Russian Formalism

Russian Formalism

Literary Theory and Criticism

Russian Formalism was a literary movement that emerged in Russia during the early 20th century, primarily in the 1910s and 1920s. It aimed to establish a scientific and objective approach to the study of literature by focusing on the formal elements of literary texts rather than subjective interpretations or historical context.


Russian Formalism was a school of literary theory and analysis in Russia from the 1910s to the 1930s. It focused on the specificity and autonomy of poetic language and literature, emphasising the importance of literary devices and the text itself over traditional psychological and cultural-historical approaches. The movement included influential scholars like Viktor Shklovsky, Yuri Tynianov, and Roman Jakobson, among others, and was known for its scientific method for studying poetic language.

The movement was not unified in doctrine (set of beliefs) and consisted of two distinct groups: the OPOJAZ in St. Petersburg and the Moscow Linguistic Circle. However, they were unified in asserting a close reading’ of the text of poems and narratives. Russian Formalism is significant for its influence on later thinkers and movements, including structuralism and post-structuralism, despite being criticised and suppressed under Stalin’s regime.

Emergence of Russian Formalism – Context

Russian Formalism emerged in the early 20th century in Russia, particularly during the tumultuous period of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent years of social and cultural upheaval. Following factors contributed to its emergence:

World War I and the Communist Revolution

World War I and the subsequent revolution created a crisis of representation in Russian society. Traditional modes of literary representation were called into question as old social structures collapsed and new ideologies emerged. This upheaval led intellectuals to seek new ways of understanding and interpreting literature. The Communist Revolution (aka Russian Revolution; 1917) brought about radical political and ideological shifts in Russia. Marxist thought became dominant, and literature was expected to serve the interests of the proletarian (i.e. working class) revolution. In response to this politicisation of literature, Formalism emerged as a movement that sought to detach literary analysis from political and ideological concerns, focusing instead on the formal properties of texts.

Desire for Autonomy

The political turmoil and ideological pressures of the time fostered a desire among intellectuals for autonomy in literary analysis. Formalists argued for the autonomy of literary language and the independence of literary texts from external influences, including political agendas. They emphasised the importance of analysing literature on its own terms, without imposing extrinsic interpretations based on ideology or social context. They based their assumptions partly on the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure, and partly on Symbolist notions concerning the autonomy of the text and the discontinuity between literary and other uses of language.

Quest of Objectivity and Scientific Approach

Amidst the chaos of war and revolution, there was a growing desire among intellectuals for objective methods of literary analysis. The Formalists sought to make their critical discourse more objective and scientific than that of Symbolist criticism. They advocated a “scientific” method for studying poetic language, to the exclusion of traditional psychological and cultural-historical approaches. Thus, Formalism, with its emphasis on structural analysis and rigorous methodology, provided a means of studying literature that was perceived as more scientific and objective than previous approaches.

The Linguistic Turn

The linguistic turn in intellectual thought, influenced by developments in linguistics and semiotics, played a significant role in the emergence of Formalism. Formalists drew inspiration from structural linguistics, particularly the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, and applied linguistic principles to the study of literature. This linguistic approach allowed Formalists to focus on the formal properties of literary texts, such as language, structure, and style, while setting aside extrinsic (external) factors such as authorial intention or socio-political context.

Fundamental Assumptions of Russian Formalists

Russian Formalists were not satisfied with the traditional methods of literary criticism that often emphasised on historical context, author’s biography, or philosophical meanings of literary texts. These approaches often led to subjective interpretations and lacked a rigorous (thorough and careful) method. They emphasised the autonomous nature of literature, insisting that the proper study of literature lay neither in a reflection of the life of its author nor in the historical or cultural milieu in which it was created. They sharply emphasised the difference between literature and life. They advocated for an objective, scientific method of analysing literary texts.

The Formalists believed that literature functioned as a unique system with its own set of rules and devices and sought to find out the quality that gave literature its ‘literariness’. They aimed to identify the qualities that make something ‘literary’, distinct from everyday language. By rejecting the focus on external factors and subjectivity, the Formalists built a theory centred on the internal structures and devices within a text itself.

Propositions of Russian Formalists

Formlists proposed that literature, especially poetry, is a special function of language. A literary text possessed a special quality distinct from common, everyday language that provided it its literariness’. The purpose of criticism is to find out how a literary text generated or possessed literariness. Here are the key points of their proposition:

1. Focus on Form

Russian Formalists emphasized the formal aspects of literature over its thematic or ideological content. They argued that the specific formal features of a literary work—such as language, structure, narrative technique, and style—were central to its meaning and should be the primary focus of literary analysis.

2. Autonomy of Literary Language

Formalists argued that literary language possesses its own unique characteristics and functions, distinct from everyday or utilitarian language. They argued for the autonomy of literary language, suggesting that it operates according to its own rules and conventions and should be studied independently of other forms of discourse.

3. Literariness

Formalists coined the term “literariness” (literaturnost in Russian) to describe the distinctive qualities that define literature as a unique form of artistic expression. They argued that literariness arises from the manipulation of language and form for aesthetic purposes, rather than from the representation of reality or the communication of ideas. Literary texts gain literariness by using language (i.e. devices) in such a way that everyday objects could be made to look different, extraordinary or even strange.

4. Defamiliarization

Formalists introduced the concept of defamiliarization (ostranenie in Russian), which involves making the familiar seem strange or unfamiliar in order to provoke fresh perceptions and insights. They believed that literature achieves its aesthetic effects by defamiliarizing language and perception, challenging readers to see the world in new ways. This newness presented by literary texts is what engages the reader’s attention.

5. Poetry as an Epitome of Defamiliarization






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©2024. Md. Rustam Ansari []


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