The advent of critical theory in the post-war period, which comprised various complex disciplines like linguistics, literary criticism, Psychoanalytic Criticism, Structuralism, Postcolonialism etc., proved hostile to the liberal consensus which reigned the realm of criticism between the 1930s and `50s. Among these overarching discourses, the most controversial were the two intellectual movements, Structuralism and Poststructuralism originated in France in the 1950s and the impact of which created a crisis in English studies in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Language and philosophy are the major concerns of these two approaches, rather than history or author.

Structuralism which emerged as a trend in the 1950s challenged New Criticism and rejected Sartre‘s existentialism and its notion of radical human freedom; it focused instead how human behaviour is determined by cultural, social and psychological structures. It tended to offer a single unified approach to human life that would embrace all disciplines. Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida explored the possibilities of applying structuralist principles to literature. Jacques Lacan studied psychology in the light of structuralism, blending Freud and Saussure. Michel Foucault‘s The Order of Things examined the history of science to study the structures of epistemology (though he later denied affiliation with the structuralist movement). Louis Althusser combined Marxism and Structuralism to create his own brand of social analysis.

Structuralism, in a broader sense, is a way of perceiving the world in terms of structures. First seen in the work of the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and the literary critic Roland Barthes, 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”, The contexts of larger structures do not exist by themselves, but 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, the structuralist analysis of Donne‘s poem Good Morrow demands more focus on the relevant genre (alba or dawn song), the concept of courtly love, etc., rather than on the close reading of the formal elements of the text.

The fundamental belief of Structuralism, that all human activities are constructed and not natural or essential, pervades all seminal works of Structuralism. Beginning with the trailblazers, Levi Strauss and Barthes, the other major practitioners include A. J. Greimas, Vladimir Propp, Terence Hawkes (Structuralism and Semiotics), Robert Scholes (Structuralism in Literature), Colin MacCabe, Frank Kermode and David Lodge (combined traditional and structuralist approaches in his book Working with Structuralism). The American structuralists of the 1960s were Jonathan Culler and the semioticians C. S. Peirce, Charles Morris and Noam Chomsky.

With its penchant for scientific categorization, Structuralism suggests the interrelationship between “units” (surface phenomena) and “rules” (the ways in which units can be put together). In language, units are words and rules are the forms of grammar which order words.

Structuralists believe that the underlying structures which organize rules and units into meaningful systems are generated by the human mind itself and not by sense perception. Structuralism tries to reduce the complexity of human experiences to certain underlying structures which are universal, an idea which has its roots in the classicists like Aristotle who identified simple structures as forming the basis of life. A structure can be defined as any conceptual system that has three properties: “wholeness” (the system should function as a whole), “transformation” (system should not be static), and “self-regulation (the basic structure should not be changed).

Structuralism in its inchoate form can be found in the theories of the early twentieth century Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure (Course in General Linguistics, 1916), who moved away from the then prevalent historical and philological study of language (diachronic) to the study of the structures, patterns and functions of language at a particular time (synchronic). Saussure’s idea of the linguistic sign is a seminal concept in all structuralist and poststructuralist discourses. According to him, language is not a naming process by which things get associated with a word or name. The linguistic sign is made of the union of “signifier” (sound image, or “psychological imprint of sound”) and “signified” (concept). In this triadic view, words are “unmotivated signs,” as there is no inherent connection between a name (signifier) and what it designates (signified).

The painting This is Not a Pipe by the Belgian Surrealist artist Rene Magritte explicates the treachery of signs and can be considered a founding stone of Structuralism. Foucault‘s book with the same title comments on the painting and stresses the incompatibility of visual representation and reality.


Saussure’s theory of language emphasizes that meanings are arbitrary and relational (illustrated by the reference to 8.25 Geneva to Paris Express in Course in General Linguistics; the paradigmatic chain hovel-shed-hut-house-mansion-palace, where the meaning of each is dependent upon its position in the chain; and the dyads male-female, day-night etc. where each unit can be defined only in terms of its opposite). Saussurean theory establishes that human being or reality is not central; it is language that constitutes the world. Saussure employed a number of binary oppositions in his lectures, an important one being speech/writing. Saussure gives primacy to speech, as it guarantees subjectivity and presence, whereas writing, he asserted, denotes absence, of the speaker as well as the signified. Derrida critiqued this as phonocentrism that unduly privileges presence over absence, which led him to question the validity of all centres.

