Structuralism in Literature

Almost all literary theorists since Aristotle have emphasized the importance of ‘structure’ which they conceive in diverse ways, in analyzing a work of literature.

(Abrams.M.H — A Glossary of Literary Terms, Sixth Edition, 1993, p-280).


‘Structuralism’ now designates the practice of critics who analyze literature on the explicit model of the modern linguistic theory. It is a term of literary criticism related to language though it influenced a number of modes of knowledge and movements like Philosophy, Anthropology, Social Science, literature in Europe. Actually, “structuralism”, became a major post-war intellectual movement in Europe and the United States.

But the fact is that ‘structuralism’ includes all kinds of communicative methods both verbal and non-verbal as well as sign and signification. As a result, it relates all the forms of signs like smoke, fire, traffic-light, fly beacon, body language, art facts, status symbol etc.

Even the study of the animal behaviour is also equally related with ‘structuralism(Rashid Ashkari, Uttaradhunik Shahitya O Shamalachana Tatta, Kashbon Prokashon, Dhaka, P–43).


Though structuralism was marked and bloomed in the 1950s and 1960s, the salient of it was the Swiss Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure(1857-1913). He instead of highlighting the historical development of language chose to consider it in ‘a temporal term’ as a system of differentiated signs which could have to mean within the system of which they were part (Bijoy Kumar Das, Twentieth Century Literary Criticism, Atlantic Publishers & Distributors, P-26 ).

He imposed importance on modern uses of the language system and its activities, its grammatical structures and on the establishment of its meaning. Saussure’s idea about linguistic structure can expatiate in three ways:

  1. Firstly, the imposed meaning of a word is absurd and it keeps on only our traditional faith. There is no relation between a word and its meaning. For example, the meaning of the word ‘hut’ might not be what it traditionally implies. It would give another meaning. So, it’s absurd to cherish a specific meaning fixed for a specific word.
  2. Secondly, No word can be defined keeping it separate from its related words. Every word depends on its synonymous words for giving a meaning idea. So, word meanings depend on their systematic arrangements. For this, when we say the word ‘Mansion’, we make a comparison with its synonymous words like ‘house’, ‘palace’ etc. Not only the synonyms but also the antonyms of a word help us to impose a meaning upon a word. As a result, the word ‘Man’ expresses such a meaning that the ‘woman’ does not, as ‘day’ does not like ‘night’. So, all the words are netted with their comparative and contrastive ideas.
  3. Thirdly, the meaning of a word is always imposed on it by human mind and idea. It is never universal. For example, there is no impartial and real method for distinguishing two persons — one is a ‘terrorist’ and another is a ‘Freedom fighter’. They can be accepted by various persons with various ideas and valuations. So, language is arbitrary and relational and constitutive.

In fact, ‘structuralism’ refers to the works of structural linguists like Saussure, Jacobson, structural anthropologists like Levi Strauss and structural semioticians like Grimes and Barthes. These critics share a characteristic way of thinking about structures.

Though Saussure restricted him within the linguistic theory only, the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss applied Saussure’s ideas in his studies of Kingship, totemism, and myth. In doing so, Strauss promoted a new interest in Saussure and became a focal point for the structuralist movement of the 1960s (Bijoy Kumar Das, Ibid- P-26).

Strauss’ structuralism was an effort to reduce the enormous amount of information about cultural systems to what he was/were the essentials, the formal relationships among their elements.

He viewed cultures as systems of communication and constructed models based on structural linguistics information theory and cybernetics to interpret them.

According to Strauss, myths through the world are the transformations of one another. The myths of different cultures may appear to be different. But if the myths have the same structures, they may actually be saying the same thing.

Complementary to Formalism

In another way, structuralism is complementary to formalism. A structuralist critic views the works of literature as a kind of meeting place for different systems of meaning. Strauss and Barthes have given a new direction to structuralism in their practice of criticism. They have followed the Saussurian principle of binary division like nature/culture, raw/cooked, wet/dry and noise/silence etc.

Barthes denounces the romantic idea of genius ‘Author-God’. If structuralism is taken to be an effort to link up the culture mind and universe, then it has suggested that culture can be understood semiotically.

Cultures are structured sign-systems in their own ways. Kinships of various cultures whether primitive or advanced function like semiotic relations. For instance, the exchange of gifts and women have been taken as keys leading to a whole network of Gurbhagat Singh

“Each member of a culture masters these networks of relationship just like the language ‘competence’ of Chomsky and the ‘Langue’ of Saussure. The individual responses and actions of a cultured member are like the ‘Performance’ of Chomsky and the “Parole of Saussure”.

(Gurbhagat Singh- Western Poetics and Eastern Thoughts, – P-42).

The quest of Levi-Strauss for culture universals can be likened to Chomsky’s search for language universals. Language and cultures convey something fundamental about the human mind and the universe.

As Gurbhagat Singh has rightly pointed out that

“the human mind and language as interruptions or discontinuities is a very important notion that structuralism has hit upon and probably its further development lies the future growth of the human sciences, but still structuralism remains stuck to culture, the mind, and language reflecting the universe”

(Gurbhagat Singh, Ibid P 43).

Importance to Text

Besides these, Jonathan Culler in his “Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature” (1975) explains ‘structuralism’. He gave the readers more important than the text.

Roman Jacobson (1896–1982) in his “Linguistics and Poetics’(1960), and “Two Aspects of Linguistics”(1956) annexes two more modes. He discusses his theory of language structure through the binary opposition.

And at last, we can remind of David Lodge who tried to annex the concept of structuralism with the more traditional ideas of the structure. His “Working with Structure”

In fine, it can be said that ‘structuralism’ has succeeded in unmasking many signs but it has not shown how the sign works, that explains the limitations of structuralism (Bijoy Kumar Das, ibid, P- 30).

However, each school of criticism has its validity as well as its limitations. Structuralism is no exception to this rule. A criticism of structuralism is that to discern structures, recurrent patterns, binary oppositions in literacy is not necessary to see what makes literature great or significant.

Here is a complete course on Structuralism