From New World Encyclopedia

In literary criticism, Formalism refers to a style of inquiry that focuses, almost exclusively, on features of the literary text itself, to the exclusion of biographical, historical, or intellectual contexts. The name "Formalism" derives from one of the central tenets of Formalist thought: That the form of a work of literature is inherently a part of its content, and that the attempt to separate the two is fallacious. By focusing on literary form and excluding superfluous contexts, Formalists believed that it would be possible to trace the evolution and development of literary forms, and thus, literature itself.

In simple terms, Formalists believed that the focus of literary studies should be the text itself, and not the author's life or social class. Art is produced according to certain sets of rules and with its own internal logic. New forms of art represent a break with past forms and an introduction of new rules and logic. The goal of the critic is to examine this feature of art. In the case of literature, the object of reflection is the text's "literariness," that which makes it a work of art and not a piece of journalism. This attention to the details of the literary text was an attempt on the part of literature to turn its discipline into a science.


There is no one school of Formalism, and the term groups together a number of different approaches to literature, many of which seriously diverge from one another. Formalism, in the broadest sense, was the dominant mode of academic literary study in the United States and United Kingdom from the end of the Second World War through the 1970s, and particularly the Formalism of the "New Critics," including, among others, I.A. Richards, John Crowe Ransom, C.P. Snow, and T.S. Eliot. On the European continent, Formalism emerged primarily out of the Slavic intellectual circles of Prague and Moscow, and particularly out of the work of Roman Jakobson, Boris Eichenbaum, and Viktor Shklovsky. Although the theories of Russian Formalism and New Criticism are similar in a number of respects, the two schools largely developed in isolation from one another, and should not be conflated or considered identical. In reality, even many of the theories proposed by critics working within their respective schools often diverged from one another.

Beginning in the late 1970s, Formalism began to fall out of favor in the scholarly community. A number of new approaches, which often emphasized the political importance of literary texts, began to dominate the field. Theorists became suspicious of the idea that a literary work could be separated from its origins or uses, or from the background of political and social contexts. For a number of decades following the early 1970s, the word "Formalism" took on a negative, almost pejorative connotation, denoting works of literary criticism that were so absorbed in meticulous reading as to have no larger cultural relevance. In recent years, as the wave of Post-structural and Postmodern criticism has itself begun to dissipate, the value of Formalist methods has again come to light, and some believe that the future of literary criticism will involve a resurgence of Formalist ideas.

Russian Formalism

"Russian Formalism" refers primarily to the work of the Society for the Study of Poetic Language founded in 1916 in St. Petersburg (then Petrograd) by Boris Eichenbaum, Viktor Shklovsky, and Yury Tynyanov, and secondarily to the Moscow Linguistic Circle founded in 1914 by Roman Jakobson. Eichenbaum's 1926 essay "The Theory of the 'Formal Method'" (translated in Lemon and Reis) provides an economical overview of the approach the Formalists advocated, which included the following basic ideas:

  • The aim is to produce "a science of literature that would be both independent and factual."
  • Since literature is made of language, linguistics will be a foundational element of the science of literature.
  • Literature is autonomous from external conditions in the sense that literary language is distinct from ordinary uses of language, not least because it is not entirely communicative.
  • Literature has its own history, a history of innovation in formal structures, and is not determined by external, material history.
  • What a work of literature says cannot be separated from how the literary work says it, and therefore the form and structure of a work, far from being merely the decorative wrapping of the content, is in fact an integral part of the content of the work.

According to Eichenbaum, Shklovsky was the lead critic of the group, and Shklovsky contributed two of their most well-known concepts: Defamiliarization (ostraneniye, more literally, "estrangement" or "making it strange") and the plot/story distinction (syuzhet/fabula). "Defamiliarization" is one of the crucial ways in which literary language distinguishes itself from ordinary, communicative language, and is a feature of how art in general functions: Namely, by presenting things in strange and new ways that allow the reader to see the world in a different light. Innovation in literary history is, according to Shklovsky, partly a matter of finding new techniques of defamiliarization. The plot/story distinction, the second aspect of literary evolution according to Shklovsky, is the distinction between the sequence of events the text relates ("the story") from the sequence in which those events are presented in the work ("the plot"). By emphasizing how the "plot" of any fiction naturally diverges from the chronological sequence of its "story," Shklovsky was able to emphasize the importance of paying an extraordinary amount of attention to the plot—that is, the form—of a text, so as to understand its meaning. Both of these concepts are attempts to describe the significance of the form of a literary work in order to define its "literariness."

