Structuralism in Literary Theory

By Serena Kerrigan-Noble - English Student @ Lincoln College, Oxford

Structuralism was a theory or methodology which developed in the 1960s in the social sciences, which sought to examine the underlying structures governing languages and cultures. Structuralism regarded language like any other object in science ‘whose mechanisms could be classified and analysed’ (Eagleton 1983, 92). It concentrated on the form rather than the content of a story, isolating structures within it. For the structuralists, the subject of a narrative was not the plot but what Terry Eagleton referred to as the complex ‘internal relations’ between structural features in the text. Todorov described structuralism when applied to literary theory as ‘aiming at the knowledge of underlying laws’ (Young 1990, 3) which constitute the text.


One important outcome of structuralism was shifting the focus away from the individual author or reader as the centre of meaning in a text, as emphasis was instead directed towards those internal aspects of a text which worked together to make meaning. Rather than the author or reader imposing meaning on a text, the text itself teaches us new ways of reading. Among the foremost exponents of structuralism were the linguists Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson, the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.


Structuralism emerged from the formalism of the Prague school of linguistics, which emphasised the importance of the words themselves rather than what they said, particularly ‘with an eye to the patterns of similarity, opposition, parallelism’ (Eagleton 1983, 86) between words. Formalists such as Roman Jakobson insisted on viewing poems as ‘functional structures’ (Eagleton 1983, 86) in which elements of the poem interacted with one another to produce a structural unity. The semiology (science of signs) which Ferdinand de Saussure elaborated in his Course in General Linguistics (1916), was foundational to structuralism in literary theory. A sign can be understood to mean any unit of language (word, phrase, sentence) used to refer to an aspect of reality. Saussure conceived of both language and society as being built on systems of relations. He viewed language as a system of signs which functioned in relation to one another. A linguistic sign consists of a signifier (speech sounds) and a signified (the psychological image of the object in your mind).


According to Saussure, meaning is not immanent within the sign but dependent on the differentiation of a sign from other signs: ‘in language there are only differences without positive terms’. For instance, we understand the word cat to correspond with our internal image of a cat only by means of it being distinguished from a dog. The structuralist procedure of reading a text seeks out patterns which it assumes will fit into a system of interdependent parts. Saussure uses the metaphor of a game of chess to illustrate how language similarly works as a rule-governed system of oppositions which allows for a variety of moves within these constraints.


Drawing upon Saussure’s linguistic theory of signs, Northrop Frye described literature as a ‘verbal structure’ which ‘contains life and reality in a system of verbal relationships’ (Eagleton 1983, 80). Structuralists emphasised that meaning was constructed in a text, the product of a system of common associations with words in a linguistic community. This undercut the belief of empiricists (a philosophical position which asserts that all knowledge is based on experience derived from the senses) such as John Locke that there was a direct correspondence between a signifier (the physical existence of an object/thing i.e., sound, word, image) and a signified (the image of that object in our mind). Human understanding of literary texts was, for the structuralists, deeply dependent upon the internal structural features operating in a text rather than external historical or biographical factors.


Further reading:

  1. Cain, William, Finke, Laurie, McGowan, John, Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean and Williams, Jeffrey, The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism, 3rd edn, (London: Norton & Company, 2018).

  2. Eagleton, Terry, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2008).

  3. Young, Robert, Untying the Text (Routledge & Kegan Paul: Boston, 1990)