An Overview of Structuralist Criticism in Literature

A typical American middle class home is built from a few basic ingredients: wood, nails, miscellaneous wires, pipes, and tubing, wrapped in layers of plaster and paint. But a student of Architecture wouldn't necessarily be interested in how these ingredients are combined to make one single house. Such a student is more likely to study how these ingredients were used in similar houses within one historical period. In a similar manner, a student of Structural criticism would be interested in the basic ingredients of many stories within the same period, and the similar ways in which these ingredients were used.
However, where Structuralist criticism breaks from this comparison is in use of the term "structure". A Structuralist isn't interested in literary structures as physical entities, but will study conceptual frameworks used to organize and understand physical entities. The rules of grammar would be one such conceptual framework; this sort of structure exists to organize, classify, and simplify. The Structuralist might also be interested in the field of semiotics, or the study of linguistic and nonlinguistic signs and how they operate symbolically to convey a message.
It’s easy to see why the relationship between structuralism and the study of literature is important. Since literature is a verbal art based on the manipulation of signs and symbols, structuralism not only seeks to discover a universal meaning to these signs but to understand the framework associated with their meanings. Literature and Structuralism share a common goal; an effective understanding of how these signs and symbols are and can be used.
One major Structuralist theory about these underlying frameworks is Northrop Frye’s “Theory of Myths”, which seeks to understand and classify the underlying structural principles of Western Literature. Frye refers to four narrative patterns which he believes provide the framework of Western Literature: comedy, tragedy, romance, and irony/satire.

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