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Unlocking The Text Of Theoretical Structuralism English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 3165 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Structuralism ,as we know it today, began in France in the 1950s as an intellectual movement. It first seen in the work of the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (1908) and the literary critic Roland Barthes (1915-1980). But structuralism in Britain appeared in the 1970s and succeed many influences, and even notoriety, throughout the 1980s. [1] Some key people of Structuralism during that period, are the following: Ferdinand de Saussure (Structural Linguistics), Roman Jakobson (Russian Formalism), Vladimir Propp (Russian Folk Tales), Algirdas Julien Greinas (Influenced by Propp), Tzvetan Todorov (Influenced by Propp). Structuralism is a very broad theoretical approach, but what unites the theorists in this area is their intent to uncover the deep structure, or underlying grammar, of things, literature being only one area of analysis. Structuralists argue that, as the sentence has a grammar that we can abstract from a range of individual sentences, also myths and literary texts can do it. This belief has been resulted from a number of investigations, where some looking at the underlying patterns of stories, and others influenced by semiotics, examining how meaning itself generated (for example:through binary oppositions, substitutions and combinations). [2] 

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But structuralism has its roots in the thinking of Swiss Linguistics Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and he was a key figure in the development of modern approaches to language study. Saussure examined the linguistic structures and the structuralists later, found them very interesting. First of all, he emphasized that what we call ‘words’ and the meaning that we give them are purely arbitrary and that these meanings are maintained by convention only. He maintained that words are just unmotivated signs, namely there is no inherent connection between a word and what is designates. Insisting that linguistic signs are arbitrary is a fairly obvious point to make and it is not a new ‘issue’ as it was said by Plato in Ancient Greek Times, but it is a new concept to emphasise. And as we can see, structuralists were interesting in the ‘hint’ that if language as a sign system is based on arbitrariness of this kind, then the language is not a reflection of the world and experience, but a system which stands seperate from it. [3] 

Saussure also, emphasised that the meaning of the words are ‘relational’. What he wants to say is that, no word can be defined in isolation from other words. The definition that we give in any word depends upon its relation with other ‘adjoining’ words (it is what we say paired opposites: male/female, day/night, good/evil, etc, as the terms ‘male’ and ‘female’, for example, mainly have meaning in relation to each other). Thirdly, for Saussure, language constitutes our world, it doesn’t just record it or label it. Meaning is always attributed to the object or idea by the human mind, and constructed by and expressed through language: it is not already contained within the thing. A well-known example of this process would be the choice between paired alternatives, such as ‘terrorist’ or ‘freedom fighter’. [4] 

Saussure focused on the relationship between the signifier and the signified, well-known as Semiotics-the study of signs. As a signifier, for Saussure, is a mark (either written or spoken) or an image. Signified is the concept (in other words what is thought when a mark/image is made/seen). So, sign results from the signifier and the signified (Saussure’s dyadic model). He insists that words don’t just describe things in an unproblematic manner. Also, a word is not just a number of sounds or letters, but a concept as well, which are both arbitrary. Signifiers need not be confined to words, as they can include any system of representation. Saussure emphasised that the relationship between the linguistic signifier and signified is arbitrary, as the link between them is not intrinsic or natural. However, even though Saussure recognised this arbitrariness, he thought of meaning as relatively stable. [5] 

In the semiotic system, Saussure believed that there are different levels of meaning. So, the first order of signification is that of denotation: at this level there is a sign consisting of a signifier and a signified. The second order of signification is that of connotation: it attaches an additional signified to the denotative sign. [6] An example of this system is the above: we have ‘the man’ as the sign. The first order of signification ( denotation ) is a representation of a mature male being. The second order of signification (connotation) has to do with the period that we are; for example we can say that the man is strong, dependent, cares about the family, has more rights than women have, etc.

We can also say that structuralism excludes reality because it never touches on or gives ‘the essence’ of real things (things only mean rationally, only mean as signs — as we noticed above). Moreover, structuralism excludes the author because the meaning preceded him or her and because text is a product of the system (Death of the Author).

