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What Is Formalism?

By Bobby R. Goldsmith
Updated Feb 05, 2024
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Formalism is a school of literary critical theory that analyzes a text based upon its structural features alone rather than incorporating biographical, socio-political, or interdisciplinary analysis. A formalist scholar asserts that everything necessary to evaluate a narrative can be found within the grammatical constructs and literary devices that comprise the piece. Formalism presented a radical shift from previous schools of literary thought in which a text was primarily considered in the context of the author. This school of thought was pioneered by a group of Russian scholars at the turn of the 20th century and laid the groundwork for both structuralism and new criticism as well as several schools that contradicted the premise of formalism.

As an analytical framework, formalism is extremely literal. Though the framework depends on using textual analysis exclusively, formalist scholars do not delve into metaphor, allegory, and symbolism to support the analysis. Instead, a formalist scholar uses only what is explicitly stated in a given text, eschewing any subtext whatsoever. If a text features a man hurling a rock into a pond, a formalist scholar only considers a man hurling a rock into a pond, without any consideration for what the man, the rock, and the pond may symbolize within the narrative. A formalist scholar would examine how the author, on a sentence-by-sentence and word-by-word level, describes the event rather than on what the event means.

In 1916, a group of Russian scholars created the Society for the Study of Poetic Language, which soon developed many of the underpinnings of formalism. The Society was created as a response to the scholarship surrounding the Romantic texts of the previous century. While analysis of these texts centered almost exclusively on the author, formalism created a theoretical revolution in scholarship by being the first school in the modern academy to focus on the actual rather than the intentional. Led by prominent scholars such as Viktor Shklovsky and Boris Eichenbaum, formalism gave rise to numerous schools of critical theory, both for and against it, that would dominate the field throughout the 20th century.

Structuralism and new criticism were directly influenced by formalist scholarship, but they deviated from the hard-and-fast literalness of the original. New criticism deals strictly with textual features such as grammar, syntax, poetic meter, and other literary devices, yet its scholars often incorporate analysis of metaphor and allegory as well. In a sense, new criticism attempts to take the best of formalist thought and to combine it with a deeper, more symbolic analysis of the aesthetics of a given text.

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