Introduction to Formalism

Formalism emerged in the field of literary studies mainly in Russia and Poland in the first decade of the 20th century. It began in Russia before the 1917 Russian Revolution in Moscow Linguistic Circle and Opoyaz (Society of the Study of the Poetic Language). Moscow Linguistic Circle consisted of a group of social scientists in the field of semiotics, literary theory, and linguistics in 1915 which lasted till 1924. Its founder was Filip Fortunatov and the other prominent members were Roman Jacobson, Grigoriy Vinokur, Boris Tomashevsky, Petr Bogatirev, and Begatyanev. On the other hand, the Society of the Study of the Poetic Language or Opoyaz was established in 1915. Its renowned members were Boris Eichenbaum, Viktor Shklovsky, Osip Brik, Boris Kusner, and Yuri Tynianov. It was not a continuous movement in Russia because of the existing social, political, and intellectual situations. But the precursors of the studies took the ism forward facing all the adversities boldly. It is widely believed that formalism began between the years 1921 and 1925 and 1925 is considered the best year for this ism as it reached the zenith of its fame throughout Russia in this year.

Formalism in Poland

Kazimierz Woycicki is credited for the emergence of formalism in Poland. He introduced it in the country by being inspired by the Russian formalism in the second decade of the 20th century (roughly from 1911 to 1914). After almost 20 years, the movement got its popularity in the mid of the 1930s under the title Polish Formalist School. It was established in Warsaw and Wilno, presently known as Vilnius in Lithuania.


Formalism appears in the field of knowledge as a reaction to the ideas available in the approaches to the analysis of a text in the late 19th and early 20th century. At that time, critical analysis of any literary text was based on its external aspects which are considered to be the true reflections of the society and its people, economy, politics, belief system, and ideology. Critical assumptions can only be made by considering all of these issues which are externally connected with the text. On the other hand,  formalism is a movement that deals with the inherent structural qualities of any text. It does not take the outside-text into consideration and concentrates fully on all the textual characteristics. It ignores the social, cultural, and authorial information about the text. Moreover, it deals with the text’s grammar, syntax, figures, meters, modes, genres, discourses, and forms. Thus, formalism works with the inherent qualities of a text exiling all the other links which used to determine its meanings.

Russian and American Formalists

There are two schools that practiced formalism widely. One of them was Russian formalism and the other one was Anglo-American formalism or new criticism. Among the widely-known Russian formalist writers, there are Viktor Shklovsky, Yuri Tunianov, Vladimir Propp, Boris Eichenbaum, Roman Jakobson, Boris Tomashevsky, and Grigory Gukovsky and the Anglo-American formalists include John Crowe Ransom, I. A. Richards, Rene Wellek, Austin Warren etc.

Formalism and language

The formalists summarise the principles of formalism by saying that poetry must be written in poetic language. Poetry can exercise controlled violence over practical language and it should be done deliberately with a view to channeling the readers’ views to the constructed nature of poetry. The formalists deal with the language very distinctively. They divide the language in two parts such as practical language and literary language. With a view to distinguishing literary language from everyday language, they follow their own methods. According to them, practical language is only for communication. It cannot be used in literature which is higher in degree and content. They argue that literary language purifies nature. They do not believe in the romantic view of nature that nature is always in her fresh and lively position which can be described in poetry by recollecting the memories of it. They believe that art gives meaning to nature. An artist, with his special language, gives life to nature. If nature is portrayed in literature as it is, the description will not be artistic. It will not have literariness. For attributing literariness, an artist must employ special language to his literary work.


Formalism emerged in the field of theoretical paradigm with revolutionary assumptions in the analysis of literary texts from critical perspectives. It was revolutions in the sense that it shifted the critical attention from the external characteristics of a text to its inherent qualities. Thus, it takes language as a major field of discussion exiling the author and his social, cultural, political, economic, and ideological identities as the determinants of the text’s meaning system.



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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