General characteristics of Russian Formalism

Russian formalism is a very remarkable theoretical paradigm in the field of knowledge. It has great contributions to the development of later theories such as new criticism, structuralism, etc. It occupies a significant space in Russian criticism, originating in the “work of OPOYAZ and the Moscow Linguistic Circle” (Macey 336). It is also strongly linked with Russian futurism and the Petrograd Society for the Study of Poetic Language. Though the movement did not get proper support from the then-political government of Stalin, it paved the “foundations for the later work of the Prague Linguistic Circle and thus inaugurates the tradition that eventually gives rise to structuralism” (Macey 336). Although its concerns are ranges from “folklore to dialectology, its main focus is on poetics” (Macey 336). Boris Eichenbaum, Victor Shklovsky, Roman Jacobson, and Yuri Tynyanov are the forefront contributors to this movement. The major books that popularized this movement include Poetics (1919) by Osip Brik, Boris Eichenbaum, and Victor Shklovsky, Modern Russian Poetry (1921) by Roman Jacobson, On the Theory of Prose by Shklovsky, and Morphology of the Folktale (1928) by Vladimir Propp.

Literariness as characteristic of Russian Formalism 

The Russian term for literariness is literaturnost which is an inseparable aspect of Russian formalism. The Russian formalists try to explore the literary qualities innate in a literary piece. It does not bother about the characters and their ultimate interactions. According to Pilkington, the term can be analyzed from the perspective of “formal linguistic and structural properties of texts, or in terms of sociocultural codes of conventions” (15). Macey analyses Jacobson’s clarification of the term literariness stating that the “objective of study literary study is not literature but ‘literariness’, or the body of qualities that make a work a literary work” (232). It is a detailed and empirical approach to reading. In other words, it can be said that the reading should be solid so that all the inherent qualities of the literary piece get the necessary attention from the readers. It can be done by exploring a method, a scientific basis for the theory of literature. This scientific method of dealing with the literary piece is the basis of Russian Formalism.

Close reading and Russian Formalism

Russian formalism highlights close reading as one of the salient characteristic to explore the inherent meaning of a text. It means the complete reading of a text to find out its all surface and inner qualities. It is to be mentioned here that no structural quality is to be ignored to determine the meaning of a text and it can only be done through a close reading of it. Close reading is also termed as condensed or solid reading. Language becomes the main content for doing this kind of reading. There are innumerable processes of doing solid reading. The first one, as Dr. Sheron Brown opines, is paraphrasing every sentence of the text. He also argues that it can be done by summarising a text “paragraph by paragraph” (2). Close reading can also be done by highlighting eight elements of a text which include “purpose, questions, information, inferences, concepts, assumptions, implications, point of view” (2). The evaluation also occupies an important space in close reading. Finally, close reading can be done by considering the author’s perspective that he (author) intends to offer in his text.

Russian Formalism and the Exile of Human Emotions

The first formalists claim that human content such as emotions, ideas, and realities, do not have any literary significance but these are used for making the literary devices functional. Thus, the formalists make human beings secondary in analyzing any text. Human involvement is the primary discussion in the humanistic perspective of analyzing a text but the Russian Formalists turn this tradition to the inherent aspects of a text. Moreover, the conventional critics mix up aesthetic, moral, and cultural entities of a text but the formalists explain how literary devices produce aesthetic effects. They also show how ‘literary’ is a distinguished idea and how it is linked with extra-literary. Moreover, conventionally, literature is taken as a form of human understanding but the formalists take it as a paradigm with special use of language. So, the Russian formalists analyze a text by shifting the concentration from human beings to language.

Russian Formalism and Language

According to the formalists, literature gets its distinctiveness by deviating from and distorting ‘practical language’. Practical language is used for communication. It is different from the literary language which is very special. The Russian formalists believe that practical language can be used in literature by violating it to some extent. It cannot be used as it is in the conventional form. The user must distort it to prepare it for the use in the literature. What distinguishes literature from practical language is its constructed qualities. For this reason, formalists believe that poetry should be the abode of literary language in which words are constructed in the rhythmic form to offer meanings. To them, poetry exercises controlled violence upon the practical language which becomes defamiliar and draws our attention to its constructed nature.

Russian formalism and plot vs story

A story is usually taken as a series of incidents while the plot carries the following characteristics. It must have:

    • The arrangement of the incidents
    • It is based on the story
    • It is the artful disposition of the incidents which make up a story.

 Formalist definition of plot and story 

Plot is literary and story refers to the raw materials which require a writer to be organized. Plot is the violation of the expected formal arrangements of incidents. Theory of plot is linked with defamiliarisation. The plot presents the incidents in such a way that the readers take them as unfamiliar. The smallest unit of a plot is called a motif as said by Tomashevsky. It is a single statement containing a single action. The motif is of two types. They are bound motif and free motif. Bound motif is required by the story while a free motif focuses on the art.


Brown, Dr. Sheron. “What is Close Reading”. 21 Century Literacy Leaders, available at

Macey, David. The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory. Penguin Books, 2000

Pilkington, Adrian. Poetic Effects: A Relevance Theory Perspective. John Benjamin’s Publishing, 2000.

Selden, Raman et al. A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory. Tailor & Francis, 2016



Abdur Rahim
Abdur Rahim

Assistant Professor, and Member of the Proctorial Body
Department of English Language and Literature (DELL), Premier University, Chattogram,
& Doctoral Fellow, English Department, Jahangirnagar University, Savar, Dhaka.

Phone: +8801715638298


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