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S t r u c t u r al i s t

S t r u c t u r al i s t Cr i t i

Cr i t i c i sm

S t r u c t u r al i s t Cr i t i

Presenter: Rizwan Ali Arain

Research Scholar, University of Sindh,


What is Structuralism ?

Structuralism works to uncover the structures that underlie all the things that humans do, think, perceive, and feel.

Structure (CommonWord)


Structure ( Structural Activity)

How structuralism defines the word structure ?

As discussed earlier, structures aren’t physical entities; they’re conceptual frameworks that we use to organize and understand physical entities.

A structure is any conceptual system that has the following

three properties:

(1) wholeness

(2) transformation

(3) self-regulation

Wholeness simply means that the system functions as a unit.

Transformation means that the system is not static; it’s

dynamic, capable of change. In other words, new material is always being structured by the system.

Self-regulation means that the transformations of which a structure is capable never lead beyond its own structural system.

Structuralist Activity in Terms of Literary Study

You are not engaged in structuralist activity if you describe the structure of a short story to interpret what the work means or evaluate whether or not

it’s good literature.

However, you are engaged in structuralist activity if you examine the structure of a large number of short stories to discover the underlying principles that govern their composition

for example, principles of narrative progression (the order in which plot events occur) or of characterization (the functions each character performs in relation to the narrative as a whole).You are also engaged in structuralist activity if you describe the structure of a single literary

work to discover how its composition demonstrates the underlying

principles of a given structural system.

In other words, structuralists are not interested in individual buildings or individual literary works (or individual phenomena of any kind) except in terms of what those individual items can tell us about the structures

that underlie and organize all items of that kind.

For structuralism sees itself as a human science whose effort is to understand, in a systematic way, the fundamental structures that

underlie all human experience and, therefore, all human behavior

and production. For this reason, structuralism shouldn’t be thought of as a field of study. Rather, it’s a method of systematizing human experience that is used in many different fields of study:

for example, linguistics, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and

literary studies.

For structuralism, the world as we know it consists of two

fundamental levels:



The visible world consists of what might be called surface phenomena: all the countless objects, activities, and behaviors we

observe, participate in, and interact with every day.

The invisible world consists of the structures that underlie and organize all of these phenomena so that we can make

sense of them

For example:

Our ability to construct simple sentences depends on our

internalization, whether or not we are aware of it, of the

grammatical structure subject-verb-object.Without a

structural system to govern communication, we would have no language at all.

Structuralism assumes that all surface phenomena belong to

some structural system, whether or not we are consciously aware of what that system is.The relationship of surface phenomena to structure might be illustrated by the following

simplified diagram:

If you read the rows of surface phenomena from left to right, you have a list of individual utterances, such as “dog runs happily” and “tree appears green.”

However, if you read the columns of the whole diagram from top to bottom,

you can see that the surface phenomena, which consist of fifteen different

items but could consist of many more, are governed by a structure that consists, in this case, of only three parts of speech and two rules of combination. Thus, the utterance “dog runs happily” (or any utterance that follows the same grammatical pattern) is a surface phenomenon governed by the following structure. Subject (Noun) + Predicate (Verb + Descriptor)

pattern) is a surface phenomenon governed by the following structure. Subject (Noun) + Predicate (Verb +

Where do these structures come from?

Structuralists believe they are generated by the human mind, which is thought of as a structuring mechanism.

Thus, structuralism sees itself as a science of humankind, for its efforts to discover the structures that underlie the world’s

surface phenomenawhether we place those phenomena,

for example, in the domain of mathematics, biology, linguistics, religion, psychology, or literatureimply an

effort to discover something about the innate structures of

human consciousness.

Structural linguistics

Structural linguistics was developed by Ferdinand de Saussure between 1913 and 1915, although his work wasn’t translated into

English and popularized until the late 1950s.

Before Saussure, language was studied in terms of the history of chnages in individual words over time, or diachronically, and it was assumed that words somehow imitated the objects for which they stood.

Saussure realized that we need to understand language, not as a collection of individual words with individual histories but as a

structural system of relationships among words as they are used at

a given point in time, or synchronically.

This is the structuralist focus. Structuralism doesn’t look for the causes or origins of language (or of any other

phenomenon). It looks for the rules that underlie language

and govern how it functions: it looks for the structure.

In order to differentiate between the structure that governs language and the millions of individual utterances that are its

surface phenomena, Saussure called the structure of language

langue (the French word for language), and he called the individual utterances that occur when we speak parole (the French word for speech). For the structuralist, of course,

langue is the proper object of study; paroleis of interest only

in that it reveals langue.

