Structuralist criticism is a highly systematic, and even scientific, approach to the analysis of literary texts. Based on the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), and his posthumous text Course in General Linguistics, the fundamental belief of Structuralist critics is that the study of literature is a subset of the study of language in general, and that the critical act should focus on the underlying systems that make meaning possible. This produces a kind of analysis that is indifferent to the cultural or aesthetic value of a work of literature, but seeks instead to relate the particular form of words in a text to the structures that exist in the language system more generally, which enable the production of meaning and of literary effects. Perhaps the most significant achievements of Structuralist criticism were in narratology, or the systematic study of narrative, where a linguistic model allowed for the development of
what is often referred to as a semiological study of stories and the way that they work. The Structuralist approach to semiology, based on Saussure, tends to emphasise the role of oppositions in the production of meaning, and views the binary opposition (for example, night/day, man/woman) as the basic structure that underlies the sense-making operations of language. Later developments in the Structuralist tradition are often referred to under the heading ‘Deconstruction’ or the more general term ‘Poststructuralism’. These later developments are best thought of as critiques of the idea that you can be scientific about meaning. The idea that you can think of meaning in terms of structures is largely rejected by Poststructuralists, who emphasise instead the impossibility of a complete account of meaning. They tend to describe meaning in terms of movement, or instability, and words such as Derrida’s term ‘différance’ point to the failure of Structuralist attempts to nail down significance with a scientific method. Poststructuralists also reject the highly language-focused approaches of linguistics, and often aim to re-establish the link between language and other forces, such as social power. To this end, the Poststructuralist will characteristically view the binary opposition as a kind of hierarchy, in which social relations and power relations are lurking. There are clear ways in which the deconstruction of literary texts, and the Poststructuralist critique of scientific values in criticism, lead directly towards the New Historicist approaches of recent decades. Derrida’s first book, Of Grammatology, is not an easy read but Nicholas Royle has provided a recent and accessible account of his work; Hawkes and Norris provide overviews of Structuralism and Semiotics, and Deconstruction, respectively.