Gerard Genette: Structuralism and Literary Criticism What is structuralism? How is it applied to the study of literature?
Structuralism (Structuralist Criticism):
It is the offshoot of certain developments in linguistics and anthropology. Saussure’s mode of the synchronic study of language was an attempt to formulate the grammar of a language from a study of parole. Using the Saussurian linguistic model, Claude Levi-Strauss examined the customs and conventions of some cultures with a view of arriving at the grammar of those cultures. Structuralist criticism aims at forming a poetics or the science of literature from a study of literary works. It takes for granted ‘the death of the author’; hence it looks upon works as self-organized linguistic structures. The best work in structuralist poetics has been done in the field of narrative. In literary theory, structuralism is an approach to analyzing the narrative material by examining the underlying invariant structure. For example, a literary critic applying a structuralist literary theory might say that the authors of West Side Story did not write anything "really" new, because their work has the same structure as Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. In both texts a girl and a boy fall in love (a "formula" with a symbolic operator between them would be "Boy + Girl") despite the fact that they belong to two groups that hate each other ("Boy's Group - Girl's Group" or "Opposing forces") and conflict is resolved by their death.
The versatility of structuralism is such that a literary critic could make the same claim about a story of two friendly families ("Boy's Family + Girl's Family") that arrange a marriage between their children despite the fact that the children hate each other ("Boy - Girl") and then the children commit suicide to escape the arranged marriage; the justification is that the second story's structure is an 'inversion' of the first story's structure: the relationship between the values of love and the two pairs of parties involved have been reversed.
Structuralistic literary criticism argues that the "novelty value of a literary text" can lie only in new structure, rather than in the specifics of character development and voice in which that structure is expressed.
Gerard Genette and Structuralistic Criticism
Gerard Genette writes at the outset in his essay ‘Structuralism and Literary Criticism’ that methods developed for the study of one discipline could be satisfactorily applied to the study of other discipline as well. This is what he calls “intellectual bricolage ’, borrowing a term from Claude Levi-Strauss. This is precisely so, so far as structuralism is concerned. Structuralism is the name given to Saussure’s approach to language as a system of relationship. But it is applied also to the study of philosophy, literature and other sciences of humanity.
Structuralism as a method is peculiarly imitable to literary criticism which is a discourse upon a discourse . Literary criticism in that it is meta-linguistic in character and comes into being / existence as metaliterature. In his words: “it can therefore be metaliterature, that is to say, ‘a literature of which literature is the imposed object’.” That is, it is literature written to explain literature and language used in it to explain the role of language in literature.
In Genette’s words, ‘if the writer questions the universe, the critic questions literature, that is to say, the universe of signs. But what was a sign for the writer (the work) becomes meaning for the critic (since it is the object of the critical discourse), and in another way what was meaning for the writer (his view of the world) becomes a sign for the critic, as the theme and symbol of a certain literary nature’. Now this being so, there is certain room for reader’s interpretation. Levi-Strauss is quite right when he says that the critic always puts something of himself into the works he read.
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