Formalism: Form and Function
as presented by Jamie Visser

History of Formalism:

Formalism, the biggest thing ever to hit literary criticism, has had such influence that most English majors come to use it intuitively as sort of a first language. All those terms (like metaphor, irony, point of view, meter, tone) are the basic tools of formalist “close readings” (Cowles 7).

Pure formalism is a dying animal in the current critical community. Formalism’s assumptions have been questioned, it’s methodologies criticized, and its self-contradictions exposed to the point that it’s now difficult to accept formalism fully on its own terms (Cowles 7).

Formalism, also called Russian Formalism, Russian Russky Formalism, innovative 20th-century Russian school of literary criticism. It began in two groups: OPOYAZ, an acronym for Russian words meaning Society for the Study of Poetic Language, founded in 1916 at St. Petersburg (later Leningrad) and led by Viktor Shklovsky; and the Moscow Linguistic Circle, founded in 1915. Other members of the groups included Osip Brik, Boris Eikhenbaum, Yury Tynianov, and Boris Tomashevsky (Britannica).

Although the Formalists 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, the Formalists sought to make their critical discourse more objective and scientific than that of Symbolist criticism. Allied at one point to the Russian Futurists and opposed to sociological criticism, the Formalists placed an “emphasis on the medium” by analyzing the way in which literature, especially poetry, was able to alter artistically or “make strange” common language so that the everyday world could be “defamliarized.” They stressed the importance of form and technique over content and looked for the specificity of literature as an autonomous verbal art. They studied the various functions of “literariness” as ways to separate poetry and fictional narrative from other forms of discourse. Although always anathema to the Marxist critics, Formalism was important in the Soviet Union until 1929, when it was condemned for its lack of political perspective (Britannica).

In the early 1920s American professor John  Crow Ranson and a group of colleagues and students at Vanderbilt University formed a group called the Fugitives (Cowles 9). Ransom's decree that literary criticism need become more scientific, or precise and systematic points away from a naive perspective that reading and interpretation are somehow natural activities (Davis, and Womack 13). They began looking at the texts themselves and applying their ideas to their own and other’s poetry. In the early 1930s a spin-off group developed in Nashville, called the Southern Agrarians because of their intense regional pride and values. These two collections of poets and scholars formed the nucleus of the New Critics (important formalist camp), whose publications and philosophy came to dominate literary studies. By the mid-1970s its influence was seriously waning, and by the 1980s poststructuralism, cultural criticism, and other contemporary perspectives had largely written off New Critical Formalism (Cowles 9).

What is Formalism?

Form is everything. The poet, for example, begins with an idea-a sort of seed- in the imagination. The poet works with meter, symbols, images, tone, ideas, and other elements to help this seed grow into a finished poem. The poem’s form or shape, inherent in the idea from the beginning, is individual and unique. Each poem takes its own shape, which depends on its own inner laws rather than on outside constraints (Cowles 9). The form is what everything in the poem adds up to – all its words, images, allusions, metaphors, and sounds, its tone, point of view, stanza patterns, ideas and so on. It all works together to create a total, unified whole (Cowles 10).

The Terms: 

Allegory- a form of extended metaphor in which objects, persons, and actions in narrative are equated with meanings that lie outside the narrative itself (Harmon, and Holman 14).

Alliteration- the repetition of initial identical consonant sounds or any vowel sounds in successive or closely associated syllables, especially stressed syllables (Harmon, and Holman 14).

Assonance- patterning of vowel sounds without regard to consonants (Harmon, and Holman 48).

Caesura- a pause or break in a line of verse (Harmon, and Holman 81).

Character- a complicated term that includes the idea of moral constitution of the human personality, the presence of moral uprightness, and the simpler notion of the presence of creatures in art that seem to be human beings of one sort of the other (Harmon, and Holman 95).

Comic Relief- a humorous scene, incident, or speech in the course of a serious fiction or drama, introduced it is sometimes thought, to provide relief from emotional intensity, and by contrast, to heighten the seriousness of the story (Harmon, and Holman 116).

