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Formalist Critical Lens Essay

Literature - Formalism, The Hershey Bar of Criticism Essay

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Formalism - The Hershey Bar of Criticism

Formalism means a lot of different things to a lot of different people and refers to many different types of critical work and analysis. But to make a complicated matter simple, we can say pretty safely that formalism refers to critics or criticism that, first and foremost, emphasize the form or structure of a work of art and assume that nothing in that form or structure is really accidental or insignificant. That is, the formal elements in a work of art all mean something, in relation to one another and to us. By looking at the architecture of art—how it is constructed, what its elements are, how they fit together, why they are there, and where they lead—formalism assumes that we will make…show more content…

Moreover, what we mean by “form” can range widely not just between different works of art but within a single work of art as well. For example, when examining a literary text, we may talk about plot as a formal element by discussing its characters and their actions, and then we may focus on characters and actions as formal elements by analyzing voice and motivation. In turn, we may then decide to study voice and motivation as formal elements by considering things like word choice, feeling, or theme. And so on and so on. Plot, character, action, voice, motivation, feelings, themes—when and where does a formalist analysis begin, and where does it end?

Some answer this question by saying it ends just before it reaches the “real world.” Formalist critics are sometimes thought to ignore the real world in favor of the representational world that the work of art creates, looking only at its intricate internal structures and landscapes. But formalist analyses often go hand-in-hand with different types of criticism or concerns. For example, studying how and when certain characters are introduced into a plot might lead to claims that sound more like feminist criticism than formalist criticism. Similarly, someone studying those thumb prints on the vase might end up asking us to rethink a few of our historical or anthropological assumptions about a particular group of people who worked and played within a particular cultural context. Thus, by

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Formalism is clearly a twentieth century critical phenomenon in its emphasis on close readings of literary texts, dissociated from extrinsic references to authors or to their society. There had been a formalist tendency before in the history of literary criticism, but it did not, as in twentieth century formalism, approach exclusivity in its emphasis on the structure of the work itself. Aristotle’s analysis in De poetica (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705) of the complex tragic plot as having a tripartite division of reversal, recognition, and catastrophe is one of the most valuable formalist analyses of the structure of tragedy ever made.

That Aristotle’s approach to poetics was not intrinsic but extrinsic, however, was made clear by his twentieth century followers, the Chicago Neo-Aristotelians Ronald S. Crane and Elder Olson. They were the harshest critics of what they regarded as the limited critical perspective of modern formalists, pointing out that an Aristotelian analysis was characteristically in terms of four causes. These were the formal cause (the form that the work imitates), the material cause (the materials out of which the work is made), the efficient cause (the maker), and the final cause (the effect on the reader or audience). Crane charged in Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern (1952) that the New Criticism is concerned with only one of these causes, language, in order to distinguish poetic from scientific and everyday uses of language, but was unable to distinguish among the various kinds of poetry. It is true that formalism is largely concerned with literature as a verbal art. This single-mindedness has been its strength in explication as well as its weakness as a critical theory.

Two key concepts in the literary theory of the English Romantic period may have been influential on twentieth century formalism. Although the New Critics were professedly anti-Romantic, following Eliot’s call for impersonality in modern poetry, their stress on the...

(The entire section is 840 words.)

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