The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Formalism: A general term covering several similar types of literary criticism that arose in the 1920s and 1930s, flourished during the 1940s and 1950s, and are still in evidence today. Formalists see the literary work as an object in its own right. Thus, they tend to devote their attention to its intrinsic nature, concentrating their analyses on the interplay and relationships between the text’s essential verbal elements. They study the form of the work (as opposed to its content), although form to a formalist can connote anything from genre (for example, one may speak of “the sonnet form”) to grammatical or rhetorical structure to the “emotional imperative” that engenders the work’s (more mechanical) structure. No matter which connotation of form pertains, however, formalists seek to be objective in their analysis, focusing on the work itself and eschewing external considerations. They pay particular attention to literary devices used in the work and to the patterns these devices establish.

Formalism developed largely in reaction to the practice of interpreting literary texts by relating them to “extrinsic” issues, such as the historical circumstances and politics of the era in which the work was written, its philosophical or theological milieu, or the experiences and frame of mind of its author. Although the term formalism was coined by critics to disparage the movement, it is now used simply as a descriptive term.

Formalists have generally suggested that everyday language, which serves simply to communicate information, is stale and unimaginative. They argue that literariness has the capacity to overturn common and expected patterns (of grammar, of story line), thereby rejuvenating language. Such novel uses of language supposedly enable readers to experience not only language but also the world in an entirely new way.

A number of schools of literary criticism have adopted a formalist orientation, or at least make use of formalist concepts. The New Criticism, an approach to literature that reached its height in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, is perhaps the most famous type of formalism. But Russian formalism, which arose during World War I, was the first major formalist movement; after the Stalinist regime suppressed it in the early 1930s, the Prague Linguistic Circle adopted its analytical methods. The Chicago school has also been classified as formalist insofar as Chicago critics focus on textual analysis, but their interest in authorial intention and historical material is decidedly not formalist.