It all began with a linguistics professor who gave a series of lectures on language at the University of Geneva between 1906 and 1911. He had a very bushy mustache, studied more dead languages than most people know exist, and was named Ferdinand de Saussure. He died in 1915, before (gasp!) he'd had a chance to compile his revolutionary ideas on the structure of language into a book. But Saussure's students came to the rescue: after he died a couple of them went through mountains of lecture notes and compiled those into a book that was published in 1916 as Course in General Linguistics. Snoopy? Maybe. But if they hadn't poked around in his stuff the theory of structuralism would never have gotten off the ground.
That book would be picked up by other linguists, most importantly a Russian named Roman Jakobson and his buddies in the Prague School of linguists. They built on Saussure's theory to develop what came to be known as the field of "structural linguistics." So, Saussure's structuralism was still confined to the world of linguistics.
But then, the 1940s happened, and that's when theorists and scholars from other fields started paying attention. Hey, they said. This stuff about language and structure is pretty interesting. And you know what? It kind of applies to everything. We can analyze familial patterns in terms of language, and can even give it the fancy term "kinship." We can analyze fashion trends in terms of language. We can even analyze what people eat in terms of language.
From there, structuralism exploded. Anthropologists, philosophers, literary theorists, psychologists, all began applying structuralist principles in their fields, and structuralist theories soon made their way into a range of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.
So, remember Ferdinand de Saussure? That's right, the mustache guy. Well, he knew even more about language than about grooming that luscious facial hair. Saussure's big idea was that language is a system, or structure, made up of contrasting elements, or binary oppositions. We only understand what something is by understanding what it is not. This system of differences structures language.
Roman Jakobson was the most important of the linguists inspired by Saussure. He was a Russian linguist who ended up taking the techniques of examining language in little pieces—kind of like it's made of chemicals in a test tube—into the realm of what language actually meant. Thanks to Jakobson and other Prague School linguists, Saussure's ideas would make their way into universities the world over.
Claude Lévi-Strauss is another fellow who was exposed to Saussure's ideas through the Prague School linguists. And no, he didn't use structuralism to define jeans based on being not other pants—this was the anthropologist Lévi-Strauss.
Lévi-Strauss took ideas from structural linguistics and applied them to culture. He argued that culture is also structured like a language: on the surface, cultures may seem different, but if we dig deep enough we'll find that they're organized by the same "rules" and structures. For instance, families may be defined differently in different cultures, but something common to cultures all over the world is a taboo on incest. Marry your mom? Kind of gross. Everyone agrees on that (well, everyone but Oedipus Rex, but that's the whole point of starring in a Greek tragedy). Anyway, this is one of the foundational "rules" that all cultures share.
But why does it need to be a rule? Doesn't everyone just think it's kind of gross? Well sure, said Lévi-Strauss, but there's more to it than that. He argued that a taboo on incest is integral to all cultures because it forces people to marry strangers outside of their families. And if we have to marry strangers, then we have to form communities. And if we have to form communities, then we have to form societies. Get it? If we didn't have the incest taboo, we wouldn't have human society at all, because the taboo forces us to move away from our family, into a community, and there you have it! The roots of civilization.
Vladimir Propp was the first theorist to apply a structural approach to the study of narratives. He looked at a whole bunch of Russian folktales and tried to break them down into their basic narrative components. By studying these folktales, he came to the conclusion that all folktales can be reduced to 31 functions or "plotlines." Things like a family member leaving home, a villain inflicts some damage on the good guys, the hero ascends the throne, and they all live happily ever after. Think any Disney movie and it probably uses at least 4 of Propp's functions.
Roland Barthes was one of the earliest and most important of the structuralist literary theorists who applied structural ideas to literature. But Barthes is kind of a tricky one. He started out as a structuralist, and then later came to be associated with post-structuralism. Barthes was one of the first literary theorists to take Saussure's ideas and apply them to the study of literature. But did Barthes stop at literary narratives? Oh no! He also applied Saussure's ideas to other forms of cultural and social phenomena. He looked at fashion, at food, at the media, and tried to uncover the deep structures of meaning under all those everyday cultural phenomena.