Conflict- the struggle that grows out of the interplay of two opposing faces. Conflict provides interest, suspense, and tension (Harmon, and Holman 123).

Conventions- any device or style or subject matter which has become, in its time and by reason of its habitual usage, a recognized means of literary expression, an accepted element in technique (Harmon, and Holman 126).

Connotation- the emotional implications and associations that words may carry as distinguished from their denotative meanings (Harmon, and Holman 123).

Denotation- the basic meaning of a word, independent of its emotional coloration or associations (Harmon, and Holman 155).

Dialogue- conversation of two or more people (Harmon, and Holman 159).

Diction- strictly, the use of words on oral or written discourse. Diction includes vocabulary, which generally means words one at a time, and syntax, which general means word order (Harmon, and Holman 161).

Figurative Language- intentional departure from the normal order, construction, or meaning of words (Harmon, and Holman 228).

Foreshadowing- the presentation of material in a work in such a way that later events are prepared for (Harmon, and Holman 235).

Imagery- the collection of images in a literary work (Harmon, and Holman 285).

Irony- a figure of speech in which the actual intent is expressed in words that carry the opposite meaning (Harmon, and Holman 298).

Meter- the recurrence in poetry of a rhythmic pattern, or the rhythm established by the regular occurrence of similar units of sounds (Harmon, and Holman 343).

Metaphor- an analogy identifying one object with another and ascribing to the first object one or more of the qualities of the second (Harmon, and Holman 340).

Metonymy- the substitution of the name of an object closely associated with a word for the word itself (Harmon, and Holman 344).

Narration- one of the four types of composition. Its purpose is to recount events (Harmon, and Holman 360).

Parody- a composition imitating another, usually serious, piece. It is designed to ridicule a work or its style or author (Harmon, and Holman 401).

Pathos- the quality in art and literature that stimulates pity, tenderness, or sorrow (Harmon, and Holman 406).

Plot- the means by which a structure to display characters is arranged (Harmon, and Holman 420).

Point of View- the vantage point from which an author presents a story (Harmon, and Holman 427).

Realism- fidelity to actuality in its representation (Harmon, and Holman 456).

Rhyme- identity of terminal sound between accented syllables, usually occupying corresponding positions in two or more lines of verse (Harmon, and Holman 474).

Rhythm- the passage of regular or approximately equivalent time intervals between definite events or the recurrence of specific sounds or kinds of sounds (Harmon, and Holman 476).

Romance- languages approximately derived from Latin. A kind of fiction since the early years of  novel (Harmon, and Holman 479).

Satire- a work or manner that blends a censorious attitude with humor and wit improving human institutions or humanity (Harmon, and Holman 490).

Setting- the background against which actions take place (Harmon, and Holman 508).

Soliloquy- a speech delivered while the speaker is alone, calculated to inform the audience of what is passing in the character’s mind (Harmon, and Holman 518).

Persona- widely used to refer to a “second” self created by an author and through whom the narrative is told (Harmon, and Holman 411).

Stanza- a recurrent grouping of two or more verse lines in terms of length, metrical form, and, often, rhyme scheme (Harmon, and Holman 525).

Structure- the planned framework of a piece of literature (Harmon, and Holman 531).

Style- a combination of two elements: the idea to be expressed and the individuality of the author (Harmon, and Holman 532).

Symbol- something that is itself and also stands for something else (Harmon, and Holman 539).

Syntax- the rule-governed arrangement of words in sentences (Harmon, and Holman 543).

Theme- a central idea (Harmon, and Holman 551).

Tone- the attitudes toward the subject and toward the audience implied in a literary work (Harmon, and Holman 553).

Tragedy- a body of work recounting the fall of persons of high degree (Harmon, and Holman 554).

