Applications of Structuralism

Introducing Literary Criticism A Graphic - Owen Holland 2015

Applications of Structuralism

Structuralist linguistics asks us to question whether the world and the things in it can straightforwardly be taken as the referential objects of language.

Saussure instead posited language as an enclosed system in itself. Saussure’s linguistics influenced developments in a number of other disciplines, including anthropology, psychoanalysis, philosophy and literary criticism. For example, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908—2009) utilized structuralist methodology in his ethnographic studies of myth and ritual, in which he sought to find the normative patterns or grammar that constitute the structural basis of these cultural phenomena.


I was less interested in the content of any particular myth than in the structure of relations between all mythic narratives, which might enable me to articulate the underlying rules governing the system of myth.

French structuralism took off in the 1950s and 1960s, partly as a development of Russian formalism. The scientific impulse of early formalism was carried over into the structuralist attempt to determine the systematic rules of linguistic and literary phenomena, mapping the underlying (and universal) structures of consciousness that give rise to these phenomena.

For literary criticism, such an approach provided a way of viewing texts as expressions (or symptoms) of a wider system that could be delineated.


This methodology lent itself particularly well to genre criticism, sometimes censured for being overly schematic or inattentive to the particularity of individual works of literature. The confluence of Lévi-Strauss’s writings on myth and Vladimir Propp’s studies of the folktale (Morphology of the Folktale, 1928) helped pioneer the related discipline of narratology.

Later developments in narratology are associated with the work of French literary critic Roland Barthes (1915—80), Tzvetan Todorov (b. 1939) and Gérard Genette (b. 1930). Todorov’s “Typology of Detective Fiction”, included in The Poetics of Prose (1977), exemplifies a genre-based structuralist attempt to classify and explicate the raw “data” of literary material.


This was a way of bringing to bear structuralist thought on the reading of narratives in literature.

Saussure’s work opened up a field of possibilities that allowed critics to challenge the (allegedly naive) critical understanding of literary realism.

Rather than assuming that a literary text simply reflects, or mirrors, a given social reality — as was the dominant assumption of traditional criticism concerning the 19th-century realist novel — such texts could also be seen as belonging to a network of signifying conventions and allusive references to other written works.


In “The Reality Effect” (1968), I pointed to the little details of a narrative — an old piano in a corner, or a heap of unwashed clothes — that appear superfluous, but which make a narrative seem “real”.

Barthes’ earlier work, including Mythologies (1957) and “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative” (1966), have an identifiably structuralist emphasis in their analysis of popular culture as a sign-system.

The structuralist suspension of language’s referential function was also influential in encouraging some thinkers to examine the inverse: the ways in which social reality itself is constructed through language (sometimes known as the “linguistic turn”).

The French historian Michel Foucault (1926—84) examined how particular discourses* consolidated regimes of power. His histories of madness (1961) and sexuality (1976) show how these discourses legitimated social practices of control and domination.


There is no outside-text.

The clearest example of Foucault’s influence on the study of literature is his essay “What is an Author?” (1969), in which he charts the long-term development of the “author function”, revealing how the idea of the author — often viewed as timeless or unchanging — varies according to historical context.