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Formalism Literary Theory

Formalism Literary Theory

Art is unique because it is always open to interpretation. Similarly, there are different ways to read a work of literature. Do you feel drawn to the style or the form of a poem, or are you more interested in the story and themes? You may be surprised to know that examining a text's themes and social context was not always the most popular way to read literature. Many literary critics instead considered form and style to be the best measures of quality in literature, introducing formalism literary theory.

Formalism definition

As the name signifies,

Formalism is a theoretical position that favours form over the thematic concerns within a text or its relationship with the world outside. The formalists argued that the study of literature should be exclusively about form, technique, and literary devices within a work of literature. Formalism is known for excluding or sidelining factors such as authorial intent, and the cultural and sociopolitical background of a text from its study. Its preference for form, linguistic elements, and literary devices gives this school of literary theory its name.

Formalism is an umbrella term for different theories and ideas proposed by scholars and critics. The main idea in formalism is that the most important aspect of a work is its form.

Fun Fact: The name formalism was first used to describe the movement by its opponents and was meant to be derisive.

Formalist literary theory is closely associated with structuralism, another school of literary criticism that was popular during the twentieth century. Structuralism and formalism were both influenced by the theory of language proposed by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, and have many overlapping themes and concerns. Saussure's theory of semiotics describes language as a system of signs that accrue meaning arbitrarily through social convention.

Structuralism is a branch of linguistics that places importance on the shape of the narrative and ignores the social and historical realities that shape it. Structuralism is also a sociological and anthropological approach that studies texts in terms of the contrasts and oppositions within.

Some formalist critics and their works defy strict categorization as they are important to both formalism and structuralism.

History of Formalism Literary Theory

Formalism developed in different parts of the world independently and was never a unified movement with a set of defined goals for art and literary criticism. Formalism first emerged in parts of Eastern Europe (mainly Russia and Poland) in the early twentieth century. In Russia, it was centred around Moscow and St. Petersberg.

Formalism also developed separately in Poland with the works of Kazimierz Wóycicki (1876-1938) who is considered to be the founder of Polish formalism. Unlike Russian formalism, the formalist movement in Poland did not solidify into an organisation until the 1930s. The Polish Formalist School was established by Manfred Kridl (1882–1957) and had centres in Warsaw and Wilno. Polish formalism was heavily influenced by Russian formalism. Perhaps the most well-known types of formalism today are Russian formalism and New Criticism. We'll talk about these in detail below!

Formalism Literary Theory: major types

Due to their influence, the study of formalism nowadays tends to be more focused on Russian formalism and New Criticism.

Russian Formalism

Russian formalism is a school of literary theory and criticism that flourished in Russia around 1915. It emerged in opposition to abstract literary theories with the goal to develop a scientific basis for the study of literature, especially poetry. The two major schools of Russian formalism are the Moscow Linguistic Circle, and the Society for the Study of Poetic Language (abbreviated as OPOJAZ in Russian).

The Moscow Linguistic Circle was formed in 1915 and is considered to be the starting point of formalism. Prominent theorists like Roman Jakobson, Osip Brik, and Boris Tomashevsky were members of this group. The Society for the Study of Poetic Language (OPOJAZ) was founded in 1916. Victor Shklovsky (1893-1984), Boris Eichenbaum (1886-1959), and Yuri Tynyanov (1894-1943) were among the leading figures of this group.

The development of Russian formalism largely coincided with a time of political upheavals in Russia. Many of the theorists of this movement had to flee from the Soviet regime and some of their important works were written in exile. The Prague Linguistic Circle was founded in 1926 by expatriate Russian formalists in Prague along with Czech literary scholars like René Wellek and Jan Mukařovský.

Here are a few important Russian formalists to remember:

Victor Shklovsky (1893– 1984)

Shklovsky was a founding member of the Society for the Study of Poetic Language, one of the two schools of Russian Formalism. His most important works include the concept of defamiliarization and his discussion of plot/story in literature. In his essay "Art as Technique" (1917), Shkolvsky introduced "defamiliarization", a concept that became a cornerstone in formalist literary theory. He is also known for his ideas on plot/story. It is common for us to use the terms plot and story interchangeably but the formalists made an important distinction between the two. We'll talk more about these in detail below!

