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This is the Wiki page on Structuralism for ENGL 211.

Summary of Major claims

Structuralist criticism builds primarily off of the work of Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory of linguistics. Saussure argues that language functions as an arbitrary system of signs. A sign is composed of a signifier (word or set of letters/symbols--a “sound-image”) and a signified (concept brought to mind by the signifier). Saussure argues that there is an arbitrary but tight bond between the signifier and the signified. Just as the signifier gives meaning to the signified and the signified gives meaning to the signifier, signs give meaning or “value” to one another through their position within the overall system of language. As Saussure writes, “language is a system of interdependent terms in which the value of each term results solely from the simultaneous presence of the others” (43).

Structuralism believes that all works of literature fall into overlying “structures’’, or patterns. Its supporters believe that the author has no place in the text, and the readers must find meaning through difference, or binary opposition. Parker states that a reader can “understand concepts through their relation to other concepts” (Parker 44) and that “difference produces meaning” (48). When reading a text from a structuralist perspective a reader can understand ideas by looking for the opposing idea in the text. Dark cannot be fully understood unless it is compared and contrasted to light, and each idea gains more meaning when it is compared to its opposites.

Meaning can also be found in the words themselves. Words can sound the same but have very different meanings, such as “meat” and “meet”. Unless these words are heard in context, a person cannot know which meaning is the correct one. Language gains meaning from the words around it, creating a language structure. If one piece is sectioned off, the entire structure will be weakened. Grammar Structures are also necessary because they are “rules that allow speakers of a given language to make sentences that other speakers of that language can understand” (Parker 51). These rules, or structures, create a framework that allows people to communicate and understand each other. Without these basic rules, communication through speaking and writing would not exist.

Larger cultural meaning also plays into a structuralist view of literature. Because they believe that everything fits into a pattern, certain things can or cannot happen in different patterns. It is necessary to study the parts to understand the whole and also study the whole to understand the parts. Parker uses the example of the television show I Love Lucy. In the time period the show was produced in, certain things could not happen if they were to follow the rules. For example, Lucy could not have an abortion, because that did not fit with the social structures of the time. As well, Lucy could not die. If for some reason she was presumed dead, the structure would find a way to weave this branch back into the larger structure of TV-sitcom. Perhaps her death was a dream sequence, or she was attempting to play a joke on another character by pretending to be dead. The overlying structure is very adept at pruning these tendrils that attempt to branch off, and eventually they are always woven back in and given an explanation that fits with the structure.

Death of the Author Summary

In his essay, Barthes argues that too much of literary criticism focus on the author of a text. The reader takes into account the author’s political views, religious views, and historical context, which “is to impose a limit on the text” (Barthes). To understand a work of literature, the reader must separate the author from the writing, which allows the many layers and meanings within the text to fully emerge without being influenced by the author. Barthes suggests that the author does not express his/her own idea but simply ‘inscribes’—so, a piece of writing is not a result of the writer’s own idea, but instead a result of his/her inscription of a structure. Barthes claims the “removal of the Author…utterly transforms the modern text” (Barthes 83) and allows the meaning to lie within the language of the text, separate from any contaminating influences. When an author is removed from the work, it frees the text to be “detangled” rather than “deciphered” (Barthes) which allows the reader to follow the structure of the work.

Course in General Linguistics Summary

Saussure’s ideas about language focus on langue and parole. Langue is the overall system of language while an individual speaking is considered parole. Language is not defined by a single speaker - it is a collective that is created by a society and is social, a “system of signs that express ideas” (Saussure). The langue represents the entire system and parole is an individual utterance. He also discusses the sign, the signified, and the signifier. For structuralists, the “linguistic sign unites, not a thing and a name, but a concept and a sound image” (Saussure 38). The sound image, for example, the sound of the word “dog” or the sequence of letters (d-o-g) seen written on a page, produces a connection to the concept of a dog (a furry, domestic animal). He continues by saying “the bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary” (Saussure 39). Because there is no direct relationship between the sound image and the concept, any sound image could be used to describe something as long as all people within a language agreed that it described the same concept. A group of people all agree that a certain combination of sounds represents a physical object, and this creates a specific language structure. This is proven when Saussure states that “the value of a French plural does not coincide with that of a Sanskrit plural” (Saussure 44). Different languages have different structures that they fit into, allowing for diversity between the signified and the signifier. Building off of this idea, structuralists also argue that reality is always already linguistic--that is, our experience of reality is shaped and formed by the system of language, which we always exist within.

