Who?               Ferdinand de Saussure, Levi Strauss

When?             Mainly 1950’s – 1970’s



There are two main parts to Structuralism:

1.       The idea that there is an underlying form to all stories

2.       The idea that words in a language do not have an intrinsic meaning. Instead they get their meaning from their relationship to all of the other words in a language


Part 1:

Saussure argued that there is an underlying structure to all of the texts in our society and that when we read we should not bother too much about understanding what happens in each specific text but instead we should try and work out the underlying patterns or rules that govern the text.


A simple example of this is that stories tend to have ‘heroes’, ‘villains’, ‘goals’ and ‘obstacles’ and, in a very simplistic way, many stories (in particular fairy stories) follow the ‘hero’ as they try to attain a goal by overcoming certain ‘obstacles’ some of which come in the form of ‘villains’. A Russian Structuralist called Vladimir Propp examined Russian fairy tales and found that there were essentially 31 variations of this idea which could be arranged or rearranged to give the structure of every fairy tale.


Structuralism is appealing to some critics because it adds a certain scientific objectivity to the realm of literary studies. However, this scientific objectivity is achieved by paying attention to the structure of the story (sometimes called ‘langue’) and ignoring the specific details of the story (sometimes called ‘parole’). This means that the individuality of texts disappears and this, to my mind, destroys the most interesting thing about texts – the specific message and the art with which it is communicated. It’s all very well trying to be scientific but to be scientific about literature seems to cost too much.


This contrasts with the Romantic humanist model of writing which holds that the author is the origin of the text, its creator. Structuralism obliterates the author and argues that any piece of writing has no creator and that writers just re-combine ideas that were already existing in the structure around us. In this way, Structuralists sometimes say that all texts are ‘already written’.


The Romantic / Humanist model presupposed:

1.       That there is a real world out there that we can understand with our rational minds.

2.       That language is capable of (more or less) accurately depicting that real world.

3.       That language is a product of the individual writer's mind or free will, meaning that we determine what we say, and what we mean when we say it.


The Structuralist model argues:

1.       That the structure of language itself produces "reality"; that we can think only through language, and therefore our perceptions of reality are all determined by language.

2.       That language speaks us; that the source of meaning is not an individual's experience or being, but the system of language rules in our society.

3.       Rather than seeing the individual as the centre of meaning, structuralism places the structure at the centre. It is the structure of language that produces meaning.



Part 2:

The more interesting idea is the Structuralist theory about how words get their meanings. We often think that words have some kind of natural link to the thing that they refer to. For example there just is something about red that seems to suggest stop or danger. However, structuralists argue that there is no real relationship between the idea of red and danger and that red only gets it’s meaning because it is part of a system – like the traffic light system – where green means go and amber means ‘wait a bit’. This seems a bit more interesting to me.


It makes even more sense when we consider some of the examples that Levi-Strauss suggests. Levi Strauss – the sociologist not the jeans maker – pointed out that this idea of structure applies everywhere in our society. Take, for example, the idea of fashion – ‘Goths’ wear dark clothes, chains and lots of scary make up, ‘Boarders’ where low slung pants, ‘Jocks’ wear varsity jackets and ‘Cheerleaders’ wear short skirts and also lots of make up, albeit not quite in the same way as the ‘Goths’. There is nothing essentially ‘Goth-y’ about dark clothes but the people who decide to be ‘Goths’ wear those clothes because they are different to what everyone else is wearing. So, Goth clothes don’t get their meaning from anything inside themselves (they’re just clothes); instead they get their meaning only because they are different to the low slung pants, varsity jackets and short skirts that everyone else is wearing. The idea of difference is a very important one in Structuralism.


How does this affect our language and our literature? Well, actually, not that much. But it is crucial because it leads into some of the more interesting developments that happened in Post-Structuralism. The important point is that there is no direct link between words and the things that they refer to. Words only get their meaning because they are part of a system that we all agree to.