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Structuralism

A movement of thought in the humanities, widespread in anthropology, linguistics, and literary theory, and influential in the 1950s and ’60s. Based primarily on the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, structuralism considered language as a system of signs and signification, the elements of which are understandable only in relation to each other and to the system. In literary theory, structuralism challenged the belief that a work of literature reflected a given reality; instead, a text was constituted of linguistic conventions and situated among other texts. Structuralist critics analyzed material by examining underlying structures, such as characterization or plot, and attempted to show how these patterns were universal and could thus be used to develop general conclusions about both individual works and the systems from which they emerged. The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss was an important champion of structuralism, as was Roman Jakobsen. Northrop Frye’s attempts to categorize Western literature by archetype had some basis in structuralist thought. Structuralism regarded language as a closed, stable system, and by the late 1960s it had given way to poststructuralism.

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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