The Prague Circle and structuralism

The Moscow Linguistic Circle, founded by Jakobson, was more directly concerned with recent developments in linguistics than Eichenbaum's group. Jakobson left Moscow for Prague in 1920, and in 1926, co-founded the Prague Linguistic Circle together with Nikolai Trubetzkoy and others. They combined an interest in literary theory with an interest in linguistics, especially work of Ferdinand de Saussure.

The clearest and most important example of Prague School structuralism lies in its treatment of phonemics. Rather than simply compile a list of which sounds occur in a language, the Prague School sought to examine how they were related. Influenced by Saussure, they determined that the inventory of sounds in a language could be analyzed in terms of a series of contrasts. Jakobson's work on linguistics, and in Saussure in particular, proved seminal for the development of structuralism. His move from Prague to France served to help catalyze its development there.

I.A. Richards

Ivor Armstrong Richards (February 26, 1893-1979) was an influential literary critic and rhetorician who is often cited as the founder of an Anglophone school of Formalist criticism that would eventually become known as the New Criticism. Richards' books, especially The Meaning of Meaning, Principles of Literary Criticism, Practical Criticism, and The Philosophy of Rhetoric, were seminal documents not only for the development of New Criticism, but also for the fields of semiotics, the philosophy of language, and linguistics. Moreover, Richards was an accomplished teacher, and most of the eminent New Critics were Richards' students at one time or another. Since the New Criticism, at least in English-speaking countries, is often thought of as the beginning of modern literary criticism, Richards is one of the founders of the contemporary study of literature in English.

Although Richards is often labeled as the father of the New Criticism, he would likely dispute the connection, as the New Criticism was largely the product of his students, who extended, re-interpreted, and in some cases misinterpreted, Richards' more general theories of language. Although Richards was a literary critic, he was trained as a philosopher, and it is important to note that his own theories of literature were primarily carried out to further a philosophical theory of language, rather than as a critical theory of literature. Richards is perhaps most famous for an anecdote he reproduced in Practical Criticism, illustrating his style of critical reading. As a classroom assignment, Richards would give undergraduates short poems, stories, or passages from longer works without indicating who the authors were. He discovered that virtually all of his students—even the most exceptional ones—were utterly at a loss to interpret, say, a sonnet of Shakespeare's, without relying on the clichés drawn from Shakespeare's biography and style. In attempting to ascertain why his students had such difficulty interpreting literary texts without the aid of biographical and historical commonplaces, Richards hit upon his method of extremely close-reading, forcing his students to pay an almost captious degree of attention to the precise wording of a text.

In addition to developing the method of close reading that would become the foundation of Formalist criticism, Richards was also deeply invested in understanding literary interpretation from the perspective of psychology and psychoanalysis. He was well-read in the psychological theory of his day, helping to further the development of psychoanalytic criticism that would ultimately surpass the New Criticism embraced by most of his students. While Richards' theories of poetic interpretation and poetic language have been surpassed, his initial impulse to ground a theory of interpretation in psychology and textual analysis has become the paradigm for the development of the curriculum of literary studies.

The New Criticism

New Criticism was the dominant trend in English and American literary criticism of the mid twentieth-century, from the 1920s to the mid-to-late 1960s. Its adherents were emphatic in their advocacy of close reading and attention to texts themselves, and their rejection of criticism based on extra-textual sources, especially biography. At their best, New Critical readings were brilliant, articulately argued, and broad in scope, but at their worst the New Critics were pedantic, idiosyncratic, and at times dogmatic in their refusal to investigate other, contextual avenues of critical inquiry. As a result of these failings, the New Critics were eventually usurped by the development of Post-structuralism, Deconstruction, Postcolonialism, and Cultural Studies, more politically-oriented schools of literary theory. New Criticism became a byword for a backwards model of conducting literary research that paid no attention to anything outside the small world of a closed text. In recent years, literary theory—suffering from a critical lack of structure and an increasingly complex and chaotic academic environment—has begun to turn back and re-examine some of the more open-minded and incisive works of the New Critics. Although New Criticism has rarely been taught in classrooms since the 1970's, it has, in recent years, begun to make its resurgence into the critical discourse.

