What the Heck is Structuralism? (Theory Thunderdome)

Welcome to the Theory Thunderdome, where I go head-to-head with a concept from literary theory and see if I can have it make a lick of sense. Why? Because I have to believe that I didn’t spend four years of my life learning these things and that they actually have no purpose outside of writing an essay about Bartleby, The Scrivener.

So without further ado, let’s jump right in.


first, a word about theory in general

As the name implies, literary theory is just that: theoretical. Some smart (or just crazy) old guys (and gals) decided that if you look at literature through different sets of criteria, you can find all sorts of hidden meanings that aren’t really there.

Okay, that’s kind-sorta accurate. Some literary theories reveal very insightful and thought-provoking aspects of literature. Others, not so much. The thing is, you don’t have to know theory to enjoy literature, and you don’t have to enjoy literature to know theory. It’s mostly a game, but it can sometimes be a fun game. As one of my professors so eloquently put it, there are some who would say that critical theory is nothing more than intellectual masturbation.

I am among them. But who doesn’t love masturbation? [Note to self: cut that sentence!]

So then why bother bringing it up? Well, the reason is two-fold.

  1. When I was in college, I wish someone would’ve been there to tell it in plain English to me. (Haha, get it? Because… English Major?) So I’m hoping that maybe, someone out there will feel helped by this. You’re welcome.
  2. I believe that some of this theory–a fraction of it–can actually be applicable to reading and writing in legitimate, non-bullshitty ways.
  3. Bonus: I want to sound smart. Obviously.

So then, we’ll start with arguably one of the most easy-to-explain theories there is: structuralism!

structuralism in a proverbial nutshell

Structuralism is a literary theory that deals with how meaning is constructed through language. It came about because a lot of (mostly) French guys in the post-war era were tired of New Criticism, which is basically the stuff you do in high school English classes. (Metaphors, similes, imagery, etc…) New Criticism was all like, “There is only one right answer,” but Structuralists were like, “We reject your theory and substitute our own.”

So this guy named Ferdinand de Saussure came up with this thing that nowadays I think we refer to as semiotics. Basically, it states that words and their meanings are culturally constructed, not determined by some higher order. Words are known as signifiers, which are made up of two parts: the sign and the signified. The sign is the word itself, the literal letters and sounds that make up that word.

For example, take the word “cheese.” As an English speaker, you can look at those symbols arranged in that order and pronounce it correctly. You also know what it means, and that’s the signified. When you see the word “cheese,” you picture, well, cheese. You know what the sign is signifying.

Now, what Structuralism bears in mind is that there is no inherent relationship between the word “cheese” and its meaning. Which basically means that there’s nothing universal about the word “cheese” because, obviously, if you go to France, it’s fromage, and if you go to Mexico, it’s queso. The only reason the word cheese signifies the food we know and love is because our culture has made it so.

Meaning is arbitrary and culturally constructed. That’s basically the main idea of Structuralism.

It’s also big on a concept called binary opposition. Some people believe we live in a “post-binary” society, but that is not so for the Structuralists. For them, everything exists as one part of a binary pair. Good/evil, light/dark, male/female, etc. They are opposites, but they are also co-dependent. You cannot have one without the other, just like you can’t have a sign without the signifier (which is, in itself, a binary opposition). And meaning is just as much defined by what something is not as it’s defined by what something is.

When looking at a work of literature through a Structuralist lense, you’re looking at how meaning is constructed throughout that work. In your analysis, you’d point to places in the text where the author is (whether intentionally or unintentionally) presenting a binary opposition. You’d also look at things like how word choice impacts meaning, and how culture (or even the passing of time) influences how certain words, phrases, and concepts resonate with the reader.

There’s also a whole branch of Structuralism that deals with how the reader alters that meaning through his own interpretation, but we’ll save that for another day.

so how does this apply to me?

That’s a good question. As a writer, I suppose that you can use the tenets of Structuralism to examine why you chose certain words, phrases, concepts, etc. in your writing. What sorts of cultural, psychological, and personal influences determine what choices you make in your writing? That could be insightful, I guess.

As a reader, I think it just opens up your understanding of how meaning is constructed in literature. Whether you’re reading something hefty like Dostoyevsky or genre-based like King, think about it: what is it about culture and society that determines that one work is interpreted as deep and “literary” and another as entertaining “genre-fiction”? Could one person’s King be another’s Dostoyevsky? Maybe.

But that’s kind of meta. Within a written work itself, you can ask yourself all kinds of questions about why this-or-that structural choice by the author gets interpreted to mean that-or-this by the reader. Just remember one of the golden rules of literary studies: never assume authorial intent.

As literary theorist Roland Barthes argued, “Death to the author!” But now we’re getting into post-structuralism territory, and that’s another post for another time.

Did this make any sense at all? If you studied English, do you remember the joy that was literary theory? Comment below!

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay (because I didn’t like any of my options for a picture of an actual Thunderdome so I guess lightening will have to do)

2 responses to “What the Heck is Structuralism? (Theory Thunderdome)”

  1. I just finished taking a critical theory class last term—definitely heavy stuff, but also very fascinating and, at times, enlightening. I enjoyed your summary of structuralism! It’s hard to break something as nuanced as a theory down to a simplified, basic form without losing something important in the process, but I think you did a really good job. Stating it so clearly makes it easy to identify, or apply, as the case may be.

    1. Heavy stuff indeed! I’m glad my summary made a lick of sense 😂 congrats on getting through a theory class lol—if there are any more in your future, I wish you Godspeed!

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