Emerging in the late fifties in France and reaching its heyday in the mid sixties, structuralism is a school of scientific enthusiasm. Never before since the time of the Enlightenment had literary and cultural theorists been “lulled” this way by the promise of a rational, scientific ordering of their object: as J. Hillis Miller has described their mood, they all started from a sort of “happy positivism”. [1] These “Socratic, theoretical or canny” [2] scholars strongly believed that any cultural product was undeniably and equally liable to an investigation of its underlying patterns and values, and for that purpose they invented a “barbaric jargon” (as it was described by their opponents) which suited the scientific claims of their project.

           Structuralism is in the first place a method of critical investigation, but at a deeper level of analysis it appears not only as a method, but also as a “general tendency of thought”, or an ideology, whose prerequisite is to “value structures at the expense of substances”, to use Gérard Genette’s words. [3] Indeed, the ambition of the structuralist proponents (similar to that of archeologists or geologists) was to dig out the codes, systems and structures which governed any cultural activity and its products. Language and all other discursive and symbolic systems is constituted from the immanent relations among their component elements, and the “grammar” of these relations is liable to being discovered and formulated. If meaning exists, it is made possible by the underlying system of distinctions and conventions, Jonathan Culler opined in Structuralist Poetics. “Wherever there are two posts one can kick a ball between them but one can score a goal only within a  certain institutional framework”, he explains. [4]

       Perception, thought, cultural products are constructed and not natural. STRUCTURE [5] (which is related to the concepts of value and system) is the basic principle of construction and it becomes the main object of investigation. The structuralist approach is anti-humanist par excellence, as the human subject is no more the source of, and the main point of reference for cultural enterprises: it is removed from the focus of inquiry, so that the system can be isolated and analyzed. Within this approach, structure is an abstract category, a center, or point of origin (e.g. the geometry of perspective in the Renaissance painting, the arrangement of the sequences in folk narratives, or even the array of garments for a ceremonial occasion), and it supersedes other centers, such as history or the human person. Every component element has a relational meaning and value, because it exists as a result of an option: therefore the meaning can be found out by defining the place of the element within the general structure, rather than by relating it to the world outside that structure. If the meaning resides exclusively in the types of relationships among the component parts (the elements being arranged mostly as binary oppositions), then the structuralist view of structure differs substantially from the previous ones, including Cleanth Brooks’s definition, which included interpretations and evaluations, that is to say the work’s moral and cultural significance.

           How could we explain this obsession with such a theoretical notion as structure? The answer may lie, in our opinion, in the almost mystical fascination which abstract configurations have always aroused in the human mind, with their challengingly symmetrical, geometric complexity.

           The term “structuralism” was first used by Roman Jakobson in 1929:


Were we to comprise the leading idea of present-day science in its most various manifestations, we could hardly find a more appropriate designation than structuralism. Any set of phenomena examined by contemporary science is treated not as a mechanical agglomeration but as a structural whole, and the basic task is to reveal the inner ... laws of the system.[6] /Emphasis added/


           However, the remote roots of the structuralist movement, beyond the schools of Russian Formalism, the Prague Linguistic Circle and Polish Structuralism, can be found in Ferdinand de Saussure’s lectures, published in 1916, from students’ notes, as Cours de Linguistique Générale. Opposing the dominant historical perspective in the linguistics of his time, Saussure propounded a “scientific” study of language, which should start from the formal relations between its elements (relations of combination and contrast). Other premises of Saussure’s thought were the systematic nature of language, and the arbitrary nature of its elements. His epoch-making idea of the difference between the two manifestations of language - LANGUE (the language system) and PAROLE (speech acts) - is of a fundamental import for the development of structuralism. As Culler explains, 


It is easy ... to confuse the system with its manifestations, to think of English as the set of English utterances. But to learn English is not to memorize a set of utterances; it is to master a system of rules and norms which make it possible to produce and understand utterances... The linguist’s task is not to study utterances for their own sake; they are of interest to him only in so far as they provide evidence about the nature of the underlying system, the English language.(SP 2)

When one deals with physical events, says Culler, laws can be formulated which are nothing other than “direct summaries of behavior”, but when social and cultural phenomena are studied, behavior often deviates considerably from the norm, a distance appears between them, and for the researcher “that gap is a space of potential meaning”. (SP 3)


          According to Saussure, language, as a self-authenticated system, exists outside the individual, who cannot create or change it, and also outside the world of things. Therefore signification takes place not through the interaction of words and things, but through the association of the sound images (signifiers) with concepts (signifieds). And signifiers come into being through the relationships with other signifiers: these relationships can occur on the paradigmatic axis (the vertical column of possible substitute elements to be used at any given place) or on the syntagmatic axis (the series of individual terms combined in a contiguous chain to make up a meaningful utterance). Signifiers are arranged in pairs of binary oppositions, as Nikolay Troubetzkoy, [7] a leading member of the Prague Linguistic Circle, observed later (for instance voiced/ non-voiced, nasalized/ non-nasalized, tense/ lax phonemes).

