Russian Formalism and New Criticism

Russian Formalism and New Criticism is

Key TermsDefinitions
Forma genre or literary type (the lyric form, the drama form); the principle that determines how a work is organized; a work’s shaping principle
Literary Devicestechniques (e.g., allusion, allegory, metaphor, simile, rhythm, imagery, language, structure, sound, paradox, denotation connotation) used to convey an author’s message
Tropea figure of speech or a word or a phrase that is not meant to be taken literally
Tonethe attitude conveyed toward a subject in a literary work
Paradoxa statement that initially seems to be a self-contradiction but that may prove to be true; a statement that leads to a conclusion that seems self-contradictory

Key Terms: Dialectic; Hermeneutics; Semiotics; Text & Intertextuality; Tone


Foundational Questions of Russian Formalism and New Criticism

  • How do the work’s devices (e.g., rhythm, imagery, language, structure, sound, paradox, denotation, connotation, allusion, etc.) enhance meaning?
  • Does the work contain any paradoxes? If so, how do they complicate, create, or enhance meaning?
  • What is the tone of the work? What formal elements reveal the tone? How does tone contribute

Russian Formalism locates its origins in Russia in the early years of the twentieth century. New Criticism began in the 1930s and 1940s, in Great Britain and in the United States. This approach ignores the author, his or her biography, and historical context, focusing on the literary work, which they uphold as autonomous. For a Formalist, there’s nothing outside the work that can have any bearing on the work itself. Criticism that adopts this approach analyzes how the elements and devices (e.g., words, plot, characters, images, tone) in a literary text contribute to its meaning.

Formalist critics ignore the author, his or her biography, and historical context, focusing on the literary work, which they uphold as autonomous. As Jonathan Culler explains in Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, the Russian Formalists of the early years of the twentieth century stressed that critics should concern themselves with the literariness of literature, the verbal strategies that contribute to the form of a literary text, and the emphasis on language that literature itself invites (122). Roman Jakobson, Boris Eichenbaum, and Viktor Shklovsky oriented literary studies toward questions of form and technique. T.S. Eliot, I.A. Richards, and William Empson significantly influenced the Anglo-American tradition of Formalism.

New Criticism and its seminal figures, including Cleanth Brooks, John Crowe Ransom, and W.K. Wimsatt, borrowed some of the methodologies of Russian Formalism. The New Critics also resisted emphasizing the author’s biography, focusing instead on how the parts of a literary text contribute to the whole. These two schools cannot be conflated, however. Russian Formalism locates its origins in Russia in the early years of the twentieth century. New Criticism began in the 1930s and 1940s, in Great Britain and in the United States.

Criticism that adopts an approach espoused by either the schools of Russian Formalism or New Criticism analyzes how the elements and devices (e.g., words, plot, characters, images, tone) in a literary text contribute to its meaning. Consider Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s narrative poem “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” which narrates the tale of a sea mariner who kills an albatross and then experiences intense guilt before he finds redemption. The imagery that appears in the poem after the Mariner kills the albatross is unnatural: “Day after day, day after day / We stuck, ne breath ne motion / As idle as a painted Ship / Upon a painted ocean” (2.111-114). The unnatural imagery creates a visual depiction of the Mariner’s guilt—as if he is stuck thinking about the fact that he killed the albatross. The language of the poem creates an additional image that enhances the audience’s awareness of the Mariner’s guilt: “Ah wel-a-day ! what evil looks / Had I from old and young; / Instead of the Cross the Albatross / About my neck was hung” (2.135-38). The “hung” albatross serves as the ultimate symbol of the mariner’s guilt, as if the albatross is haunting the Mariner. “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a narrative poem, so Coleridge has to rely on language—in these examples words with negative connotations (“stuck,” “idle,” and “evil”) and words that create images (the idle ship and the hung albatross)—to show how guilty the Mariner feels after killing the albatross. Critics who use an approach from the schools of either the Russian Formalists or the New Critics thus focus on elements and devices within the literary text in order to analyze how they create meaning.

Online Examples: Evidence of the New Orthodoxy: Sound in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, A Formalist Reading of Sandra Cisneros’s ‘Woman Hollering Creek” by Skylar Hamilton Burris

Discussion Questions and Activities: Russian Formalism and New Criticism

  1. Define the following terms without looking at the article or your notes: form, literary devices, trope, tone, paradox.
  2. Define both Formalist Criticism and New Criticism in your own words.
  3. Review the types of literary devices, and view an additional list of figures of speech. Then, read Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.” What formal elements and literary devices appear frequently in this poem (e.g., images, rhyme scheme, repetition, and metaphor)? Identify and list these elements and devices.
  4. Choose one of the formal elements or literary devices you listed above. Write a paragraph about how that element or device contributes to the meaning of the poem.
  5. Compare and contrast two of the literary devices that Plath employs in “Daddy.” Write a paragraph in which you take a stance regarding which device contributes more significantly to the meaning of the poem.

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