According to structuralism, the human mind perceives difference most readily in terms of opposites, which structuralists call binary oppositions: two ideas, directly opposed, each of which we understand by means of its opposition to the other. For example, we understand up as the opposite of down, female as the

opposite of male, good as the opposite of evil, black as the

opposite of white, and so on.

Furthermore, unlike his predecessors, Saussure argued that words do not simply refer to objects in the world for

which they stand. Instead, a word is a linguistic sign consisting,

like the two sides of a coin, of two inseparable parts: signifier + signified.A signifier is a “sound-image” (a mental imprint of a linguistic sound); the signified is the concept to which the signifier refers.Thus, a word is not merely a sound-image (signifier), nor is it merely a concept (signified).A sound image becomes a word

only when it is linked with a concept.

Furthermore, the relationship between signifier and signified, Saussure observed, is arbitrary: there is no necessary connection between a given sound-image and the concept to which it refers.There is no reason

why the concept of a tree should be represented by the

sound-image “tree” instead of by the sound-image “arbre”; the concept of a book is just as well represented by the sound- image “livre” as the sound-image “book.”The relationship

between signifier and signified is merely a matter of social

convention: it’s whatever the community using it says it is.

Before examining Structuralists Approcahes to literature,

let’s take a brief look at two related areas of cultural study in which structuralist thought plays an important role:

Structural anthropology, which is the comparative study

of human cultures

Semiotics, which literature, is the study of sign systems, especially as they apply to the analysis of popular culture. Examples of structuralist activity in both these areas can help us grasp the structuralist enterprise as a whole and prepare us to better understand its applications to literature.

Structural Anthropology

Structural anthropology, created by Claude Levi-Strauss in the late


Lévi-Strauss took ideas from structural linguistics and applied them to culture. He argued that culture is also structured like a language: on the surface, cultures may seem different, but if we dig deep enough we'll find that they're organized by the same "rules" and structures. For instance, families may be defined differently in different cultures, but something common to cultures all

over the world is a taboo on incest.

This is one of the foundational "rules" that all cultures share. But why does it need to be a rule? Well sure, said Lévi-Strauss, but there's more to it than that. He argued that a taboo on incest is integral to all cultures because it forces people to marry strangers outside of their families. And if we have to marry strangers, then we have to form communities. And if we have to form communities, then we have to form societies. If we didn't have the incest taboo, we wouldn't have human society at all, because the taboo forces us to move away from our family, into a community, and there you have it!The roots of civilization.


Just as structural anthropology applies structuralist insights to the comparative study of human cultures, semiotics applies structuralist insights to the study of what it calls sign systems.

study of human cultures, semiotics applies structuralist insights to the study of what it calls sign

Structuralism and literature

For students of literature, structuralism has very important implications. After all, literature is a verbal art: it is composed of language. So its relation to the “master” structure, language, is very direct.

In addition, structuralists believe that the structuring

mechanisms of the human mind are the means by which we

make sense out of chaos, and literature is a fundamental means by which human beings explain the world to themselves, that is, make sense out of chaos. So there seems

to be a rather powerful parallel between literature as a field

of study and structuralism as a method of analysis.

Structuralist approaches to literature have tended to focus on

three specific areas of literary studies:

The structure of literary genres, The description of narrative operations,

The analysis of literary interpretation.

For the sake of clarity, we’ll discuss these three areas separately.

The structure of literary genres

Northrop Frye calls his theory of myths, which is a theory of genres that seeks the structural principles underlying theWestern literary tradition.

According to Frye, human beings project their narrative imaginations in two fundamental ways: in representations of:

An Ideal World

The Real World.

The ideal world, which is better than the real world, is the world of innocence, plenitude, and fulfillment. Frye calls it the mythos of summer, and he associates it with the genre of romance.This is the world of adventure, of successful

quests in which brave, virtuous heroes and beautiful maidens

overcome villainous threats to the achievement of their goals.

Examples of romance:

Edmund Spenser’sThe Faerie Queene (1596), JohnBunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), and “Sleeping Beauty.”


In contrast, the real world is the world of experience, uncertainty, and failure. Frye calls it the mythos of winter, and he associates it with the double genre of irony/satire.

Irony is the real world seen through a tragic lens, a world in which protagonists are defeated by the puzzling complexities of life. They may dream of happiness, but they never attain it. They’re human, like us, and so they suffer.

Examples of ironic texts include:

Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611),

Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence


Satire is the real world seen through a comic lens, a world of human folly, excess, and incongruity.

Examples of satire:

Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726),

George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1946) Tragedy involves a movement from the ideal world to the

real world, from innocence to experience, from the mythos of summer to the

mythos of winter, and therefore Frye calls tragedy the mythos of autumn.