           Saussure realized that the study of sign-systems initiated by him led to the creation of a new discipline, which he called semiology: in the following decades of the 20th century it developed as a parallel discipline, so closely connected with structuralism that sometimes the two terms were used interchangeably. In the second part of this chapter we will deal in a detailed manner with semiology (or “semiotics”) and with its implication for literary studies.

           In the activity of Roman Jakobson, one of the fathers of structuralism, linguistics and semiotics merged with literary studies. His career may be said to impersonate both the pre-history and the history of this trend of thought in the 20th century.

       The position he adopted concerning the object of literary studies while he was a member of the Prague School differed from the one he had held as a formalist belonging to the Moscow Linguistic Circle. Now it was the relational nature of meaning that mattered, rather than the isolated content of the literary work, as it had been with the formalists. Instead of an analysis of “literariness” which should exclude anything extraliterary from its scope, after 1933 Jakobson emphasized poeticity and insisted that this was only one aspect of poetry; the poetic function appeared therefore as a relational, not an absolute aspect.

           Jakobson’s 1958 manifesto “Linguistics and Poetics” paved the way for further linguistic-semiotic analyses of texts, establishing the basic terms of investigation. He described six factors contributing to verbal communication: the addresser (or encoder) and the addressee (or decoder); the message; the code (usually a language); the context (or referent); the contact (or medium: live speech, writing, and so on). There is a function of communication corresponding to each of these, respectively the emotive, conative, poetic, metalingual, referential, phatic functions. It is very rarely that only one function is fulfilled: in reality there is a diversity of them, one usually being predominant. On the other hand the poetic function, for instance, does not appear only in poetry, but also in many other types of verbal messages, including advertisements, and so forth. We will refer in detail to the poetic function later in this chapter.

     Relying on Saussure’s description of the syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes, Jakobson formulated a new theory based on the opposition between SELECTION and COMBINATION in the acquisition and the use of language. In “Two Aspects of Language”, a study combining linguistics and psychopathology, first published in 1956, he analyzed the manifestations of aphasic disturbance with mental patients: each form of aphasia consists in some impairment of the faculty for either selection and substitution or for combination and contexture. [8] The relation of similarity (typical of metaphor) is suppressed in one case, while that of contiguity (typical of metonymy) is absent in the other one. So Jakobson implies that the two linguistic operations can be understood in terms of the corresponding rhetorical figures.

         The alternation METAPHOR / METONYMY can be considered to underlie all forms of verbal art, and not only these, Jakobson insists. In Russian lyrical songs the former predominates, while in heroic epics it is the other one which does. This opposition can be extended to describe various literary schools: romanticism and symbolism are dominated by metaphorical patterns, while the realistic trend is mainly metonymic:


The realistic author metonymically digresses from the plot to the atmosphere and from the characters to the setting in space and time. He is fond of synecdochic [9] details. In the scene of Anna Karenina’s suicide Tolstoy’s artistic attention is focused on the heroine’s handbag; and in War and Peace the synecdoches “hair on the upper lip” or “bare shoulders” are used by the same writer to stand for the female characters to whom these features belong. (92)


      Later on David Lodge applied Jakobson’s distinction to 20th century literary trends, describing modernism as mainly metaphoric (due to its symbolistic and mythopoeic bent) and anti-modernism as metonymic (realistic). As for postmodern writing, Lodge seems unable to establish a hierarchy between the two terms. The scales appear to be even, and, according to him, critics had better examine the efforts of postmodern authors “to deploy both metaphoric and metonymic devices in radically new ways, and to defy (...) the obligation to choose between these two principles of connecting one topic with another.” [10]

     When Jakobson turns to sign systems other than language, he mentions the metonymical orientation in cubism, where “the object is transformed into a set of synechdoches”, and, conversely, the surrealist painting, with its “patently metaphorical attitude”. (92) The same dichotomy can be found also in Freud’s concepts (the “metonymic ‘displacement’”, the “synecdochic ‘condensation’”, based on contiguity, and, respectively identification and symbolism, based on similarity). (94) The magic rites as they were described by Frazer are, too, based on one or the other of the two principles.

