Structuralist Criticism is

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

Key TermsDefinitions
Signthe basic unit of Saussurean linguistics, a physical entity consisting of a signifier (an acoustic image) and a signified (a concept); a sign is said to be arbitrary because a logical relationship between the signifier and signified does not necessarily exist
Referentthe extra-linguistic object to which a sign refers; the relationship between the sign and referent are also arbitrary and conventional
Binary Oppositiona pair of related terms or concepts that appear to be opposite in meaning (e.g., light/dark)

Structuralism enjoyed popularity in the 1950s and 1960s in both European and American literary theory and criticism. Structuralism focuses on literature as a system of signs in which meaning is constructed within a context. Cultural communities determine the meanings and relationships of signs. Criticism that uses a structuralist approach analyzes patterns, narrative operations, and/or codes of operation to interpret the text and the culture from which it emerges, exploring underlying structures that make the creation of meaning possible.

The popular structuralist critic Terence Hawkes defines structuralism as a way of thinking about the world which is predominantly concerned with the description of structures (17). Structuralism focuses on literature as a system of signs in which meaning is constructed within a context. Words inscribed with meaning may be compared to other words and structures to determine their meaning. Unlike Formalist critics or New Critics, structuralist critics are primarily interested in the codes, signs, and rules that govern social and cultural practices, including communication.

Structuralism first developed in Anthropology (Claude Lévi-Strauss), in literary and cultural studies (Roman Jakobson, Roland Barthes, and Gérard Genette), psychoanalysis, and intellectual history (Culler 17). Structuralism enjoyed popularity in the 1950s and 1960s in both European and American literary theory and criticism.

The seminal text of structuralism is Ferdinand de Saussure’s published collection of lecture notes, Course in General Linguistics (1915). These notes present a structuralist approach to language that focuses on an abstract system of signs. Two parts constitute a sign: the signifier (a spoken mark) and the signified (a concept):

Sign = Signifier


For example, when someone says the word “tree,” the sound he or she makes is the signifier, and the concept of a tree is the signified. The relationship of the signifier to the signified determines the meaning of the sign. As David Macey notes in The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory, signs do not designate an external reality. Signs are meaningful only because of the similarities or differences that exist between them (365). Significantly, cultural communities determine the meanings and relationships of signs. A ghost that appears in a literary text such as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet takes on a specific meaning in a European culture. As demonstrated by “Shakespeare in the Bush,” however, the word ghost does not correspond to a concept in all cultures, preventing individuals of different cultures—in this case the Tiv of Nigeria in West Africa—from understanding what it means for a ghost to appear in Hamlet.Structuralist critics also look closely at patterns. For example, observing patterns in literature, critic Northrup Frye coined the term “green world” to describe the practice of release and reconciliation to which characters retreat in Shakespeare’s festive comedies. As You Like It epitomizes the characteristics associated with this pattern of festive comedy. The play begins in a masculine, courtly world where the playwright introduces the love interests of Rosalind and Orlando. After Rosalind is banished by her uncle, who has usurped the throne from her father, she retreats to the feminine green world of the forest. In the forest, she gives lessons to Orlando about how to court and properly treat her, and she reunites with her father. She facilitates the play’s reconciliation by marrying other characters in the play, including Phoebe and Silvius and Audrey and Touchstone. Rosalind also marries Orlando, and her father and her uncle reconcile in the “green world” as well. Shakespeare wrote other plays, such as Twelfth Night and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which follow this pattern of retreat, release, and reconciliation. These plays also explore an opposition between the masculinity of the courtly world and the femininity of the “green world,” inviting the reader to analyze how each pole of the binary is valued.

Foundational Questions of Structuralist Criticism

  • What patterns in the text reveal its similarities to other texts?
  • What binary oppositions (e.g., light/dark, good/evil, old/young, masculine/feminine, and natural/artificial, etc.) operate in the text?
  • How is each part of the binary valued? Does the binary imply a hierarchy (e.g., is light better than dark, is an old age more valuable than a young age, etc.)?

Online Example: STRUCTURALIST ANALYSIS OF D.H LAWRENCE’S “The White Stocking” by A Brewis

Discussion Questions and Activities: Structuralist Criticism

  1. Define the following terms without looking at the article or your notes: sign, referent, and binary opposition.
  2. Explain the following concepts: sign and binary oppositions.
  3. Read “Shakespeare in the Bush.” Explain why Laura Bohannan decides to abandon the words “ghosts” and “devil” to describe Hamlet’s deceased father, insisting that “a witch-sent omen it [he] would have to be.”
  4. Read Sonnet 127 by William Shakespeare. Analyze the poem’s use of words like “black,” “fair,” “fairing,” “beauty,” “art,” [“art’s”] and “false.” Write a paragraph about how the poem creates tension around the meaning of these words. For example, does the poem seem to contrast the meaning of words like black, fair, or beauty? How does the poem contrast the connotation of these words?

Analyze Sonnet 127 and write a paragraph in which you argue what relationship blackness and beauty share in the poem. Provide evidence from the poem for your viewpoint.