Saturday, 29 October 2016

‘Structuralism and Literary Criticism’ - Critical Summary

‘Structuralism and Literary Criticism’ – Gerard Genette

Critical Summary

Gerard Genette is the most important French literary theorist after Roland Barthes. Genette is primarily associated with Structuralism, especially for reintroducing a new rhetorical vocabulary into literary criticism - terms as narratology, trope and metonymy, etc. In this essay, Gerard Genette puts forward Structuralist Criticism as a profound and valuable contribution to Literary Criticism.

Structuralist Thinking: The world is Made Up of Relationships and Not Things

Now, how does this sign get its meaning?
According to the renowned structuralist Terence Hawkes, ‘The true nature of things may be said to lie not in things themselves, but in the relationships which we construct, and then perceive, between them. This new concept, that the world is made up of relationships rather than things, constitutes the first principle of that way of thinking which can properly be called ‘structuralist’. 

Hence, the essence of Structuralism is the belief that ‘things cannot be understood in isolation, they have to be seen in the context of larger structures they are part of’. In this context it is interesting to know that Gerard Genette proposed the term ‘transtextuality’ as a more inclusive term, along with paratextuality, hypertextuality, architextuality, metatextuality, etc.

The Focus of Structuralism: Not on Individual Works but on Larger Structures behind it

Meaning is not found in Individual Works but in Larger Structures behind it
Since, larger structures are formed by our way of perceiving the world, in structuralist criticism, consequently, there is a constant movement away from the interpretation of the individual literary work towards understanding the larger structures which contain them. For example, a structuralist analysis of Browning’s poem “My Last Dutchess” necessitates more focus on the relevant genre – the dramatic monologue, and the concept of courtly love, Aristocracy in Renaissance Italy, etc., rather than on the close reading of the formal elements of the text.

Structuralists firmly believe that all human activity is constructed, not natural or “essential.” Hence, they focus their attention on systems/codes that give meaning to any human activity. Language is one such code. By doing so, structuralists embark on the massive project of giving literary criticism the rigour of a science of language. Its historical origins are in Russian Formalist criticism and the Linguistics of Saussure.

The Objective of ‘Poetics’ is not the Text but the Architext

The single objective that guided Gerard Genette in his quest was the study of poetics. Poetics may be defined as the study of shared or shareable properties of literary works, in contrast to the study of individual works. Hence, Gérard Genette asserts that the object of poetics is not the text, but the architext - the transcendent categories (literary genres, modes of enunciation, and types of discourse, among others) to which each individual text belongs, and thus seeking to link these categories in a system embracing the entire field of literature.

Structuralist criticism aims at forming a poetics or the science of literature from a study of literary works.

Literary Criticism as Intellectual Bricolage: Literary Critic as Bricoleur

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.

Distinction between the Critic and the Artist

Genette first introduces the good structuralist conception of the bricoleur as opposed to the engineer; it will turn out that a critic is a bricoleur, working with what is at hand. Genette turns the artist into the engineer. Genette then makes the point that as literary criticism uses language to speak of language use, it is in fact a metaliterature, a literature on a literature. The distinction between the critic and the writer lies not only in the secondary and limited character of the critical material (literature) as opposed to the unlimited and primary character of the poetic or fictional material (the universe).

The Critic as a Structuralist

The writer works by means of concepts and the critic by means of signs. the dual function of the critic’s work, which is to produce meaning with the work of others, but also to produce his own work out of this meaning. If such a thing as ‘critical poetry’ exists, therefore, it is in the sense in which Lévi-Strauss speaks of a ‘poetry of bricolage’: just as the bricoleur ‘speaks through things,’ the critic speaks-in the full sense, that is to say, speaks up-through books, and we will paraphrase Lévi-Strauss once more by saying that ‘without ever completing his project he always puts something of himself into it.’ 

In this sense, therefore, one can regard literary criticism as a ‘structuralist activity’

The critic reads Literature as Signs and hence as Cultural Production

 The critic is secondary to the writer, a bricoleur to the writer’s engineer, but in a position therefore to be primary in the analysis of culture. The critic treats as signs what the writer is creating as concept: the attitude, the disposition is different. The critic in reading literature as signs is reading it as a cultural production, constructed according to various preconceptions, routines, traditions and so forth of that culture. The critic does not ignore the meaning, but treats it as mediated by signs, as there is no attachment to anything beyond the sign.

Rediscovering the Message in the Code  

Structuralist method as such is constituted at the very moment when one rediscovers the message in the code, uncovered by an analysis of the immanent structures and not imposed from the outside by ideological prejudices, whereas Poststructuralists will deny that anything can be innocent of ideology.

Structuralism Is About Meaning, Not Just About Form

Genette tries to emphasise the fact that structuralism is not just about form alone, but also about meaning, since linguistics is about meaning. It is a study of the cultural construction of meaning according to the relations of signs that constitute the meaning-system of the culture. Finally in this section, Genette looks forward to structural analysis at the more macro level of the text, of the analysis of narratives.

Language Acquisition for a Child and Literature Acquisition for a Man

We know that the acquisition of language by a child proceeds not by a simple extension of vocabulary, but by a series of internal segmentations that the child makes for itself. At each stage, the few words at its disposal are for the child the whole of language and it uses them to designate everything, with increasing precision. Similarly, for a man who has read only one book, this book is for him the whole of ‘literature,’ in the primary sense of the term; when he has read two, these two books will share his entire literary field, with no gap between them, and so on.

The Literature of mankind as a whole can be regarded as constituted by a similar process – literary ‘production’ being parole, and the ‘consumption’ of this literature by society as a langue.

The nineteenth century, forgot to take into account this totality – this coherence of the whole, but rather concentrated on the individual history of works and of their authors.

As literature is a system, no individual work of literature is an autonomous whole; similarly, literature itself is not autonomous but is part of the larger structures of signification of the culture.


To Genette, when literature is taken as a whole, it would be easy to add to it, everything that is not literature also, for example, the relation between literature and social life as a whole. Hence literariness is also a function of non-literariness, and hence no stable definition can be given of the term ‘literariness’. Everyone knows that the birth of the cinema altered the status of literature, by depriving it of some of its functions, but also by giving literature some of its means. Similarly, the meaning of an individual work is ultimately and inevitably only the meaning within a larger frame of cultural meanings, and these meanings change in relation to one another across time and cultures. A structural analysis of the construction of cultural meaning can thence replace the meaning of the individual instance, the particular work, while the meaning of the individual work is illumined and rendered more fully significant by being read in the context of its full systemic, cultural meaning.

If literature has to survive the development of other media of communication, literature should stop approaching it as being ‘self-evident’, ‘autonomous’, ‘self-contained,’ and ‘self-dependent’, but rather reach across frontiers, and access the non-literary into the literary, wherein lies the success of the Structuralist Approach to Literary criticism.

Image courtesy -
Olga Unal &
Sincere thanks to 
Brock University's academic site at for their valuable inputs.

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