      Attacking the unipolar schema which was used before and which artificially privileged the study of metaphor in poetry and that of metonymy in prose, Jakobson insisted in his analysis that the metaphor / metonymy bipolarity actually characterized all symbolic processes and all human behavior. His theory of the competition between the two rhetorical devices was of primal consequence for the structuralist studies henceforth.

          Jakobson cooperated with Claude Lévi-Strauss, supplying an often quoted analysis of Baudelaire’s sonnet, Les chats. [11] Their collaboration appears but natural, as they shared kindred principles and, separately, laid the foundations of structuralist thought, but the younger Lévi-Strauss made his entrance on the scholarly scene in the 1950s, when Jakobson was already an established name.

          Structuralism actually came into being as a distinct method of investigation through Lévi-Strauss’s anthropological investigations. His innovative analysis of myth (ancient Greek myths, but also Amerindian ones), representing a response to the former psychologically oriented interpretations, was made much the same way linguistics studies sentences in order to discover their “grammar”. In his view, the meaning of myth can be found not in its isolated components, but in the manner in which they are combined, making up bundles of relations called by Lévi-Strauss “gross constituent units” (or mythemes, a term isomorphic with “phonemes”). The mythical narrative (for instance, Oedipus’s story) is treated by the French author as an orchestra score, “perversely presented as a linear series”: [12] the scholar’s task is to re-establish the “correct” arrangement of the components and for this purpose he draws up a chart, in which the four vertical columns (the paradigmatic axes) represent the meaning units (respectively the overrating of blood relations, their underrating, monsters being slain, difficulties to walk or to behave straight). The horizontal (syntagmatic) reading of the segments is not of interest for the mythographer’s theory, as the myth’s deep structure is revealed only by the paradigmatic axes. Oedipus’s story is thus reduced by Lévi-Strauss, through a display of staggering logical schemata, to a skeleton of internal oppositions which express a basic quandary of origin: the contradiction between the ancient culture’s belief that mankind is autochthonous (i. e. born from one and same), and, on the other hand, the awareness that human beings are born from the union of man and woman (i. e. from two and different). (92)

            Lévi-Strauss’s view has a diachronic element in it, notwithstanding: he takes into account “all the available variants” of the myth, (94) because there is no one true version of which the others are but distortions. Furthermore he pays heed to all available legends which make up a mythology, looking for its generic system (langue). This view presupposes a metaphorical perception of the condition of human beings, animals, deities, a perception which is based on binary oppositions, such as nature / culture, this world / the other world, agriculture / warfare, raw / cooked, and so on. The mythical system mediates between the opposed factors - its function is to reconcile contradictions.

          The French scholar was confident that ethnography, as a social science, was indeed able to probe the structure of the myth’s internal relationships, if one agreed that conscious laws reflect unconscious beliefs, that a system is more than the result of a specific combination and that no term has meaning apart from its binary opposite. (The concept of BINARY OPPOSITES implies an exclusive opposition, as for instance in the case of the two electric charges.) The structuralist’s tools (such as the “algebraic matrix of possible permutations and combinations”) were in his view adequate and sufficient for investigating not only cultural products, but the structure of the human mind in general - the institutions created by it, the forms of knowledge. [13]

            It is also worth noting that in Lévi-Strauss’ structuralist view the various cultural manifestations were no more hierarchically classified: ways of cooking, religious beliefs, mythic narratives were analyzed from an equal standpoint, that is at the sign level. This disregard of established hierarchies would become even more manifest in the work of another French structuralist, Roland Barthes.         

            The cultural criticism which Barthes initiated includes the semiology of fashion, the “mythology” of wrestling, the pleasure of reading, and others. [14] For instance, his analysis of garments as signs speaks about the “system” made up of toque, bonnet and hood (pieces that cannot be worn at the same time), and the “speech”, or “syntagm”, which involves the juxtaposition of different elements, such as skirt, blouse and jacket. A restaurant menu can be described in a similar way, based on the Saussurean dichotomy, which is put to work in domains other than language.  Moreover the semiotics practised by the Paris School has extended the structuralist analysis to such fields as legal discourse, gestural language, and social sciences.

