september 8, 2009
The following information was excerpted from The Bedford Introduction to Literature, 8th edition, 2079–2098
Formalist critics are primarily concerned with the language, structure, and tone of a work, otherwise known, as it’s “formal elements”. Formalists gravitate towards “intrinsic” matters in a piece of literature, in simpler terms, diction, irony, paradox, metaphor, and symbol. In a similar fashion, they emphasize larger elements, for instance, plot, characterization, and narrative technique, in order to derive meaning from a literary work. The work must stand by itself, and any information that goes beyond the text, for example, biography, history, politics, and economics is considered “extrinsic” by formalists, and therefore far less important than what happens within the confines of the text itself. Poetry, in particular, as well as drama and fiction lend themselves well as genres to the “close reading” involved in the formalist technique. Formalists might approach Kate Chopin’s “ The Story of an Hour”(15) by analyzing the ironic ending of the story. Mrs. Mallard suddenly dies of a heart attack, not because her husband has died in a horrific train crash but because she has learned that he is very much alive. The disparate nature between what is expected to transpire and what actually happens creates a complex irony which formalists value immensely over simple surprise tactics.
Some formalist critics reject the use of the author’s biography as a tool for textual interpretation. From a biographical standpoint, however, knowledge of an author’s life and experience are central to a full and comprehensive understanding of his or her writing. Relevant facts about the author’s personal existence will not necessarily enhance or detract from the quality of any given literary work, but such information is considered pivotal by biographers in the extent to which it exposes how personal experience...