Reading With An Eye on 
Deep Structure


 Voice of the Shuttle: Literary Theory Page

Elements of Structuralism

Saussure and the Sign

 n Why We Read—
Generally speaking, a structuralist reads to identify and understand fundamental structures in absolutely anything by seeing a text (object, event, document, action, etc.) as part of an even larger system. Of course, a literary structuralist focuses on structures in "literary" texts (and a structuralist would help define "literary" by studying the deep structure in texts we label "literary"). The project is pseudo-scientific because a structuralist supposedly only maps what is there. She does not evaluate; she only charts and compares or links one structure with another. A grammarian is a perfect example of a structuralist because she doesn’t care about the content of the sentences she maps. She cares about how certain words function within a sentence. A structuralist does the exact same thing with literary texts; she wants to map the "grammar" of the text she studies. But why even do this? Structuralists still have enough humanist residue on them to study for the sake of knowledge. Admittedly, it is a pleasure perhaps to feel as though one understands the "fundamental" structure of anything and to make connections between texts. 

n What We Read—
Structuralists are willing to read anything, for everything is part of a sign system, from literary texts to velvet paintings, from cars to a celebrity’s face, from ancient cultures to Madonna. In fact, this ability to move from one system to another is what makes structuralism so useful. The theory not only reveals that "literature" is a human construct (not an inherent or essential category), but that everything is a "text" in that everything is part of a sign system or "language." One can choose to focus (perhaps problematically) on "literary" systems or link "literary" systems to other systems. i.e. How does literary studies function within the larger structure of the university? of our economy? of certain ideologies?

n How We Read—
You may want to consider these questions. While the questions here will help you, my writing hints also provide a kind of step-by-step methodology. 

• First, look for repetitions, patterns, echoes, and oppositions in people, places, language, objects, movement, and decisions. 

• Second, uncover the implications of the repetitions and oppositions by exploring the relationships of similarity and difference that link the story’s events and actions. This is where you look for the metaphorical content in the people, places, language, objects, movement, and decisions. This is where you try to identify the allusions, the "subtexts," the connections between other texts. 

• Finally, use your observations to come up with your claims as to the text’s function, not meaning. Or put another way, the text's function is its meaning.

Interpretation depends heavily on your ability to make connections, and this ability will improve as you read, study, and observe. One could argue that education is the process of learning to make connections. More connections become possible as you learn more. For example, I can’t connect a diaper ad with the Oedipus myth if I have never read Sophocles—but I still need a way of seeing that helps me connect the two. Enter structuralism....

Writing Resources...

General Writing Suggestions



Writing Suggestions:

Part One: “Gathering Data/Prewriting”
Create at least two charts or diagrams: First, make a "t-chart" of what is valorized and devalorized in the text you are studying. Remember, by valorized, I mean what does the text seem to valorize, not what you valorize. Be sure as well to "flesh out" the chart as much as you can by including terms suggested by other terms. For example, in Blake's "Garden of Love," he includes terms like "green," "Garden," and "flowers," but these terms also seem to suggest "fertility," "growth," "nature," "life," "Eden," etc. In other words, include the connotations of the key words and concepts along with the key terms. Second, make a chart that identifies parallels, patterns, repetitions, echoes, contrasts, and cause and effect relationships within the text. Remember that you are reducing the text to a visual chart that indicates the fundamental structure of relations in plot, character, setting, imagery, and anything else you deem relevant. Be a map maker, a literary cartographer!

Part Two: Making Meaning
Make sense of your charts by explaining the deep structure in prose form. That is, persuade your reader that you’re right about the deep structure that you have located. Justify your conclusions. Give reasons for your observations.

Part Three: Making Connections
Link the structure you have discovered to at least one other structure. For example, you could be a...

...literary critic and link your text with other "literary" texts (with texts within the same collection, by the same author, by the author’s contemporaries, within the same genre, within the same time period). Even if you are focusing on a so-called non-literary text like an advertisement, you can link it to the "literary" tradition, or you may want to link your text to whatever "genre" it belongs to (ads with other ads; social systems with other social systems, etc.)

... myth critic (albeit related to a literary critic because myths are arguably "literary" texts) and link your text with some myth, ancient or contemporary. That is, you can link a text to the myth of Apollo or to some specific American myth (i.e. the Western cowboy as a symbol of freedom, etc.). Please note there is more involved in myth criticism than I imply, but myth critics are, at the core, structuralists. (And structuralism helped me make that conclusion because I look at what literary critics do and what myth critics do and lo and behold, they share the same fundamental structure!) Thanks to his books and TV shows, Joseph Campbell is probably the most famous of myth scholars, and Northrop Frye, along with his Anatomy of Criticism, is the most famous literary myth critic. Although a kind of psychologist, Carl Jung also provides a useful framework to discuss myth in literary texts. All three of these guys provide frameworks or maps of basic story structures that we can use to make sense of other texts.

... cultural critic (more to come on this subject) and link your text with a more abstract structure (i.e. the structure of a text is similar to the structure of capitalism—If you work hard, you are supposed to be successful) or to other contemporary texts that we find in popular culture (i.e. If Braveheart were my text, I would link it to other medieval romances like Rob Roy, First Knight, etc. or to "action-adventure" films, for Braveheart is nothing more than a medieval action adventure story.)

In sum, what you are doing is connecting one deep or basic structure with another. Structuralists are similar to New Critics in that New Critics also locate patterns, map structure, identify tensions, etc. but New Critics don’t go beyond the text they study. The system they study is the text before them, nothing more. Their text is a discreet object, living an orphaned life. For the structuralists, however, the text is always part of larger systems, and one can’t begin to study it without studying the larger systems. In fact, a poem can’t even be a poem unless we acknowledge that it’s part of a larger system (and shares fundamental traits, attributes, and structures with other texts that we call "poems"). 

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