Unities- the principals of dramatic structure involving the unities of action, time, and place (Harmon, and Holman 567)

Literary Analysis/Core Text:

King Lear is the primary text for my analysis. I used this text with an article by Craig Kalendorf to show that without formalist techniques and usage the themes in the text would not stand clear. Shakespeare uses hyperbole, metaphor, parallel structure, repetition, soliloquy, and imagery (among others) to portray this tragedy’s dramatic highlights and tragic elements.


Hyperbole (Goneril’s response to Lear; I.i.54-60)

  •  Obviously this is a highly polished speech. The hyperbole structures the presentation. When Lear invites Regan to claim her inheritance, she encounters a problem: Goneril has preempted much of the hyperbole the situation demands (Kalendorf 102).

Metaphor (Regan: I.i.68-75)

  • Regan appropriates the sentiments of her sister, again relying on hyperbole and introducing an evaluative metaphor that will recur through the play (Kalendorf 103).

Repetition/Alliteration (I.i.107-19)

  • The alliteration of the “p” in 12-13 and the “by” repeated in anorphia in 108 and 110 underscore the solemn parallelism of the passage giving the curse and almost ritualistic quality. For the third time, Lear has matched his courtly style that of his daughter (Kalendorf 104).

Soliloquy (I.ii.1ff.)

  • Edmund isn’t the faithful, loving son he claims to be. The audience knows differently because they have heard his opening soliloquy, but to Gloucester, Edmund is the son who, presumably, talks and thinks as he does (Kalendorf 105).

Patterns of Imagery

  •  There is a great deal of animal imagery in King Lear and these animal images are typically associated with Goneril and Regan, the former of whom is a “detested kite” with a “wolvish visage”, both of whom are “dog-hearted”, and sting like an adder and so forth (Kalendorf 108).

  • Thus throughout the play, the schemes and tropes serve to raise the level of emotional intensity in the drama (Kalendorf 113).

Reading Questions:

1)      How did most critics approach literature before New Critics? According to the New Critics, what did they largely leave out? (Cowles 8)

2)      What five central ideas did the New Critics assert? (Cowles 9-11)

3)      How is a literary text like a plant? (Cowles 9-10)

4)      Why do New Critics believe it is wrongheaded to separate form from content? (Cowles 10)

5)      Is formalism exclusive to poetry?

Website Recommendations:

OWL Purdue:

Annotated Bibliography:

Cowles, David. The Critical Experience. 2nd. Dubuque:

            Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1994. 7-12. Print.

This text helped provide historical information on the theory. It also explained purpose, cause, negative aspects, and the different camps of formalism.

Davis, Todd F., and Kenneth Womack. Formalist Criticism and Reader-Response Theory.

            New York: Palgrave, 2002. 13-20. Print.

This text addresses the negative connotation of formalism; its benefits and downfalls.

“Formalism.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 09 Nov 2010.


This search helped to clearly define the historical context of formalism. It had the key people, places, and dates all in one place.

Harmon, William, and Hugh Holman. A Handbook to Literature.

            Eleventh. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2009. 14-567. Print.

This reference book was an amazing tool when it came to defining the necessary terms used in formalism. It did more than scratch the surface of the techniques. It thoroughly established definition, use, and level of effective use in the short paragraphs.

Kalendorf, Craig. “King Lear and the Figures of Speech.” Landmark Essays. 1999. New

                  Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1999. Print.

This essay aided in analyzing the core text. It provided in-depth examination of formalist theory in King Lear. The content was clearly broken into sections of quoted text from King Lear and followed by analysis of devices used.

Merle Jackson, Esther. “The Grammar of Tragedy.” Shakespeare Quarterly. 17. 1

            (Winter 1966): 25-40. Web. 25-40.

This text helped to look at formalism from a negative aspect as a scientific analysis not effective in literature. It was the opposite of the Kalendorf essay. It contrasted and shed led on both sides of the argument.

Shakespeare, William. “King Lear.” The Necessary Shakespeare. David Bevington.

                Library of Congress Catalogue, 2009. Print.

This text is the primary source for the analysis of formalist theory. The play is analyzed in order to equate the necessity of formalist technique as an aid in successful literature.