           In a later phase of his activity, Barthes was interested mainly in the inner structure of TEXTUALITY, leaving aside the other “signifying systems” he had discussed before. His all-out reading of Balzac’s short novel “Sarrasine”, in a seminal study, S/Z (1970), makes use of various semiological perspectives and is built like a musical score. In a “textual analysis” of E. A. Poe’s story “Valdemar”, performed in a similar fashion, Barthes confesses that this method

  does not try to describe the structure of the work; it is not a matter of recording a structure, but rather of producing a mobile structuration of the text (a structuration which is displaced from reader to reader throughout history) ... Textual analysis does not try to find out what it is that determines the text (gathers it together as the end-term of a causal sequence), but rather how the text explodes and disperses. [15] /Emphasis added/  


The details of his analysis of Poe’s “Valdemar” and the methodological concepts he proposes will be supplied a little later.

            Textuality appears to Barthes as an interplay, a weaving of codes, which create a kind of network and deny any origin. To a certain extent, texts are only manifestations of codes. Textuality is no more just the written condition of the literary work, but a concept which implies the multiplicity of signifying effects that arise in the process of reading; the interpretive “closure” is thus staved off.

           Texts can be READERLY or WRITERLY (lisible or scriptible) - a distinction Barthes put forward in S/Z, with an extraordinary discursive virtuosity. In order to understand the writerly, he claims, the critic should begin by discussing readerly texts (i. e. “classic” ones, like “Sarrasine”), and that is what Barthes is doing in this study. The latter are finished objects, in other words products, not productions, like writerly texts. They have Aristotelian plots, they abide by the logic of temporality and reject the dissemination of meaning. On the contrary, the writerly text, which is not a real thing and which “we would have a hard time finding /.../ in a bookstore”, [16] is triumphantly plural, and its reader becomes a producer, out of a mere consumer. “There may be nothing to say about writerly texts”, (4) says Barthes in his provocative manner, because they thwart any criticism or metalanguage, any ideology. In conclusion they have a virtual existence, and to the very end of his essay Barthes retains this ontological ambiguity: a readerly text can be more or less plural, but a writerly one is rather just “ourselves writing”.

            His view of the text and textuality, supported by the concept of the actual infinity of language, signifies a complete break with the older New Critical perspective of the text as an autonomous, autotelic object.

            With Roland Barthes’s earlier theoretical work, structuralism reaches a climax which includes in it the adumbration of its decline: if we leave aside the studies of other narratologists and semioticians, it is evident that the later works of Barthes, Foucault’s studies and especially Derrida’s contributions represent decided steps toward re-visioning or entirely reversing the structuralist principles.

            However, the influence of structuralist concepts and methods has not ceased to be present in several domains of the human sciences, from psychology to sociological studies. Thus the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, drawing on Saussure’s and Jakobson’s tenets, speaks about the horizontal chain of signifiers which composes a “metonymic structure” and constitutes the subject. Moreover the workings of the human unconscious can be understood only if we adopt as a premise the idea that it is structured a like a language. The structuralist perspective of ideology, set forth by the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, is one more example of this kind. He believes that ideological systems have an absolute control over human beings, through their all-encompassing institutions, and actually it is they that constitute concrete individuals as subjects.

            After this survey of the rising and the ebbing of structuralism, we can try to sum up its impact upon literary studies in general. It is characteristic of structuralists to refer to the totality of literary texts and emphasize the conventions which underlie all of them, rather than choose as objects of investigation particular works. As Robert Scholes has put it, structuralism

  seeks to establish a model of the system of literature itself ... By moving from the study of language to the study of literature, and seeking to define the principles of structuration that operate not only through individual works but through the relationships among works over the whole field of literature, /it/ has tried ... to establish for literary studies a basis that is as scientific as possible. [17]  

Structuralists uncovered the similarities of function and re-constructed the whole of literature as a system of signs and codes, based on the differentiation between the manifest and the latent layers (as in language): the latent systematic layer in literature includes classes of concepts such as characters, themes, images, as well as the “grammars” or conventions which underlie the structure of  plots, be these comic or tragic. When we read Greimas’s classification of “actants” in narratives, for instance, we realize that the text is actually re-constructed as a paradigm, as a model of structural potentialities: it becomes a piece of the huge intertext. Of course, this method shifts the concern away from the relations between the text and the world; a literary narrative, for instance, is no more understood as a succession of imaginary, yet verisimilar events which provide us with a moral conclusion or arouse our emotions, but as an object of scientific investigation. This is an activity that requires the critic’s change of outlook, or, in Michael Ryan’s words

  a willing suspension of belief, a putting aside of that primary effect of any work of literature, which is our enlistment in its illusion or in its evocative language”. [18]  

