Updated November 24, 2020

Formalism in Russian Literary Criticism

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Formalism in Russian Literary Criticism essay
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Literary criticism is the practice of evaluating and writing about literature and makes effort to make sense of the world. Literary theory is the study of doctrines that gives information about the contributions of the of the critics on literary works. There are some purposes of studying literary theory; to understand the study that contains a different view than yours, it helps you to understand those who support that view or idea. Secondly it can be said that when you study on a topic with more than one view helps you to understand author’s work deeper and better.

Apart from the brief introduction of literary criticism and theory, Formalism, which is a contemporary trend in literary criticism, refers to the style of investigation and examination and gives its focus on the attributes of the literary text itself to dispensation of historical, intellectual or biographical contexts. ‘Formalism’ as a name, was reproduced from one of the main principles of Formalist thought: the form of a literary work is a part of its content and the venture to distinguish the two is deceptive. Formalists think that by focusing on literary form and externalizing the unnecessary contexts, there would be development of literary forms and literature itself.


For the concern of its origin, Formalism was appeared in Russia and Poland in 1910s. In Russia, it was started officially with the establish of two organizations: The Moscow Linguistic Circle, established in 1915 and The Society for the Study of Poetic Language, founded in 1916 in Petrograd. In Poland, the foundation and the beginning of the trend dates back to period between 1911-1914. But although the idea was created early in Poland, it had to wait until 1930s appear itself and to take place in Polish Formalist School which had centers in Warsaw and Wilno. There is not only one school of Formalism, and are many approaches on Formalism in literature, many of which deviate from each other. Formalism, also was the dominant style of the literary study in the United States and United Kingdom in 1970s. Starting in the late 1970s, formalism started to fall out of favor in scientific community.

Lots of new approaches has started to rule over the field and these approaches usually emphasized on the political aspects and importance of literary texts. Theorist became sceptical about if a literary work could be distinguished from its origins or from the background of diplomatic and social contexts. For many years following through the 1970s, the word of Formalism had the negative effect on people’s mind but recently, with the Postmodern and Post-structural started to distributed itself and the importance of the formalist methods came on the issue relatedly and some people believe that the future of literary criticism and theories will contain the refreshment of formalist ideas and thoughts.


In European continent, formalism was appeared out of the work of Roman Jacobson, Boris Eichenbaum and Viktor Shklovsky. Even though it is quite similar the ideas and theories of Jacobson and the New Criticism in many aspects, they developed separate from one another and should not be considered the same or identical. Jacobson, as I mentioned above, is the head founder of the Moscow Linguistic Circle as well. Moreover, the Society for the Study of Poetic Language was dominated by Viktor Shklovsky. Viktor Shklovsky’s critical writing was one of the most important and significant works of Russian Formalism. His main purpose was to adjust the styles of art that writers operated to put out specific effects. The most effective concept was the ‘defamilarization’.

It is an artistic style that shows up the usual and common things in an unusual and strange way to increase the perception of familiar. For more instances of representatives using the concept of defamilarization, T.S Eliot’s using Latin, Greek and other languages in the Wasteland forces the reader in order to participate more actively to break the code of strange and unusual words to understand the poetry and it is not allowed to be a passive listener or reader sitting back calmly when dealing with the T.S Elliot. Moreover, Mikhail Bakhtin is one of the important representatives as well. In the Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929), he criticized the novelistic discourse as ‘heteroglossic’ in contrast to the monological discourse of poem and of some novels. In novels, ‘Heteroglossia’ refers to their combination of diverse modes of language through the narrator’s approval of a character’s point of view, through entrenched clarification of the fictional events, or through what the structuralists will later call ‘intertextuality’.

Main Concerns

An important formalist concern was characterizing and designating the particular characteristics of specific discourses and genres, from the poetic discourse to novelistic one. Given their stipulation to the formal measurement of literature, the Russian formalists could consequently debate that the history of alterations in literature was because of the formal metamorphoses, and the growth of literary forms widened the comprehensiveness of the literary content. Russian Formalism is concerned with defining the techniques and practices of a literary work.

In that way, it shows up how texts disturb the reader’s expectations and it is done using the language in novel ways, which means defamiliarization, to make meaning appear as a role of the work’s proper practise. Russian formalists were caring about the analysis of the text but the main concern of them was the method as the scientific basis for literary theory, that’s why there had been shifted from moral approach to scientific approach in literature. Moreover, it was the concern of Russian Formalist that to make artistic devices meaningful. Enlarging the importance of these devices, they believed that the theme of the content is not important. They emphasize on demonstration progression of literary devices of the text, which they called ‘laying bare’. Shklovsky identified that the literary devices a writer operates are the most essential things he can use to stand out in relief.

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Formalism in Russian Literary Criticism. (2020, Nov 24). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/formalism-in-russian-literary-criticism/

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