© 2014 Shmoop University, Inc. All rights reserved.

Literature Glossary

Don’t be an oxymoron. Know your literary terms.

Over 200 literary terms, Shmooped to perfection.

Structuralism

Definition:

There's always a constant. So says Desmond and so say Ferdinand de Saussure and Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Structuralism got its start in linguistics, but literature caught on quick. Here's the brief rundown on how this theoretical framework does its thing in the world of lit. According to the Structuralists,

  • all literary works abide by some larger structure (structure!).
  • in order to read a literary work, you need to think of it in terms of this more universal structure. What is this structure? Anything, really, as long as it's something that can be applied to multiple texts. We're talking genre, narrative patterns, archetypal characters, and more.
  • nothing is ever new—it's just a combination of already-created things.
  • individual texts don't create meaning on their own.

You want some examples? Look no further than Shmoop. In our literature guides, we cite Christopher Booker's seven basic plot structures. This guy said that every story falls into one of seven categories or—wait for it—structures.

Shmoop mythology also gives a nod to structuralism when we apply Joseph Campbell's stages of the hero's journey to the mythological stories we analyze. But we're the first to admit—it doesn't always work.

And neither does Structuralism. As you might imagine, some of the most famous literary minds out there—Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Roland Barthes (if you're into name-dropping)—didn't love what they saw in structuralism, and they became known as the post-Structuralists. These guys thought that Structuralists ignored the whole concept of, you know, a changing history or social influence.

But that doesn't mean that we can ignore Structuralism. Standing on the shoulders of giants, you know?