A very important issue in structuralism, is the structuralist criticism. Barthe’s book S/Z, describes and talks about the methods of literary analysis. In order to succeed a structuralist analysis of a literary text, Barthes ‘created’ five codes in his S/Z book. The first code is the proairetic code, which provides indications of actions. Then the hermeneutic code poses questions or enigmas, which provide narrative suspence. The cultural code contains references out beyond the text to what is regarded as common knowledge. The semic code (or connotative code) is linked to theme, and when it is organised around a particular proper name composes a ‘character’. Finally, the symbolic code is also linked with the theme, but here we have cantrasts and pairings which relate to the most basic binary polarities (eg: male/female, day/night, good/evil, etc) and these are the structures of contrasted elements, which structuralists see as fundamental to the human way of perceiving and organising reality. [7] 

As it is obvious, structuralism has advantages and disadvantages as a theoretical approach. First of all, a main advantage of structuralism is that a) aspires to be a scientific approach to literary texts, uncovering their structuring principles in a systematis way, b) rids itself of ‘subjective’ elements, eccentric individual readings, c) it is part of a larger project to explain how culture operates, how all sign systems operate, and how the mind is itself structured. It also d) recognises the centrality of language, of symbolic systems, in human life, e) explains some curious anomalies in the way we classify things, showing how we are often the pawns of structures and finally, f) structuralism explains how stories are generated from simple oppositions, and codes, and how many of them are variations on particular themes. [8] 

On the other hand, disadvantages of structuralism are much more, as a) it only deals with the text and it does not deal with issues of authorship or issues of reader response. b) It does not address the individuality of particular texts, tending to reduce all to common structuring principles, c) it does not relate to exoerience of how most readers actually read texts. d) Structuralism also does not follow through the consequences of signs being ultimately arbitrary, to recognise that meaning cannot thereby be fixed, e) it is apolitical and ahistorical as it cannot really explain changes in systems, f) it tends to privilege the status quo; to privilege one term in binary oppositions. Finally, g) there are epistemological problems about the relation of our codes, of language, to any ‘real world’. [9] 

Many people wonder if post-structuralism is a continuation and development of structuralism, or a form of a rebellion against it. We can say that it is more likely a way of rebellion. Post-structuralists accuse structuralists of not followingthrough the implications of the views about language on which their intellectual system is based. As we mentioned above, one of structuralism’s characteristic views is the notion that language doesn’t just reflect or record the world, preferable it shapes it, so that how we see is actually what we see. The post-structuralist claim that the consequences of this belief are that we enter a universe of radical uncertainty, since we don’t have access to any fixed landmark which is beyond linguistic processing, and from this we have no certain standard by which to measure anything. So, without a fixed point of standard by which to measure movement you cannot tell whether or not you are moving at all. [10] 

Post-structuralism emerged in France in the end of 1960. The two main representatives/key figures of post-structuralism are Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. Roland Barthe’s work at this time began to move from a structuralist phase to a post-structuralist. Two of his great essays are: ‘The structural Analysis of Narrative’ (1966) and the second one ‘The pleasure of the Text’ (1973). As we compare these two essays we can mention the difference of his ‘movement’ (from structuralism to post-structuralism). But the essay ‘Death of the Author’ (1968) is the one that really represents Barthe’s turn from structuralism to post-structuralism. The other representative of post-structuralism, Jacques Derrida, is a philosopher. In his 1966’s lecture which is called ‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discources of the Human Sciences’, his turn in post-structuralism is quite obvious. Moreover, a key text in post-structuralism is Derrida’s ‘Grammatology’, where the main ‘issue’ that is being representing is that: ‘There is nothing outside the text’. [11] 

So, as it is obvious, structuralism and post-structuralism have some differences between them. First of all, structuralism derives from linguistics, which is a discipline which has always been natively confident about the possibility of establishing objective knowledge. On the other hand, post-structuralism derives from philosophy, which is a discipline which has always tended to emphasise the difficulty to ‘secure’ knowledge about the things. Also, structuralist writing tends towards abstraction and generalisation, as it aims for a ‘scientific coolness’ of tone (as its origins is linguistic science). By contrast, post-structuralist writing tends to be more ’emotive’. Some times the tone is urgent and euphoric. The post-structuralist text may contain allusions and puns, and very often the central line of the argument is based in a pun or a kind of ‘a game’ with words. [12] 

Furthermore, structuralists accept that the world is ‘fabricated’ through language, namely that we do not have access to reality, without the linguistic medium. All the same, it decides to live with that fact and continue to use language to think and perceive with. On the other hand, post-structuralism is more fundamentalist in insisting upon the consequences of the view, that in effect, reality itself is textual. But the main aim of structuralism is to ask us in which way we structure and categorise reality, and prompts us to break free of habitual modes of perception or categorisation. Post-structuralism, now,is much more fundamental as it mistrusts the very notion of reason, and the idea of human being as an independent entity. So, post-structuralism prefers the notion of the ‘dissolved’ or ‘constructed’ subject, whereby what we might think of as the individual is really a product of social and linguistic forces, that is just a ’tissue of textualities’. [13] Finally, a main problem is that post-structuralism many times claims that it is more an attitude of mind than a practical method of criticism.

