Structuralism in English literature

The Concept of Structure

If you analyze a building’s physical structure to determine if it is aesthetically attractive or physically strong, you are not engaging in structuralist action. However, if you analyze the physical composition of every building constructed in metropolitan London in 1850 to figure out the fundamental principles that determine their composition, such as those of mechanical construction or aesthetic form, you are engaging in structuralist action. If you analyze a particular building’s construction to see how its composition exemplifies the fundamental ideas of a certain structural system, you are also engaging in structuralist action. You create a structural system of categorization in the first case of structuralist action; in the second, you show that a certain object belongs to a specific structural class.

The same structuralist activity paradigm applies to literary analysis. If you use a short story’s structure to analyze its meaning or determine if it is great literature, you are not engaging in structuralist activity. However, you are engaging in structuralist action, if you try to find the fundamental principles that determine the structure of many short tales, such as the principles of narrative, progression, or characterization.

The visible and the invisible world:

According to structuralism, there are two fundamental layers to the world as we know it: one that is visible and the other that is unseen. What may be referred to as surface phenomena make up the visible world, which includes the numerous things, actions, and conduct that we see, engage in, and interact with on a daily basis. The invisible world includes the structures that support and arrange all of these occurrences so that humans may understand them. For instance, the English language has over a million words, each of which may be pronounced in a variety of ways by various speakers, but all of which have a rather basic structure, such as the subject-verb-object grammatical framework. We wouldn’t have any form of communication if there wasn’t a structural structure to control it.

Specific characteristics of structure:

A structure is any conceptual system that possesses the three qualities listed below:




Wholeness simply indicates that a system works as a whole and not as a collection of separate components. The fact that the components came together to make something new makes the whole different from the sum of its parts. To give a physical illustration, water is a unit that is distinct from its constituent elements ( hydrogen and oxygen).

Transformation indicates that the system is dynamic and capable of change, not fixed. In other words, the system is constantly organizing fresh information. For instance, language, which is a structural system, may change its fundamental constituents, like phonemes, into new utterances, like words and sentences.

Self-regulation is the property that prevents a structure’s transformations from spreading outside of its own structural system. New language utterances are an example of a transformation-generated element that is always a part of the system and abides by its rules.

Ferdinand de Saussure:

Ferdinand de Saussure is most known today for his 1916 publication, Cours de Linguistique Générale, which is essentially a compilation of his lectures. The English version of the same text was eventually published as Course in General Linguistics. Saussure contends that language functions as a structure. Before Saussure, language was investigated with regards to the history of changes in particular words across time, or diachronically, with the presumption that words somehow mirrored the things they stood for. But Saussure came to the conclusion that language should not be understood as a collection of distinct words, each with their own histories, but rather as a structural system of links between words, or synchronically. The structuralist emphasis is on this. Structuralism doesn’t investigate the origins or causes of language (or of any other phenomenon). It searches for the structure, the underlying principles that guide language and control how it works.

The concept of Sign=signifier + signified

According to Saussure, words, which make up the building blocks of language, are essentially signs that point us in one direction or another. For instance, the term “tree” brings to mind images of a wooden trunk and green leaves. Thus, a word is a linguistic symbol made up of two integral pieces, signifier and signified, like the two sides of a coin. A signifier is a “sound picture,” and the signified is the idea it refers to. Only when a sound picture is connected to an idea it becomes a word. A sound picture tree, for instance, is a signifier. Whenever we say the word “tree,” we are automatically led to the signified, which has a timber and green leaves growing on it. According to Saussure, there is no inherent relationship between a particular sound-image or signifier and the idea signified to which it points. For instance, the concept of a tree comprised of wood and leaves and the word “tree” do not necessarily go hand in hand. In different language structures, different sounding signifiers are used to refer to the same signified that we refer to in English by the signifier tree. For instance, “rukh” in Nepali or “phedh” in Hindi. In each of these instances, the signified does not change; instead, the signifier changes. Therefore, the only judgment that can be made is that the word sounds, or signifiers, do not get their meaning from the signified.

Binary oppositions:

If there is no inherent relationship between signifier and signified then, how can it signify? According to Saussure, a signifier’s ability to signify is determined by how it interacts with other signifiers within a given language system rather than how it is attached to specific conceptions or signified. Thus, language operates similarly to a structure in that its component elements (word sounds) gain meaning purely from their relationship to one another inside a given language system, not from any other structure or language system. For instance, the sound “tree” within a language implies what it does since it differs from other sounds like bird, dog, etc. So according to structuralism, the human mind grasps differences more easily in respect of opposites, which structuralists refer to as binary oppositions, two notions that are directly opposed to one another and which we both comprehend through their opposition to one another. For instance, we know that good is the polar opposite of bad, and that up is the polar opposite of down and so on.

Langue and Parole:

In order to distinguish between the structure that controls language and the millions of individual words, Saussure called the language’s governing structure as langue and he referred to the individual words that occur when we utter as parole. Of course, langue is the actual subject of study for the structuralist; parole is significant when it discloses langue.

Claude Levi-Strauss’ contribution in structuralism:

Claude Levi-Strauss was a French scholar who was born in Belgium. According to structural anthropology, which was developed by Claude Levi-Strauss in the late 1950s, all humans are connected by underlying structures, irrespective of the variations in the outward manifestations of the cultures to which they belong. One of Levi-special Strauss’s areas of study was whether or not stories from seemingly distinct cultures had structural similarities. From a structuralist approach, he discovered that the vast array of myths from diverse cultures can be boiled down to a very small number of what he called mythemes, or the basic truths.

For instance, the mytheme “the hero kills a monster” features a range of various hero types (rich, poor, deserted, of decent family), slaying various monster types (male, female, half-human), for various purposes (to win a wife, to save a community, to prove himself). The argument is that a structural analysis of myth reveals that there is a relatively small, understandable langue (underlying structure) through which we may organize and comprehend the otherwise large number of myths produced around the world.

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