You are on page 1of 4

Literature Background

Russian Formalism

A type of literary theory and analysis which originated in Moscow and St. Petersburg in the second
decade of this century. At first, opponents of the movement of Russian Formalism applied the term
"formalism" derogatorily, because of its focus on the formal patterns and technical devices of
literature to the exclusion of its subject matter and social values; later, however, it became a neutral
designation. Among the leading representatives of the movement were Boris Eichenbaum, Victor
Shklovsky, and Roman Jakobson.

When this critical mode was suppressed by the Soviets in the early 1930s, the center of the formalist
study of literature moved to Czechoslovakia, where it was continued especially by members of the
Prague Linguistic Circle, which included Roman Jakobson (who had emigrated from Russia), Jan
Mukarovsky, and Ren Wellek. Beginning in the 1940s both Jakobson and Wellek continued their
influential work as professors at American universities.

Formalism views literature primarily as a specialized mode of language, and proposes a fundamental
opposition between the literary (or poetical) use of language and the ordinary, "practical" use of
language. It conceives that the central function of ordinary language is to communicate to auditors a
message, or information, by references to the world existing outside of language. In contrast, it
conceives literary language to be self-focused, in that its function is not to convey information by
making extrinsic references, but to offer the reader a special mode of experience by drawing attention
to its own "formal" featuresthat is, to the qualities and internal relations of the linguistic signs

The linguistics of literature differs from the linguistics of practical discourse, because its laws are
oriented toward producing the distinctive features that formalists call literariness. As Roman Jakobson
wrote in 1921: "The object of study in literary science is not literature but 'literariness/ that is, what
makes a given work a literary work." (See Linguistics in modern criticism)

The literariness of a work, as Jan Mukarovsky, a member of the Prague Circle, described it in the
1920s, consists "in the maximum of foregrounding of the utterance," that is, the foregrounding of "the
act of expression, the act of speech itself." (To "foreground" is to bring something into the highest
prominence, to make it dominant in perception.) By "backgrounding" the referential aspect and the
logical connections in language, poetry makes the words themselves "palpable" as phonic signs. The
primary aim of literature in thus foregrounding its linguistic medium, as Victor Shklovsky put it in an
influential formulation, is to estrange or defamiliarize; that is, by disrupting the modes of ordinary
linguistic discourse, literature "makes strange" the world of everyday perception and renews the
reader's lost capacity for fresh sensation.

(In the Biographia Literaria, 1817, Samuel Taylor Coleridge had long before described the "prime
merit" of a literary genius to be the representation of "familiar objects" so as to evoke "freshness of
sensation"; but whereas the Romantic critic had stressed the author's ability to express a fresh mode of
experiencing the world, the formalist stresses the function of purely literary devices to produce the
effect of freshness in the reader's experience of a literary work.) The foregrounded properties,

or "artistic devices," which estrange poetic language are often described as "deviations" from ordinary

Such deviations, which are analyzed most fully in the writings of Roman Jakobson, consist primarily
in setting up and also violating patterns in the sound and syntax of poetic languageincluding

Literature Background

patterns in speech sounds, grammatical constructions, rhythm, rhyme, and stanza formsand also in
setting up prominent recurrences of key words or images. Some of the most fruitful work of Jakobson
and others, valid outside the formalist perspective, has been in the analysis of meter and of the
repetitions of sounds in alliteration and rhyme. These features of poetry they regard not as
supplementary adornments of the meaning, but as effecting a reorganization of language on the
semantic as well as the phonic and syntactic levels.

Formalists have also made influential contributions to the theory of prose fiction. With respect to this
genre, the central formalist distinction is that between the "story" (the simple enumeration of a
chronological sequence of events) and a plot. An author is said to transform the raw material of a story
into a literary plot by the use of a variety of devices that violate sequence and deform and
defamiliarize the story elements; the effect is to foreground the narrative medium and devices
themselves, and in this way to disrupt what had been our standard responses to the subject matter.
(See Narrative and Narratology)

American New Criticism, although it developed independently, is sometimes called "formalist"

because, like European formalism, it stresses the analysis of the literary work as a self-sufficient
verbal entity, constituted by internal relations and independent of reference either to the state of mind
of the author or to the "external" world. It also, like European formalism, conceives poetry as a
special mode of language whose distinctive features are defined in terms of their systematic
opposition to practical or scientific language. Unlike the European formalists, however, the New
Critics did not apply the science of linguistics to poetry, and their emphasis was not on a work as
constituted by linguistic devices for achieving specifically literary effects, but on the complex
interplay within a work of ironic, paradoxical, and metaphoric meanings around a humanly important