If we would like to achieve a structuralist reading, then we have to look for binary oppositions, what codes are being used and what kinds of narrative devices. Let’s begin with ‘A Very Stort Story’. Here we have the story of Luz. At a first glance, we don’t know whether Luz is a male or a female character, but as we move through the story, it is being obvious that Luz is a female character (‘She loved him’, ‘she was sorry’, etc [14] ). As part of the hermeneutic code we could say that there is a kind of suspence, as we cannot specify some main issues of the story such as: ‘where is he?’, ‘why is he on the roof?’, ‘who is he?’. Maybe he is Luz’s love and as we can see he is also injured and Luz wants to take care of him. From the proairetic code we can see that ‘he’ is pretty passive throughout the operation (‘they carried him up onto the roof’, ‘she prepared him’, ‘they operated him’ [15] ). As we move to the semic code we mention that Luz is dedicated to ‘him’ as she wants to ‘stay on night duty for three months’ [16] . Now, if we would like to talk about the cultural code we could say that the whole story takes place in Chicago, during a war. These facts result from the following clues: a) the searchlights that represent war, b) the Lincoln Park which is a zoo in Chicago, and c) the problems that Luz has with the letter delivery show us the communication problems during a war. Finally, the main binary oppositions that are being appeared in this text are: male (he) versus female (Luz), American (he) versus foreign (Luz), peace versus war, health versus illness, passive (he) versus active (Luz), nature versus culture.

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Now, if we would like to discuss the naratological issues of ‘A Very Short Story’ we can say that we have a 3rd person narrator, but the point of view is his rather than hers (Luz’s). External focalisation is being used as the narrator is not in heads of either character at all. Finally, we mention Free Indirect Discourse, as the voice of Luz comes from her letters. She also uses many modals on what he ‘should’ do, as Luz wants to get married.

The second text for structuralist analysis is the ‘Cat in the Rain’, where only two Americans stayed in a hotel (somewhere in Italy). In this text we face a crisis of the marriage of George and his wife (‘Oh, shut up and get something to read’ [17] ), but also the hidden desires of the woman (material goods and not only). Also, we could mention that the cat can symbolise the wife’s want of the birth of a child, as the text represents a lack of fertility. Furthermore, there are signs of cultural isolation, because the two Americans in the hotel opposed to other nationalities.

‘Cat in the Rain’ has a 3rd person narrator, with a point of view at hers rather than his, but also some small dialogues that make the story a bit more ‘active’ and interesting. The main binary oppositions that are being appeared here is, first of all, culture versus nature (the room faces the sea), but also because George reads (culture) and his wife watches the rain and the cat (nature). Some others binary oppositions are American (the couple) versus foreign (Italy people), male versus female, nature (rain) versus culture (war monument), apathy (George) versus interest/love (wife), people versus animals, and finally love versus problems (eg:marital problems).

Finally, to sum up, we examined that the linguistic system is the most important issue in literature, as it excludes both the reality and the author, but also the speaker. Structuralism was and still is a theory that can be used by everyone in order to provide an analysis of a text, and finally, as it is obvious, post-structuralism ‘came’ into literature and had pretty many differences from its previous theory, but both of them are really important in the literature.

Words: 2.567


Barry Peter. ‘Beginning Theory: An introduction to literary and cultural theory’. (2nd edition) Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002

Bird Anne-Marie. ‘Structuralism — Class Handout’. Bolton: University of Bolton, 2010

Bird Anne-Marie. ‘Structuralism — Pros & Cons — Class Handout’. Bolton: University of Bolton, 2010

Hemingway Ernest. ‘A Very Short Story’.

Hemingway Ernest. ‘Cat in the Rain’


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