Boris Eichenbaum (1886– 1959)

Eichenbaum sought to liberate literature from all political and ideological associations. He defined formalism as an effort to create an "independent science of literature" that focuses only on the literary material. The formalists also argued that the literary tradition to be separate from other aspects of society. Eichenbaum argued that poetry had a language that disrupted the ordinary verbal associations of everyday life.

Roman Jakobson (1896– 1982)

Jakobson was one of the members of the Moscow Linguistic Circle along with Viktor Shklovsky and Boris Eichenbaum In 1926, he established the Prague Linguistic Circle which laid the foundation for structuralism. In 1943, he fled Nazi occupation and co-founded the Linguistic Circle of New York in America. His most important contribution to formalism is the concept of literariness, which distinguished the poetic or literary language from normal discourse.

Discourse: any verbal exchange, communication, or discussion

New Criticism

New Criticism was a branch of formalism that developed in America. Like Russian formalism, the distinctiveness of literary language was a central concern for New Criticism.

New Criticism is a style of criticism that developed in academic circles mainly in the anglophone world during the early twentieth century. New Criticism also shared the formalist belief that the literary text is autonomous and all external contextual information is irrelevant to its study.

While Russian formalism sought to find a basis for rational and scientific principles of literary criticism, New Criticism in America was also interested in the aesthetic, non-rational aspects of art. Along with poets T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, the English literary critic and educator, I.A. Richards became an influential figure in New Criticism. In his works, Richards tried to delineate a systematic method of reading literature. His books Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) and Practical Criticism (1929) along with William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) helped develop the New Critic method of investigating literature called close reading.

Close reading is the practice of doing an in-depth analysis of short passages or sections from a work. Instead of reading into the themes, close reading involves engaging with the textual components in detail.

John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, and W. K. Wimsatt are among the other popular scholars associated with New Criticism.

Formalism Literary Theory: main ideas

[Formalism] stresses the analysis of the literary work as a self-sufficient verbal entity, constituted by internal relations and independent of reference either to the state of mind of the author or to the "external" world.

M.H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms (1999)

According to the formalists, the interaction of literary devices creates an impression of reality within a text, and therefore, it is more important to study these devices rather than the social realities they represent. One of the main ideas in formalist criticism is that poetic language is autotelic.

Autotelic⁠— something that works autonomously and justifies itself without having an external purpose

Formalist literary theory insisted that the everyday language was noticeably different from the literary language. They investigated different literary devices they believed to set the literary language apart from ordinary discourse:


Defamiliarization is one of the key theories of formalism, developed by Victor Shklovsky. Shklovsky describes the concept using the Russian word ostranenie, which translates as "estrangement" or "making strange".

Defamiliarization is the technique of describing something in a strange manner that allows the reader to perceive it in new ways.

Defamiliarization helps us pay attention to commonplace things that we fail to notice because they are too familiar to us.


The term foregrounding is borrowed from art criticism where it is used to differentiate the striking aspects of a painting or an image from its background.

In literature, foregrounding is used to call attention to something or to make something stand out. Foregrounding in literature is to make something so prominent in the narrative that it dominates the reader's perception.

Simply put, foregrounding is used to make something hard to miss. Writers use literary devices such as parallelism, alliteration, metaphor, and so on to achieve this effect.


Victor Shkolvsky made the popular formalist distinction between plot and story, also known as syuzhet and fabula.

The story (fabula) is the natural sequence of events taking place in a text. The plot (syuzhet) is the order in which these events are presented in the work.

It is common for the plot of fictional narratives to diverge from the actual chronological sequence of the story it wants to tell the reader. Sklovsky used the distinction between plot and story, often stylized as plot/story or syuzhet/fabula, to emphasize the importance of the form— how far the form of a text succeeds to express the story and the amount of attention the reader has to pay in order to understand it.


The formalists saw these techniques and devices as working towards what they called literariness. The formalists used the idea of literariness to differentiate the literary language from the practical use of language. Whereas the main function of ordinary language is for us to communicate with each other, the purpose of literary language is not to make references to the external world. Instead, it draws attention to itself and the linguistic features within itself. By the same token, the formalists believed that the general rules of linguistics did not apply to literary language.