       After the initial enthusiasm which accompanied structuralism in its earlier stages, it came under attack from various directions, either for its neglect of the social dynamics, or for its disregard of temporality in general, as it took into account only the immutable synchronic paradigms, or still for brushing aside the specificity of the actual text, which is regarded as just the result of the implementation of a systematic convention. Such a perspective suggested that there is no Truth to find behind the structure of the text, an idea which was to be taken over and brought to an extreme formulation by the post-structuralist theoreticians. The “death of the author”, in Barthes’s words, was another consequence hard to stomach by the traditionalist or phenomenologically-minded critics, as it, too, revealed the “anti-humanist” spirit characterizing the structuralist thought. There were, however, authors, such as Foucault, Julia Kristeva and the later Barthes, who made use of structuralist assumptions and at the same time distanced themselves from them, moving toward post-structuralist positions. Actually, as several commentators have pointed out, the theoretical basis of structuralism is undermined by the fundamental inner contradiction between the idea of systematicity and, on the other hand, the relational and arbitrary nature of signs.

            As mentioned before, structuralism and semiotics had a parallel evolution, which led to numerous overlappings. The following section will be devoted to one theoretical enterprise of this kind.


[1] J. Hillis Miller, “Stevens’ Rock and Criticism as Cure”, Part II, in Georgia Review, 30, 1976; 335-36,  quoted in Jonathan Culler,  On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985), 23.

[2] “For the most part these critics share the Socratic penchant, what Nietzsche defined as ‘the unshakable faith that thought, using the thread of logic, can penetrate the deepest abysses of being’. ... The inheritors ... of the Socratic faith would believe in the possibility of a structuralist-inspired criticism as a rational and rationalizable activity, with agreed-upon rules of procedure, given facts, and measurable results.” Miller distinguishes between these critics and those coming after them, such as Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man, who could be described as “Apollonian/ Dionysian, tragic, or uncanny”.(J. H. Miller, 336; 335).

[3] G. Genette, “Structuralism and Literary Criticism” in David Lodge (ed.), Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader (London and New York: Longman, 1988), 68.

[4] In the introduction (“The Linguistic Foundation”) to Structuralist Poetics (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975), 1. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text, as SP.

[5] From Lat. structus (heaped up, built).

[6] R. Jakobson, “Romantic Panslavism - New Slavic Studies” (originally published in 1929), in Selected Writings, vol. 2 (New York: Mouton, 1971), 711

[7] Troubetzkoy is also the linguist who first distinguished between phonetics (the discipline that studies actual speech sounds) and phonology the study of the phoneme structure).

[8] R. Jakobson, “Two Aspects of Language” in Rivkin and Ryan, Literary Theory ..., 91. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

[9] Synecdoche is regarded here as a form of metonymy.

[10] David Lodge, The Modes of Modern Writing: Metaphor, Metonymy, and the Typology of Modern Literature (London: Edward Arnold, 1979), 228.

[11] R. Jakobson and C. Lévi-Strauss, “Les Chats de Charles Baudelaire”, L’Homme, 2 (1962), 5-21.

[12] C. Lévi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth”, in Thomas A. Sebeok (ed.), Myth: A Symposium (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), 89. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

[13] Cf. Edmund Leach, Lévi-Strauss (Paris: Editions Seghers, 1970), 40.

[14] Cf. Mythologies (Paris: Seuil, 1957), Le Degré Zéro de l’écriture et Eléments de Sémiologie (Paris: Seuil, 1964),  Système de la Mode (Paris: Seuil, 1967),  Le Plaisir du texte (Paris: Seuil, 1973).

[15] R. Barthes, “Textual Analysis of Poe’s ‘Valdemar’”, in Robert Young (ed.), Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader (Boston, London and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), 135.

[16] R. Barthes, S/Z  (London: Jonathan Cape, 1974, trans. R. Miller), 5. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

[17] . Scholes, Structuralism in Literature: An Introduction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 10.

[18] Michael Ryan, Literary Theory: A Practical Introduction (Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1999),  29.


Contents 2. The New Criticism, or Formalism with a Human Face The Semiotic Analysis of the Literary Text monica.ciuciu@clsub.zzn.com www.unibuc.ro radsur@pcnet.ro
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