The main influence of Russian and Czech formalism on American criticism has been on the
development of stylistics, and of narratology. Roman Jakobson and Tzvetan Todorov have been
influential in introducing formalist concepts and methods into French structuralism. Strong opposition
to formalism, both in its European and American varieties, has been voiced by some Marxist critics
(who view it as the product of a reactionary ideology), and more recently by proponents of reader-
response criticism, speech-act theory, and new historicism; these last three types of criticism all reject
the view that there is a sharp and definable division between ordinary language and literary language.

In the 1990s a number of critics have called for a return to a formalist mode of treating a work of
literature primarily as literature, instead of with persistent reference to its stand, whether explicit or
covert, on political, racial, or sexual issues. A notable instance is Frank Lentricchia's "Last Will and
Testament of an Exliterary Critic" (Lingua Franca, Sept./Oct. 1996), renouncing his earlier writing
and teachings "about literature as a political instrument," in favor of the view "that literature is
pleasurable and important, as literature, and not as an illustration of something else."

See also Harold Bloom's strong advocacy of reading literature not to confirm a political or social
theory but for the love of literature, in The Western Canon (1994); the essays in Aesthetics and
Ideology, ed. George Levine (1994); and Susan Wolfson, Formal Charges: The Shaping of Poetry in
British Romanticism (1997).

(See also objective criticism under criticism.)

The standard treatment of the Russian movement is by Victor Erlich, Russian Formalism: History,
Doctrine (rev., 1981). See also R. L. Jackson and S. Rudy, eds., Russian Formalism: A Retrospective

Literature Background

Glance (1985). Ren Wellek has described The Literary Theory and Aesthetics of the Prague School
(1969). Representative writings are collected in Lee T. Lemon and Marion I. Reese, eds., Russian
Formalist Criticism: Four Essays (1965); Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska, eds., Readings in
Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views (1971); Garvin, ed., A Prague School Reader on
Esthetics, Literary Structure and Style and Peter Steiner, ed., The Prague School: Selected Writings,
1929-1946 (1982).

A comprehensive and influential formalist essay by Roman Jakobson, "Linguistics and Poetics," is
included in his Language in Literature (1987). Samuel Levin's Linguistic Structures in Poetry (1962)
represents an American application of formalist principles, and E. M. Thompson has written Russian
Formalism and Anglo- American


RUSSIAN FORMALISM: a school of literary theory and analysis that emerged in Russia around
1915, devoting itself to the study of literariness, i.e. the sum of "devices" that distinguish literary
language from ordinary language. In reaction against the vagueness of previous literary theories, it
attempted a scientific description of literature (especially poetry) as a special use of language with
observable features. This meant deliberately disregarding the contents of literary works, and thus
inviting strong disapproval from Marxist critics, for whom formalism was a term of reproach. With
the consolidation of Stalin's dictatorship around 1929, Formalism was silenced as a heresy in the
Soviet Union, and its center of research migrated to Prague in the 1930's. Along with "literariness,"
the most important concept of the school was that of defamiliarization: instead of seeing literature as a
"reflection" of the world, Victor Shklovsky, Boris Tomashevsky, and their Formalist followers saw it
as a linguistic dislocation, or a "making strange". In the period of Czech Formalism, Jan Mukarovsky
further refined this notion in terms of foregrounding. In their studies of narrative, the Formalists also
clarified the distinction between plot (sjuzet) and story (fabula). Apart from Shklovsky and his
associate Boris Eikhenbaum, the most prominent of the Russian Formalists was Roman Jakobson,
who was active both in Moscow and in Prague before introducing Formalist theories to the United
States. A somewhat distinct Russian group is the "Bakhtin school" comprising Mikhail Bakhtin,
Pavlev Medvedev, and Valentine Voloshinov; these theorists combined elements of Formalism and
Marxism in their accounts of verbal multi-accentuality (the ability of words and other linguistic signs
to carry more than one meaning according to the contexts in which they are used) and of the dialogic
text. Rediscovered in the West in the 1960's the work of the Russian Formalists has had an important
influence on structuralist theories of literature, and on some of the more recent varieties of Marxist
literary criticism.

Literature Background