A Definition of Formalism: Including Properties and Checklist of Formalist Criticism

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Etymology:

The word ‘formalism’ has derived from the word ‘form’. The ‘ism’ is a belief or an approach of looking at things. So, ‘formalism’ is the approach of looking at things strictly adhering to their forms.

What is Formalism?

Formalism is an object-centered theory of critical approach to literature. It focuses only on the work itself and completely ignores the author of the work, time and background information of the work, and the audiences’ feeling or perception about the work.

Formalism asserts that formal properties are the only things that matter about literature.

The formal properties of a literary work include:

  • Words (meaning of the words)
  • Shape/structure of the text
  • Harmony of the words
  • The rhythm of the sentences
  • Rhyming of the words
  • Meaning of the text as a whole

The formal properties of a literary work do NOT include: 

  • Time of the work
  • Background of the work
  • Representation of the work
  • The symbolism of the words
  • Author’s moral, religious, or political values
  • Author’s personal life

 

Formalist Criticism analyzes the form of a literary work to discover its true meaning (not what the audiences think but what the text says). Formalism holds that true meaning can be determined only by analyzing the literary elements of the text and by understanding how these elements work together to form up a cohesive whole.

Formalist critics examine a text regardless of its time period, social/political/religious setting, and author’s background. They believe that true meaning of the text lies only in the text. Other issues create a false impression of the text and thus jeopardize the audiences’ interpretation. So the formalist critics believe that a text should not be interpreted based on a reader's response to it (affective fallacy), the author's stated or inferred intention (intentional fallacy), author's life (biographical fallacy), and historical/religious/social contexts (contextual fallacies). According to formalism, these fallacies are the subjective biases and a text should be analyzed objectively to determine its true meaning.

Formalism emphasizes close readings of the text to analyze the deeper meanings of the words individually and collectively.     

 

What is a Text?  

According to Formalism,

  • A text is a literary work which is a finished product and nothing can change its meaning and form.
  • The form and contents of the text cannot be separated. It creates meaning as a whole.
  • A literary text has a fixed meaning.
  • The greatest literary texts are ‘constant’, ‘coherent’, ‘timeless’, and ‘universal’.

 

A Checklist for Formalist Criticism:

A formalist critic analyzes:  

  • How the work is structured or organized (formed)
  • How it begins
  • How it is advancing/transiting to the next lines
  • How it ends
  • How the plot is built
  • How the plot relates to its structure
  • How each part of the work relates to the work as a whole
  • How all the parts relate to one another
  • How the narrator/speaker narrates the story
  • Point of view of the narrator
  • The major and the minor characters
  • How the characters are related to one another
  • Actions of the characters
  • The language of the literary work
  • Style of the writing
  • Literary devices such as imageries, similes, metaphors, ironies, paradox, etc.
  • How the literary devices function to create meaning

 

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