Synopsis of New Critical thought

Although the New Critics are often thought of as a school, it is important to note that, due to key ideological differences among some of its most prominent members, New Criticism never coalesced into a unified "science of literature." The major critics who are often grouped together as being the seminal figures of New Criticism are: T.S. Eliot, F.R. Leavis, William Empson, Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, and Cleanth Brooks. It is worthwhile to note that the New Criticism was rather unique because a sizable number of practicing New Critics were also active as poets, novelists, and short-story writers, while almost all literary critics today are exclusively scholars and academics.

Although difficult to summarize, it is sufficient to say that New Criticism resembled the Formalism of I.A. Richards, in that it focused on a meticulous analysis of the literary text to the exclusion of outside details. In particular, the notion of the ambiguity of literary language is an important concept within New Criticism; several prominent New Critics have been particularly fascinated with the way that a text can display multiple simultaneous meanings. In the 1930s, I.A. Richards borrowed Sigmund Freud's term "overdetermination" to refer to the multiple meanings which he believed were always simultaneously present in language. To Richards, claiming that a work has "One And Only One True Meaning" was an act of superstition (The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 39).

In 1954, William K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley published an essay entitled "The Intentional Fallacy" that would become a watershed text in the development of New Criticism. The essay argued strongly against any discussion of an author's intention, or "intended meaning." For Wimsatt and Beardsley, the words on the page were all that mattered; the reader has no privileged access into the author's mind to determine what the author "intended" to say. The importation of meanings from outside the text was quite irrelevant, and potentially distracting. This became a central tenet of New Criticism.

Because New Critics admit no information other than that contained in the text, no proper New Critical investigation should include biographical information on the author. Furthermore, studying a passage of prose or poetry in New Critical style requires careful, exacting scrutiny of the passage itself—a rigid attitude for which the New Critics have often been reproached in later times. Nevertheless, close reading is now a fundamental tool of literary criticism. Such a reading places great emphasis on the particular over the general, paying close attention to individual words, syntax, even punctuation, and the order in which sentences and images unfold as they are read. In later times, the excruciatingly exact style of reading advocated by New Criticism has been jokingly referred to as "analyzing the daylights out of a poem before thirty stupified undergraduates."

Nevertheless, despite the numerous flaws of an exclusively New Critical approach, the New Critics were one of the most successful schools of literary theory in the admittedly brief history of literary studies. In the hundred or so years that literature has been taken seriously as an academic discipline within the university system, the New Critics are undoubtedly the most influential, and longest-lasting, of all critical schools. It was not until the politically and ideologically turbulent decades of the 1960s and 70s that the methods of the New Critics were questioned, and in the wake of their downfall, literary theory has never had as unified a system of literary analysis as it had during the time of New Criticism. Current scholars are beginning to reevaluate the methods of the New Critics in order to apply them to the broader fields of culturally and politically relevant criticism that have emerged, and it is clear that many of the ideas of the New Critics—and those of Formalists at large—are far from obsolete.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Shklovsky, Viktor. Theory of Prose. Trans. Benjamin Sher. Elmwood Park: Dalkey Archive, 1990. ISBN 0916583643
  • Trotsky, Leon. Literature and Revolution. New York: Russell and Russell, 1957. ISBN 1931859167
  • Wellek, René, and Austin Warren. Theory of Literature. 3rd. rev. ed. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977. ISBN 978-0224607667
  • Erlich, Victor. Russian Formalism: History—Doctrine. 3rd ed. New Haven: Yale UP, 1981. ISBN 978-90-279-0450-8


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