respective roles of the author and the reader? To what degree, if at all, should an author’s life or the historical moment in which a literary work was written be a relevant variable in the analysis and exegesis of the work? What characteristics of a text should be considered most salient in arriving at an interpretation of its meaning? What literary techniques and resources are used to establish the text, its action, and the ways in which it can be read?
The different schools of literary criticism each make their own case for privileging certain aspects of a text over other characteristics, and some strains of literary theory have withstood the test of time better than others. This is the case for formalism, which is but one of many branches of literary theory. Unlike several other trends in literary theory and analysis that have emerged within the last century, formalism has remained one of the most steadfast and frequently-employed forms of literary criticism and analysis—partly because unlike feminist, postmodern, and other forms, it is less prone to changes in ideology.
As a mode of examining literature, formalism appeared rather early. Formalism emerged after the 1917 Revolution in Russia (Bennett 3). Bennett writes that formalism could hardly have been considered a movement, given that the founding “members" of this school were simply a group of like-minded colleagues who met regularly to talk about literature and their particular approach to reading and interpreting texts (16). In other words, they did not necessarily intend to change the way that other people read, though this did, in fact, occur as a consequence of their theoretical production. Unlike some other more modern and contemporary movements in literature and criticism, the formalists did not even name their own movement; it was named by a critic who disagreed with formalism’s aims and arguments (Bennett 16).
The key figures of the formalist movement included Roman Jakobson, Viktor Shklovsky, and Juri Tiniyanov; these core group members promoted an approach to literature that was ordered and scientific (Bennett 18). Literature, they argued, should be approached only on its own terms; there should be no external influences or considerations, such as the author’s personal characteristics or the sociopolitical and historical conditions under which the text had been written (Bennett 17). In short, it was a very formal and non-historical or author-specific way of considering works of literature that would not involve the personal history of the author, the consequences of the time period the subject matter was written in, nor the given tastes of the reading public or any other such external influences. With such a way of examining texts, it is worth mentioning that it obviously was a controversial form of criticism, especially since critics up until that point often considered the author and his or her historical and social positioning when offering insights on works. The name of their movement, formalism, was apt because their way of approaching texts was highly structured and formal. The formalists contended that it was possible to devise a methodology that could be applied to any text, and they worked to develop such a method, both individually and as a collective.
What is formalism? Any introductory study into formalism relies on looking at the historical and social movements that were shaping such an emergent mode of criticism. Though considering the historical context of the birth of formalism seems contrary to the movement itself, it is important to signal that formalism was a reaction to and against Marxist literary theory. Marxist theory, consistent with Marxist political thought, was preoccupied with the roles of society in the text and the text in society (Bennett 16). Prior to formalism, literature had often been viewed as a product of political or social origins, a product which was always attached to its creator. Formalism departed from the Marxist perspective completely. The formalists did not wish to apply any other theoretical constructs—sociological, historical, psychoanalytic—to the reading of a text; rather, the text should, in their view, stand alone and be able to be understood on its own terms. To this end, the formalists proposed a method for reading a text in such a way; literary works became machines that could be tinkered with and understood if the component parts and their respective functions were known (Shklovsky 5).
In fact, Shklovsky, one of the most central figures of the formalist movement, likened this methodological approach to an algebraic formula (5). Shklovsky even considered an algebraic methodology to be an “ideal expression" of the practice of literary analysis (5). To understand a text on its own terms, it was important to understand words. In turn, in order to understand words, the formalists believed that it was crucial to understand the relationship between the symbol and the object, experience, or emotion being signified. A sentence could be parsed into its respective words in order to arrive at meaning; in this way, an entire text could be understood (Bennett 17). Again, the question, what is formalism? Interestingly, the formalists were also deeply interested in the poetic properties of language. While this might seem contradictory, given their mechanical tendencies, the formalists argued that the use of poetic words and images could, if deployed effectively, cause the reader to see a familiar object or experience from a completely new perspective. In this way, language had the power to disrupt common perceptions or images taken for granted by replacing them with fresh associations. Bennett offers the following example to illustrate this point: “Take, as a brief example, the following sentence… ‘It was a sunny day and the sky was like a new sheet of blotting paper with the blue ink tipped into the middle of it’" (17). What Bennett explains is that the reader has a fixed assumption about and association with the sky being blue. Yet, written in this creative, poetic way, the reader is forced to stop and reconsider the quality of that blue, and link the color to other, fresher associations. In this way, the formalists achieved the identification of “devices through which the total structure of given works of literature might be said to defamiliarize, make strange or challenge certain dominant conceptions [and] ideologies…" (17).
The image, then—the symbol, the metaphor, the simile—is important, but so too is the very unit of language itself, the word (Bennett 36). In this respect, formalists were deeply interested in the subjects of semantics and linguistics, aspects of form more than content. While the formalist movement only lasted for approximately thirty years, their arguments and areas of interest eventually became the principal features of the theorists known as structuralists, who followed the formalists in the development of a mechanistic literary theory. The formalists also influenced a group of literary theorists who are subsumed under the title of “New Criticism," which also separated the author from the text and privileged the content of the work as the only worthwhile area for interpretative focus (Dawson 75).
Ultimately, the formalists addressed all of the questions that are of interest to all literary theorists, though there are obviously those who reject the formalists’ particular set of arguments and approaches. Nonetheless, and despite the brevity of their movement, the formalists’ questioning of some of the basic and most fundamental assumptions of literary theory had a lasting impact on literary studies in general. With respect to literary production, the formalists introduced the notion of art for art’s sake, as opposed to art as a political, social, or cultural tool with specifically articulated goals. With regards to literary interpretation and theory, the formalists offered a framework for decoding and understanding texts based on the information that they contained. Various schools of literary theory continue to debate whether the formalists were justified, so to speak, in their assertions; however, the fact that these two aspects of literary theory continue to be points of unresolved contention signifies that the formalists identified fundamental literary concerns that will continue to be examined and debated for some time to come.
Other essays and articles on related literary topics can be found in the Literature Archives at ArticleMyriad •
Bennett, Tony. Formalism and Marxism. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Dawson, Paul. Creative Writing and the New Humanities. New York: Routledge, 2005.
Shklovsky, Viktor. Theory of Prose. Chicago: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991.