Tzvetan Todorov is another literary theorist who took Saussure's ideas in new directions. He was buddies with Jakobson and Propp, and he believed that the literary theorist's task was to identify the underlying principles that governed works of literature. Like Barthes, he was very influential in popularizing the structuralist approach in literary studies.
The early structuralists were set on transforming the study of cultural phenomena into a science. They wanted to take things like language, culture, literature, and the arts and run all sorts of experiments on them, stick them into equations, and make up a bunch of formulas with Greek letters and squiggly lines. Or, more like the way a scientist studies the elements of a compound, say water, and breaks it down into two itty bitty hydrogens and one oxygen—in the same way linguists, anthropologists, and literary theorists could break down the elements of language, and culture to find the patterns and structures defining them.
For literary theorists, this scientific perspective meant approaching literature from a very different angle than that of critics before them. While non-structuralist literary critics might want to analyze what one poem sounds like and what that means, structuralists care about the relationships between a large number of poems. They tend to analyze literature in batches—like how different scientists pick their own favorite chemicals, body parts, or other areas to focus on. What matters to structuralist literary theorists isn't the one poem so much as what it tells us about the structures governing all poetry. And to understand that, they argued, we have to analyze not one poem, but lots of them.
This meant that structuralist literary theorists weren't as interested in certain things that literary critics before them took very seriously. For example, close reading: not a big deal for structuralists. Sure, we can spend hours analyzing one juicy, ambiguous line in a novel. But what's the point of wasting time, the structuralists would say, if that one little line isn't telling us anything about the structure of all novels? This, of course, scandalized all those other literary critics (especially the extra-touchy New Critics) who were all about close reading.
Same deal for things like authorial biography. Who cares what sort of relationship an author had with his or her mother? That doesn't help us understand the text. What does matter is what a writer's work tells us about the universal structure of tragic drama, or of poems, regardless of what the author's childhood was like!
Between the mid-1960s and the late 1970s, structuralism was the hip theoretical model. But today it's considered to be as old-fashioned as the bellbottoms and flower headbands the groovier structuralists might have worn in their spare time.
The decline of structuralism began when the new kids on the block—the post-structuralists—took over. Theorists like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and even Roland Barthes (yup, the former structuralist—what a traitor) began questioning some of structuralism's basic assumptions. What's all this stuff about "scientific rigor"? they asked. Language and culture are big blobs of incomprehensible human activity—as if we could analyze that nonsense in the same way we do bacteria in a petri dish. So basically, there's no way the study of language and culture is a science. Why? Because linguistic and cultural structures are inherently unstable. It's in the nature of language to be ambiguous, according to Jacques Derrida—one of the biggest naysayers to Saussure's idea that it's governed by clear, logical rules and structures.
So people began to question structuralism's assumption that everything we do and say is the result of "deep structures" that are unchanging and unchangeable. If everything we do is the consequence of a sort of deep structure, doesn't that mean that we have no control over who we are, how we behave, what we say? How did we buy into that for so long, the critics wanted to know. That leaves no space for the influence of historical factors or political agency or people making their own decisions to stick it to the Man.
So poor old structuralism found itself attacked on all sides. But even though it went out of fashion, the critiques that it generated led to the creation of a whole slew of new and important theoretical schools, including post-structuralism, deconstruction and queer theory.
Literature is a collection of narratives that seem to be dissimilar on the surface but are actually governed by underlying rules and structures which they all share, despite their superficial differences. Just use the contrasts to dig up the structure underneath.
An author doesn't really matter as an individual—it's just some faceless being who produces narratives that reflect the deep structure of literature. We're not really interested in the author at all. The author isn't dead yet, but they're on the way out.
A reader is someone who works on uncovering and analyzing the deep structures that govern literary works. Readers are way more important than authors because they're the ones who can arrive at an understanding of the deep structures of texts.