Study Guide

Formalism Texts

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  • The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne (1759)

    It's a novel that begins with a description of the narrator's parents having sex. Need we say more?

    So cogitate this: How does Sterne use digression in this novel? How do Tristram's endless digressions affect the telling of the story?

    And if you're still hungry: How does Sterne make fun of narrative conventions in this novel? And why do you think he does that?

  • Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (1915)

    Imagine waking up as a huge icky bug one morning. Would you just hop out of bed, brew your coffee, and dash to catch the bus? Follow Gregor Samsa's odyssey in the Metamorphosis to find out whether he makes it to work or finds a new anthill.

    Kafka's language is pretty straightforward and simple in this tale. Why do you think he chooses to write in this simple, straightforward style? How does that style contribute to his use of defamiliarization?

  • Cane by Jean Toomer (1923)

    Toomer vividly and poetically depicts African-American life in the south during the Jim Crow era. And there's lots of imagery of sugar cane in this book. Sweeeet! (Yes, the sugar part. The vestiges of slavery bits are not quite so saccharine.)

    How does Toomer use the devices of repetition and parallelism in the poems and prose-poems in Cane? What effect do these devices have?

    Think about the form of the book. It's divided into sections and made up of short pieces of prose and poetry. Why do you think Toomer opts for this unusual, fragmented form?

  • Translations from the Natural World by Les Murray (1992)

    Don't we all want to talk to our pets? Well, Murray makes birds, cows, bats, and other favorites of the animal kingdom talk in this book of poetry about nature and animals. And he makes them do it with poetry.

    How do animals "speak" in Murray's poetry? And why is their language "poetic" as opposed to "practical"?

    What's the relationship between sound and meaning in these poems? How much importance does Murray give sound over sense?

  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard (1966)

    Two minor characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet take center-stage in this play. And they're pretty clueless. Lots of comedy (and of course, tragedy) ensues.

    Why does Stoppard write a whole play from the perspective of these two minor characters? What point is he making about "heroism"? And what might a Formalist say about that conception of the hero?

    What are some of the ways that Stoppard's play comments on and revises Shakespeare's Hamlet? How do we see Hamlet differently after reading Stoppard's play?

  • "Art as Technique" by Viktor Shklovsky (1916)

    Shklovsky was only 24 years old when he wrote this essay that would revolutionize literary criticism. Did we mention he was only 24? Yeah, we can't get over it.

    According to Shklovsky, why is "defamiliarization" so integral to literature?

    Shklovsky analyzes the work of the writer Lev Tolstoy in this essay. How does Tolstoy achieve defamiliarization, according to Shklovsky?

  • "Sterne's Tristram Shandy: Stylistic Commentary" by Viktor Shklovsky (1921)

    This Vik was an ambitious guy—not only did he get through the thousands-page tomes of Tolstoy; he also plodded through the nine volumes of Sterne's digressive masterpiece. Watch Shklovsky in action as he picks apart Tristram Shandy to explain the difference between "plot" and "story." Gripping stuff—and we're only being slightly sarcastic here.

    Why does Shklovsky think Sterne's novel does such a good job of demonstrating the difference between "plot" and "story"?

    How does that distinction correspond to the distinction between "form" and "content"? And what does that suggest about the relationship between "form" and "content"?

  • "On Realism in Art" by Roman Jakobson (1921)

    Jakobson tries to define that vague, magical thing, "literariness," which he says is the true object of literary "science." Isn't that some kind of oxymoron?

    First thing's first. What is the difference between "literature" and "literariness"?

    Second thing's second. According to Jakobson, why is it so important to focus on "literariness"?

  • "Problems in the Study of Literature and Language" by Roman Jakobson and Yuri Tynyanov (1928)

    Jakobson and Tynyanov talk about the laws governing the evolution of literature. It's written in bullet points. And it's super complicated. Got it? Got it.

    Why is it so important to understand the laws that govern the evolution of literature, according to Jakobson and Tynyanov? How might that contribute to making Formalism a "science"?

  • "The Theory of the 'Formal Method'" by Boris Eikhenbaum (1926)

    Formalism summarized and explained in one essay. Yes. Warning: it's still pretty dense.

    What trends in literary criticism were the Formalists reacting against when they began theorizing about poetry? What did they think was wrong with the state of literary criticism? And once their different and superior method of criticism was developed, according to Eikhenbaum, what are some of the key concepts that emerged from Formalism?

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