The Formalities of Formalism

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From Literary Theory:

"The Formalists started out by seeing the literary work as a more or less arbitrary assemblage of 'devices', and only later came to see these devices as interrelated elements or 'functions' within a total textual system.  'Devices' including sound, imagery, rhythm, syntax, metre, rhyme, narrative techniques, in fact the whole stock of formal literary elements..." (Eagleton 3)

   This section of the text helped me understand, or I think it did anyway, what the Formalists are all about, what makes them tick.  It seems that Formalists are comcerned with the words themselves, not the story or characters.  The literature itself is secondary, only a coral reef if you will, made up of thousands of smaller organisms that give it a semblance of one giant mass.  The divers can come and check out the reef, seeing all the pretty colors and fish, but not realize the real composition, what gives the reef its shape.  The reader of a piece of literature is like the diver, examining the work and seeing the plot, but many times missing the building blocks that make the story, the words.  This focus on the words themselves, rather than the story, allows the reader to see what it was about the author's word choice and use of literary devices works for the story and allows it to be effective.  The formalists, like biologists, like to break down the whole into pieces, dissect it, to see exactly how and why the work has a certain desired effect.

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Greta Carroll said:

Angela, I really liked your analogy between the Formalists and biologists studying a coral reef. And while I agree with the Formalists and you that it is extremely important to be cognizant of the importance of the actually words, devices, structure, etc. that make-up a literary work and give it its own unique flavor, I think there is more to a work than these things. In other words, while I think formalism is a useful and even essential tool in analyzing literature, I think one can gain a more accurate appreciation of a work when it is combined with another tool. Sure, one can use the single tool of formalism, but why consign oneself to such a limited view when there are so many others which can also be used?

Michelle Tantlinger said:

I was also intrigued by the Formalists and was disappointed they weren’t referenced in Hamilton. I was hoping for a definition of the way they would criticize a piece of work. I do agree with your analogy between the Formalists and the divers.

AngelaPalumbo Author Profile Page said:

I completely agree with you, Greta! A person needs to use multiple lenses when examining Literature to truly get into the work sometimes. Like what Dr. McClain said today about J.D. Salinger going to a military school in Pennsylvania and getting kicked out of numerous schools makes him very similar to Holden Caulfield. It is apparent that Salinger used himself, partially anyway, as a model for Holden.

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