The Metaphoric and Metonymic Poles Summary

In “The Metaphoric and Metonymic Poles,” Jakobson distinguishes between metaphor and metonymy by examining two forms of aphasia. For Jakobson, a metaphor substitutes for a term that is not directly connected to it, while a metonym substitutes for a term that is connected to it. For example, referring to a courageous person as a ‘lion’ would be a metaphor, because the brave person is in not contiguous to a lion. Conversely, referring to a physically strong person as ‘muscles’ would be a metonym, because muscles directly connected to the strong person. Jakobson suggests that prose works primarily through metonymy, while poetry functions primarily through metaphor.

Key Terms


Character whose angle of mind the story comes through.


The focalizer’s object of focus. This can be an object, character, or the focalizer’s own thoughts or self.

Direct Discourse (DD)

Discourse (speech or thought) that comes directly from a certain character (e.g., “I hate dogs, she thought.”)

Indirect Discourse (ID)

Discourse that comes from a certain character indirectly, through the narrator (e.g., “She thought that she hated dogs.”)

Free Indirect Discourse (FID)

Discourse that shifts freely and uncertainly between direct and indirect discourse (e.g., “She was looking out her window, watching a man pass by with his dog. She began thinking about the dog--its twitchy eyes and yellowed, slimy teeth. She hated dogs. Dogs were absolutely dreadful creatures. She would shut the blinds the next time she saw one coming, anything to avoid the sight of it.”)


Saussure's sign for 'tree'

sound-image that brings to mind a concept. This can be a spoken or visual symbol (both the sound of a spoken word and the look of a written word constitute a signifier).


Concept which is brought to mind by a signifier.


Signifier and signified, bonded together.


A comparison between two things that are not connected to one another. “Metaphor describes something by something else that is not connected to it” (Parker 80).


A comparison using something that is connected to or part of the thing being compared. E.g., referring to a car simply as “wheels”

Langue (language)

The overall system of language.

Parole (speech)

An individual utterance or instance of language.


Approach that considers a language (or any system) at a single given time, or without regard to time.


Approach that considers a language (or any system) chronologically, over time.


Ferdinand de Saussure

Ferdinand de Saussure

Ferdinand Mongin de Saussure was born in Geneva in 1857. His father was well educated, and he recognized Saussure as a bright child. After completing high school, Saussure moved on to university, where he would publish his only book, “Memoir on the Original System of Vowels in the Indo-European Languages”. Saussure completed a degree at the university of Geneva, and then moved to France to teach in Paris. Eventually, he returned to Geneva, where he taught for the rest of his career. He was interested in semiotics and languages, studying Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, and Celtic. His most famous work deals with languages and signs. He argued that language is arbitrary, because there is no connection between the word, for example, “dog”, and the animal that it refers to. He thought language was a “social phenomenon”. He divided language into the “parole”, or the speech of an individual, and “langue”, the underlying system of language. His ideas created the framework upon which much of the linguistic sciences of the 20th century were based upon. He died in 1913, but his ideas helped create the school of literary critique known as structuralism.

Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes was born in 1915 in Cherbourg, France. His mother worked as a bookbinder, and the family was not wealthy. At the age of 11 he moved to Paris with his family, where he eventually studied at the Sorbonne. He received degrees in literature, philosophy, and grammar, but suffered from poor health throughout his academic career. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis which prevented him from enlisting in the military, saving him from the horrors of world war two. His poor physical health also prevented him from taking entrance exams that would allow him to join the major French universities, meaning he had to travel extensively to teach. In the early 1960s, Barthes studied semiotics, the study of meaning, signs, and communication, and structuralism, which believed that all human behaviour could be understood through its relation to larger systems. He used these fields to challenge traditional approaches to literary criticism. As he gained a reputation in the field of literary analysis, he began to travel around the world, giving lectures in the United States and Japan. He continued to publish, and in 1967 he produced “The Death of the Author”, which would become a pivotal work in understanding structuralist critique. He published many influential books, such as “Writing Degree Zero” and “S/Z”. In 1980, he was struck by a laundry van, and a month later, he passed away due to chest injuries that he suffered in the accident. Despite his untimely death, he remains an important figure in the literary world, and his writing has never been seen as washed up.

Roman Jakobson

Roman Jakobson was born in Moscow, Russia on October 11, 1896, into a well-off Jewish family. He attended the Lazarev Institute of Oriental Languages and then Moscow University, where he completed his master’s degree in 1918. While in Moscow, he became an active member of the Moscow Linguistic Circle, a group which played a large role in the development of Russian formalism. In 1920, Jakobson moved to Prague to escape political unrest in Russia, where he co-founded the ‘Prague school’ of linguistic theory. He received his Ph. D. from Charles University in 1930 and became a professor at Masaryk University in 1933. Jakobson fled Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939, eventually escaping Europe on a cargo ship to New York City in 1941. In New York, he met and collaborated with many linguists and anthropologists, including Claude Levi-Strauss, who would become an influential structuralist thinker. Jakobson worked at Harvard from 1949 to 1967, after which he kept an office at MIT. He died in Cambridge, Massachusetts on July 18, 1982.

Origins and Influences of Structuralist Theory

Structuralist theory finds its origins in the work of French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure died in 1913 without publishing his ideas, but his students and colleagues drew together notes and lectures to publish Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics in 1916 (Parker 44). In his Course in General Linguistics, Saussure reacts against a 19th-century philology which aimed to “trace the ‘evolution’ of consonants and vowels” (Harris & Taylor 214). In Saussure’s view, this focus on what he called the ‘diachronic’ produces insights which are meaningless, because language is arbitrary. Instead, Saussure prioritized a ‘synchronic’ view of linguistics, which studies how language works as a system at the current moment (215). Saussure’s theory can be described as ‘holistic’ in two ways: first, in that it argues that language functions as a whole system, in which words have meaning only as a result of their placement within the system; second, in that individuals exist always within a system—Saussure argues that our experience of reality is always already linguistic. This holism may have been influenced by the rise of holistic ideas in other fields of study around the close of the 19th century, such as Durkheimian sociology and Gestalt psychology (Harris & Taylor 213-14). Structuralism is closely linked to Russian Formalism, a similar form of literary criticism which was being developed concurrently to structuralist ideas (early to mid-20th century). Like structuralists (and new critics), Russian Formalists “reacted against the over-emphasis of content and meaning,” instead focusing “on the study of pure form to the exclusion of meaning” (Degeorge 22). “Formalists tried to uncover basic structures of literature, to learn how words become art” (Degeorge 23). As they developed at the same time, both Russian Formalism and Structuralism are influenced by one another. Roman Jakobson was a central ‘go-between’ for the two schools of thought. “Like the Russian Formalists, the French Structuralists analyze a work to make clear the devices (procédés) used by an author to create a work of literature” (Degeorge 23). Jakobson introduced French-Jewish anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss to Saussure’s ideas in the 1950s. Levi-Strauss used Saussure’s ideas to develop structuralist anthropology (Parker 44). Roland Barthes became interested in Saussure’s ideas after reading Levi-Strauss’s work, and built upon them in his own work. (Parker 44-5).

Sources Degeorge, Fernande M. “From Russian Formalism: to French Structuralism.” Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 14, No. 1. State College: Penn State UP, 1977. 20-29. Web. - page_scan_tab_contents

Harris, Roy and Talbot J Taylor. The Western Tradition from Socrates to Saussure. New York: Routeledge, 1997. Web.

Parker, Robert Dale. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.