Saussure’s use of the terms Langue (language as a system) and Parole an individual. utterance in that language, which is inferior to Langue) gave structuralists a way of thinking about the larger structures which were relevant to literature. Structuralist narratology, a form of Structuralism espoused by Vladimir Propp, Tzvetan Todorov, Roland Barthes and Gerard Genette illustrates how a story’s meaning develops from its overall structure, (langue) rather than from each individual story’s isolated theme (parole). To ascertain a text’s meaning, narratologists emphasize grammatical elements such as verb tenses and the relationships and configurations of figures of speech within the story. This demonstrates the structuralist shift from authorial intention to broader impersonal Iinguistic structures in which the author’s text (a term preferred over “work”) participates.

Structuralist critics analyse literature on the explicit model of structuralist linguistics. In their analysis they use the linguistic theory of Saussure as well as the semiotic theory developed by Saussure and the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. According to the semiotic theory, language must be studied in itself, and Saussure suggests that the study of language must be situated within the larger province of Semiology, the science of signs.

Semiology understands that a word’s meaning derives entirely from its difference from other words in the sign system of language (eg: rain not brain or sprain or rail or roam or reign). All signs are cultural constructs that have taken on their meaning through repeated, learned, collective use. The process of communication is an unending chain of sign production which Peirce dubbed “unlimited semiosis”. The distinctions of symbolic, iconic and indexical signs, introduced by the literary theorist Charles Sande  Peirce is also a significant idea in Semiology. The other major concepts associated with semiotics are “denotation” (first order signification) and “connotation” (second order signification).

Structuralism was anticipated by the Myth Criticism of Northrop Frye, Richard Chase, Leslie Fiedler, Daniel Hoffman, Philip Wheelwright and others which drew upon anthropological and physiological bases of myths, rituals and folk tales to restore spiritual content to the alienated fragmented world ruled by scientism, empiricism and technology. Myth criticism sees literature as a system based or recurrent patterns.

The French social anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss applied the structuralist outlook to cultural phenomena like mythology, kinship relations and food preparation. He applied the principles of langue and parole in his search for the fundamental mental structures of the human mind. Myths seem fantastic and arbitrary yet myths from different cultures are similar. Hence he concluded there must be universal laws that govern myths (and all human thought). Myths consist of 1) elements that oppose or contradict each other and 2) other elements that “mediate” or resolve those oppositions (such as trickster / Raven/ Coyote, uniting herbivores and carnivores). He breaks myths into smallest meaningful units called mythemes. According to Levi-Strauss, every culture can be understood, in terms of the binary oppositions like high/low, inside/outside, life/death etc., an idea which he drew from the philosophy of Hegel who explains that in every situation there are two opposing things and their resolution, which he called “thesis, antithesis and synthesis”. Levi-Strauss showed how opposing ideas would fight and also be resolved in the rules of marriage, in mythology, and in ritual.

In interpreting the Oedipus myth he placed the individual story of Oedipus within the context of the whole cycle of tales connected with the city of Thebes. He then identifies repeated motifs and contrasts, which he used as the basis of his interpretation. In this method, the story and the cycle part are reconstituted in terms of binary oppositions like animal/ human, relation/stranger, husband/son and so on.

Concrete details from the story are seen in the context of a larger structure and the larger structure is then seen as an overall network of basic dyadic pairs which have obvious symbolic, thematic and archetypal resonance. This is the typical structuralist process of moving from the particular to the general placing the individual work within a wider structural content.

A very complex binary opposition introduced by Levi-Strauss is that of bricoleur (savage mind) and an engineer (true craft man with a scientific mind). According to him, mythology functions more like a bricoleur, whereas modern western science works more like an engineer (the status of modem science is ambivalent in his writings). In Levi-Strauss’s concept of bricolage, what is important is that the signs already in existence are used for purposes that they were not originally meant for. When a faucet breaks, the bricoleur stops the leak using a cloth, which is not actually meant for it. On the other hand the engineer foresees the eventuality and he would have either a spare faucet or all the spanners and bolts necessary to repair the tap.

Derrida, the poststructuralist, opposes Levi-Strauss‘s concept of bricolage in his Structure, Sign and Play, saying that the opposition of bricolage to engineering is far more troublesome that Levi-Strauss admits and also the control of theory and method, which Levi-Strauss attributes to the engineer would seem a very strange attribution for a structuralist to make.

