Study Guide

Formalism Basics

  • Beginnings

    Two groups of guys got together in Russia in the 1910s. Yes, groups of guys get together all the time of course (in Russia and elsewhere), and nothing usually comes of it except maybe a game of beer pong—or vodka pong if you're in Russia. However, in the 1910s in Moscow and St. Petersburg, it wasn't just any guys getting together. It was a bunch of super clever, almost terrifyingly well-read guys.

    The first group of dudes formed the Moscow Linguistic Circle in 1915. They included Roman Jakobson (whom we'll learn more about soon). These guys basically sat around thinking and chatting and writing about linguistics mostly, but also literature when they felt like a day off.

    The second group, OPOYAZ (Society for the Study of Poetic Language—yeah, don't ask us how that's abbreviated into OPOYAZ, we're going Russian to English here), was founded in St. Petersburg in 1916. It included people like Boris Eikhenbaum, Viktor Shklovsky, and Yuri Tynyanov. These guys thought and chatted and wrote, usually about poetry, but also linguistics when they needed a break.

    These two circles were kind of independent of one another—Moscow and St. Petersburg are a whole overnight train ride away from each other, after all—but the groups also collaborated. And their founding marked the beginning of Formalism as a theoretical movement. It was the members of these two circles who developed some of the most important Formalist concepts and ideas.

  • Big Players

    When we talk about Formalism, we can't not talk about Viktor Shklovsky. Even if his name is kind of hard to say. He started out as part of the St. Petersburg OPOYAZ circle and came up with some seriously big Formalist ideas. He's the guy who first made the distinction between "plot" and "story," and he also came up with the notion of "defamiliarization." If those sound de-familiar to you now, just you wait—this guy's ideas were huge.

    Lev Jakubinsky didn't come up with as many big ideas as Shklovsky (seriously, he doesn't even have his own Wikipedia page). But he did come up with one very important idea: he's the guy who first tried to explain the difference between "poetic" and "practical" language. Jakubinsky's distinction between poetic and practical language became really, really important to other Formalists, like Yuri Tynyanov and Osip Brik, who ran with it (and did such a good job that they earned their own Wikipedia spots).

    Boris Eikhenbaum, also part of OPOYAZ, is important mainly because of an essay he wrote called "Theory of the 'Formal Method,'" which summarizes Formalism as a theoretical movement. Sure, he wrote a bunch of other things too. But the point is that this essay gives us a "big picture" of Formalism by explaining the different concepts and methods that developed within this school and the relationship of different theorists to each other. Which makes things a heck of a lot easier for us. Thank you, Boris.

    Then there's this guy Roman Jakobson, who was part of the Moscow Linguistics Circle. In the wonderful world of Formalism, pretty much everywhere we turn we'll find Roman Jakobson. That's because he stands at the crossroads of a whole bunch of different disciplines and theoretical schools, and not just Formalism, even though that's basically his hometown.

    So Jakobson: this guy was a linguist. He was also a Formalist literary theorist. He also developed the concept of "literariness." He was a "structuralist." It was largely thanks to Jakobson—who emigrated to the United States during World War II—that all of these wonderful Formalist and Structuralist ideas reached us way over here in America. Think of him as "The Bridge."

  • Key Debates

    A big reason the Formalists got together in the first place was because they were sick and tired of the state of literary criticism in Russia in the early 1900s (and let's face it, people in Russia were pretty sick and tired of everything in the early 1900s—at least, they were until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917).

    As far as the Formalist fellas were concerned, though, everywhere they turned, they found literary critics talking about how this or that poem was an emanation of the author's "soul," or how this or that novel reflected a certain "philosophical" or "psychological" viewpoint. Pretty dry, huh?

    So the Formalists asked, why the borsht are we looking outside the text to try to explain it? We shouldn't have to do psychology or philosophy to explain a work of literature. We should be doing literary criticism. Which means, they argued, that the focus should be brought back to the text itself. Throw all that other stuff—authorial biography, cultural context, philosophical context, politics—out the window. Let's just look at the text, ladies and gentlemen.

    Which is exactly what they went on to do. Of course nowadays we're used to looking very closely at a text as soon as we start studying for the SAT in second grade, but back when the Formalists started doing it, it was new. What was especially new was the Formalists' really rigorous focus on language and the linguistic components of a text. These guys were obsessed with studying syntax, grammatical construction, and the sounds of words, and how all that stuff functioned in poetry.

    For them, literature was made up of a sum of "devices." Does a machine pop into your head when you hear the word "device"? Well they meant that, but in books.

    A literary "device" might be anything from metaphor to repetition to parallelism and beyond. The Formalists said that we need to identify these devices and investigate how they're operating or functioning in a given text. And by doing that, we can understand any literary text, without having to go off and research the author's biography or some obscure philosophical theory that he or she was really into.

    The Formalists took their literary investigation so seriously that they thought of it as a "scientific" endeavor. They believed that they were the equivalent of those scientists in white coats doing experiments in labs. Okay, so maybe they weren't working with chemical or biological elements. They were working with literary elements. But hey, what's the difference anyway?

  • State of the Theory

    Formalism is dead. Long live Formalism!

    That about sums up the state of the theory. That's because, on the one hand, Formalism is Really Dead. It began dying not long after it was born. Once dictator-extraordinaire Joseph Stalin, not to mention Stalinism, rose in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s, the Formalists didn't fare too well. They were accused of being too artsy-fartsy, too detached from the realities of politics and class warfare and good proletarian struggle that were a part of the dominant communist ideology of the time. (Not up to date on your timeline of Soviet history? No time like the present.)

    But. Even as Formalism was dying in the USSR, it found new life through its sister theoretical school of Structuralism, which, beginning in the 1940s, would become all the rage in Europe and America. And a number of the early Structuralists (like our buddy Roman Jakobson) started off as Formalists, which is how Formalist ideas found their way out of Russia/the USSR and into Europe and America.

    Formalism was also the forerunner to "New Criticism," which is more or less the Euro-American version of Formalism (and yes, here we're sending you to go have a look at the Shmoop learning guide on New Criticism).

    Today, Formalism has been eclipsed by newer theories like New Historicism, and even beyond that, Cultural Studies, which are all about understanding the historical context of a literary work (and we know the Formalists would frown on that).

    But the fact of the matter is, Formalist ideas are still hugely influential in the way that we study literature. The "close reading" that we do in English class is one example of an approach we've inherited from the Formalists. And concepts like "defamiliarization," and the distinction between "story" and plot"—which the Formalists first developed—are still widely used by literary critics today.

    So, long live Formalism!

  • Talking the Talk

    What is literature?

    A work of literature is made up of a whole bunch of literary "devices" that function to defamiliarize the familiar. Literature gives us a fresh pair of eyes to see the world with. Yahoo!

    What is an author?

    An author is someone who makes the familiar unfamiliar. But if we're Formalists, we're not interested in who an author is. We're just interested how they write. Who cares about the author's psychology or history or physiognomy? Let's get down to language.

    What is a reader?

    A reader is someone who analyzes the form of a literary text. We pay attention to what devices a writer uses to make us laugh, or cry, or hold our breath. And we never look beyond the text itself to find answers to our questions. That is a big no-no. As long as you stick with the forms of defamiliarization that make the text come to life and the world look shiny and new, you're succeeding as a reader, Formalism-style.