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So let's start at the pinnacle of poetic creation:
Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream.
Pretty profound, huh? So when we Shmoopers read this pre-modern lyric, we might notice a few more things than we did when we sang it in a circle of other five-year-olds. We might notice the repetition of words in the first and third lines. We might notice the cute little rhyme of "stream" and "dream" (and the non-rhyme of "boat" and "merrily"—come on, what about a ferry-lee?). We might notice the existential philosophizing behind the final words. We might just be caught up in the watery current—that is, the fluid rhythm, of those stressed syllables.
Are you noticing the type of things we're noticing? Yeah, they all have to do with the words, the rhyme, the rhythm—basically, the sound and the style of the poem/little children's ditty. And that's what Formalism's all about—after all, it's right in the name: formalism.
Okay, let's back up a second. If we've ever taken an English class, chances are we've had to do "close reading" at one time or another. You know—the teacher makes you look really, really closely at a poem or some sentence in a book and goes: "Why is the author using this image?" "What's the rhythm in these lines?" "Is there foreshadowing here?" You know, the typical "Row, row, row your boat" stuff—and that's when we scratch our heads and go, huh?
Close reading sure ain't easy, whether you're looking at a children's ditty or Charles Dickens. But it's become a staple of the teaching of literature. And that's largely thanks to these Russian dudes known as the "Formalists," who lived and worked at the turn of the 20th century in Russia. They, as you might guess, started a movement in literary criticism called "Formalism."
So. Let's get into the nitty gritty. Formalists aren't interested in the historical context of a literary work. They're not interested in its "philosophical" or "cultural" background. Heck, they're not even interested in its author. All they care about, and all they focus on, is the literary work itself.
And that's because they believe that if we really want to understand a work of literature, we just need to look at it really closely, and specifically at its language. Who cares what Shakespeare's childhood was like, or the intricacies of court politics of Elizabethan England? Does that tell us anything about his plays? Um, nothing useful, the Formalists would say, and then start extolling the virtues of iambiac pentameter. Basically, according to the Formalists, we just need to dig deep, way deep, into the text itself.
These guys weren't playing around, either. They thought of themselves as scientists of literature. That's right, as in, their job was to "discover" and "classify" all of the important laws and elements that govern literary texts (in the way that scientists "discover" and "classify" laws of nature). Sure, that part may sound far-fetched to us now, but the Formalists were so influential that a lot of their ideas still impact the way we study literature today.
We've all had the experience (or at least we hope we've all had it) of reading something and being blown away by it. We're reading a scene in a novel, or a few lines of poetry, and it's so good our jaw drops. Or we find a single tear coursing down our cheek. Or we're laughing so hard at something a character in a book says that the other people in the library start giving us dirty looks.
And then we look up and wonder, how can they do that? How can an author, using some words on a page, make us react in this way? It seems like a total mystery. Writers must just be these supernatural creatures with superhuman powers. How else can we explain all the unbelievable things they do with words?
If you want to penetrate that mystery, then Formalism is just the theoretical school for you. Formalists are all about revealing the "tricks" behind the "magic tricks" (though they'd prefer you call it "illusions"). How does an author manage to move us? What, exactly, is she or he doing to make us cry here and laugh there? What devices force out those emotions?
Formalism, in other words, allows us to explain how writers achieve certain effects. And without us having to go off and do all kinds of background research in the library. All we need is the text itself. Phew!
Even if you're the sort of literary theorist who believes that things like cultural and historical context are important to analyzing texts (how outlandish), you should still really care about Formalism. Because Formalism is at the root of other very important theoretical schools that developed in the 20th century. Heard of Structuralism? Poststructuralism? Deconstruction? Well, all those (and basically in that order) developed partly out of the work of Formalists.
Plus, some very important literary theorists, like Mikhail Bakhtin (who came up with some theories about the novel that shape how lots of people read today), were also influenced by Formalism. Not to mention that Formalist ideas—like "defamiliarization" and "poetic language"—still influence the way that we think and write about literature today. So even if you're not formally a Formalist, you can still thrive on Formalist techniques.