Roland Barthes, the other major figure in the early phase of structuralism (later he turned to Post Structuralism), applied the structuralist analysis and semiology to broad cultural phenomena. His work embodies transition from structuralist to poststructuralist perspectives. Certain works of his have a Marxist perspective and some others deal with the concept of intertextuality, a coinage by his student and associate Julia Kristeva. His early works like Writing Degree Zero (1953) and Mythologies (1957) derived inspiration from Saussure, Sartre and Brecht. His structuralist works include Elements of Semiology (1964), Introduction to the Structural Analysis of  Narratives (1966),  Death of the Author (1968), and S/Z (1970). From Work to Text, The Pleasure of the Text are some of the seminal poststructuralist works.

In Mythologies he examines modern France from the standpoint of a cultural theorist. It is an ideological critique of products of mass bourgeois culture, like soaps, advertisements, images of Rome etc., which are explained using the concept of ‘myth’. According to Barthes, myth is a language, a mode of signification. He reiterates Saussure’s view that semiology comprises three terms: signifier, signified and sign, in which sign is a relation between the signifier and signified. The structure of myth repeats this tri-dimensional pattern. Myth is a second order signifying system illustrated by the image of the young Negro in a French uniform saluting the french flag, published as the cover page of the Parisian magazine, Paris Match, which reveals the myth of French imperialism at the connotative level.

Roland Berthes underlies that the very principle of myth is “to transform history into nature”. Ideology and culture as kinds of propaganda work best when they are not recognized as such because they contribute to the construction of what people think of as “common sense.” BarthesDeath of the Author (1968) reveals his deconstructionist and antihumanist approach as it deposes the Romantic idea of an author, symbolically male and end of all meanings. The death of the author is followed by the birth of the reader; not just the reader but the scriptor, an idea which has echoes of Eliot’s theory of impersonality.

In his S/Z (a book which sits on the fence between structuralism and poststructuralism) Barthes’ method of analysis is to divide the story (Balzac’s (Sarrasine) into 561 lexias or units of meaning, which he classifies using five ‘codes’: Proairetic, hermeneutic, cultural, semic and symbolic, seeing these as the basic underlying structure of all narratives. In this book appears the substantial reference to the readerly (lisible) and writerly (scriptable) texts. In The Pleasure of the Text he distinguishes between plaisir (pleasure) and jouissance (bliss).

The complexity and heterogeneity of structuralism, which is reflected even in the architecture of this period (eg., structuralist artefacts like Berlin Holocaust Memorial, Bank of China Tower, etc) paved the way to poststructuralism which attacked the essentialist premises of structuralism. Poststructuralism argues that in the very examination of underlying structures, a series of biases are involved. Structuralism has often been criticized for being ahistorical and for favouring deterministic structural forces over the ability of people to act. As the political turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s (especially the student uprising of May 1968) began affecting the academy, issues of power and political struggle moved to the centre of people’s attention. In the 1980s deconstruction and its emphasis on the fundamental ambiguity of language—rather than its crystalline logical structure—became popular, which proved fatal to structuralism.

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22 replies

  1. these theory make every minds confused. this is all craziness.

  2. one of d best explanations i hve come across so far …in an easy simplified language…. thankyou n may
    god bless uh …

  3. Thank you for explaining the idea in such a simple way ! Literature must like this- everyone must be able to understand, not just an academic few. Thank you !

  4. clear and to the point. this was very helpful for me.
    thanks a lot. I will be reading more essays from this blog for sure…

  5. hi Nassarulla,

    i am really lucky to find your blog. This blog is really very intersting. Sll the best.. thomas

  6. Thank you for yor brief note

  7. Hi Nassarulla!
    Thanks very much for providing us with such a comprehensive and accurate work. I find your explanations very clear, understandable and to the point. I’ll keep on consulting your blog, for sure!

  8. Thank you Mary for such reach material

  9. I am doing a seminar presentation on Structuralism in Theatre Studies. i find this write up useful. Could help with other relevant write ups

  10. i mean can you help with other relevant write ups

  11. Yea…very very helpful to understan. Thank you.

  12. One doubt: Is “Death of the Author” a structuralist essay? Isn’t it post structuralist?


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