Formalism Literary Theory: characteristics

  • The key characteristic of formalist criticism is an emphasis on form over the subject matter.
  • The goal of formalism was to create a scientific way of reading and interpreting literature based on linguistic components and literary techniques.
  • Formalism outlined a distinction between literary language and the language of everyday interaction.
  • Similarly, formalists attempted to establish that literature is detached from material history and social context.

  • The formalists believed it was equally or more important to focus on the structural components of a work of literature.

  • The formalist literary theorists placed importance on how language operates within a text irrespective of authorship and content.

The formalists were criticized for their denial of the relationship between art and its social and economic influences. This is reflected in the theories that gained popularity after formalism such as Marxism, psychoanalysis, and feminism, which are rooted in psychosocial struggles.

Formalism Literary Theory: examples

Here are a few great examples to help you understand how these devices work in literature!


To understand defamiliarization in practice, let's look at the description of an arrow being shot in William Golding's The Inheritors (1955):

The man had white bone things above his eyes and under the mouth so that his face was longer than a face should be. The man turned sideways in the bushes and looked at Lok along his shoulder. A stick rose upright and there was a lump of bone in the middle. Lok peered at the stick and the lump of bone and the small eyes in the bone things over the face. Suddenly Lok understood that the man was holding the stick out to him but neither he nor Lok could reach across the river. He would have laughed if it were not for the echo of the screaming in his head. The stick began to grow shorter at both ends. Then it shot out to full length again.

William Golding, The Inheritors, p. 106


Charles Dickens uses parallelism to highlight and foreground the book's theme in the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities (1859): "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."


In the novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1983), Gabriel García Márquez uses a convoluted plot to describe the events leading up to the murder of Santiago Nasar which has already taken place.

Formalism Literary Theory - Key takeaways

  • Formalism is a movement of literary theory and criticism that became popular in the twentieth century.
  • There are different schools of formalism, including Russian formalism and New Criticism.
  • The formalist approach to literature attempts to study the literary text as an isolated verbal entity.
  • From the formalist perspective, the poetic language operates autonomously, independent of context.
  • Along with the formal characteristics of a text, formalism investigates how the interaction of literary devices within a text adds to its literariness.

Frequently Asked Questions about Formalism Literary Theory

The name formalism refers to a number of theoretical propositions and ideas put forth by several scholars and critics. It is difficult to nominate a single person as the father of formalist literary theory, but prominent thinkers include Viktor Shklovsky, Roman Jakobson, Boris Tomashevsky, and Boris Eichenbaum. 

The major schools of formalism were The Moscow Linguistic Circle and the Society for the Study of Poetic Language (OPOYAZ) in Russia, and New Criticism in America. 

Formalism has many branches of thought. Russian formalism was developed in twentieth-century Russia by a group of scholars. New Criticism in England and America share the critical approaches of Russian formalism and can be considered a branch of formalism although it developed independently. 

Formalism is a type of literary theory and criticism that focuses on the stylistic purity of a work of literature rather than its social contexts and authorial intent. According to formalism, it is possible to interpret a text without having any information on its author or its social or historical background.

Formalism is primarily a way of interpreting literature but it is possible to trace the use of literary techniques such as defamiliarization and foregrounding in fiction and poetry. Writers use these devices to manipulate the written word so as to achieve a certain effect on readers. 

Final Formalism Literary Theory Quiz


Name the most prominent theorists associated with Formalism

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Roman Jakobson, Victor Shklovsky, Boris Eichenbaum, Osip Brik

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What are the two schools of Russian formalism?

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The Moscow Linguistic Circle and Society for the Study of Poetic Language (OPOJAZ)

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Who is the most well-known member of the Moscow Linguistic Circle?

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Roman Jakobson

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Who introduced the concept of defamiliarization?

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Victor Shklovsky

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What is the most important concept in formalism?

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The text is an independent entity that carries in itself everything that the reader needs to read and interpret it.

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Who wrote Practical Criticism?

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I.A. Richards

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What is close reading?

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Close reading is pausing to understand the elements in a text in detail, rather than focusing on its overarching themes. 

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True/False: Formalism is a single theory of literary criticism

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Formalism does not pay attention to:

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The social context of the work

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What is the difference between plot and story according to formalism?

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The story is the actual chronological order of events happening in a text. The plot is the way these events are narrated by the author. 

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