Russian Formalism in Literary Criticism

Russian Formalism Introduction:

Victor Shklovsky’s 1914 essay on Futurist poetry, “The Resurrection of the Word” marked the beginning of Russian Formalism. Russian formalism was a literary movement a school of literary criticism that emerged in former Soviet Union in early phase of 20th century. The attempt of this school was to make the study of literature more scientific in nature.  The founders of this school of that had a keen interest in the poetic techniques, the language used and the structure of literary piece. Their main focus was on the text of literary piece while the attention towards the intentions of authors, his biographical information, his political association and the impact of culture and society was given less attention.

Russian Formalism Background:

Before the twentieth century, the main focus of a number of literary theories was on the relation between text and meaning by studying the history, psychology, symbolism, and literary biography of the author. In 1917, a conflict arose in academia over such views. This disagreement was because of a group of linguistics who became known collectively as adherents of Russian Formalism. The founders include Boris Eichenbaum, Roman Jakobson, Vladimir Propp, and Viktor Shklovsky.

Three Formalist Circles:

The Moscow Linguistic Circle (1915) was the the first formalist organization. This was led by Roman Jakobson. The name clearly indicates that their focus on texts would be based on a careful study of a text’s use of linguistics. Within less than a decade, their relentless efforts to separate a text from any enveloping political ideology drew them into conflict with an emerging Marxist regime headed first by Lenin, then later by Stalin, both of whom insisted that all art and literature had to reflect an acceptable allegiance and adherence to Marxist dogma.

Obshchevsto po izucheniyu poeticheskogo yazyka (OPOYAZ: Society for the Study of Poetic Language) was the second organization founded in 1916 in St. Petersburg. The members of this organization believed that literature must be based on close textual analysis and a clear delineated descriptions of a text’s contents. Members were distressed over close link between text and author and between text and cultural background. Therefore, they tried whenever possible to delink such links.

The Moscow Linguistic Circle disbanded itself in the mid-1920s. The members moved to Prague. There, they began to specialize into phonemic analyses of the works of its most prominent member Roman Jakobson. The Prague School remained in continuous existence till 1950.

Main Proponents of Russian Formalism:

  • Viktor Shklovsky
  • Yuri Tynianov
  • Viladimir Propp
  • Boris Elichenbaum
  • Roman Jakobson
  • Boris Tomashevsky
  • Grigory Guskovsky

Main tenants of Formalist school:

  • They emphasized form not content.
  • Their concern was with language not author and his surrounding factors.
  • Russian formalist was of the opinion that the extra literary meaning such as author`s intentions, his biography, his social background, his political affiliation and the culture cannot help in the extracting out meaning of a literary text.
  • They insisted that it is the form which gives meaning to the text.
  • There is a difference between literary language and everyday language.
  • Literary language is a language full of engaging words, devices and attention seeking qualities.
  • Everyday language is dull and common place.
  • The purpose of literary language is very special as it conveys strong meanings.
  • The literary language has literariness which means it could go against the set patterns of grammar and syntax.
  • Formalists were linguistics so their interest in form and literariness developed a study of literary devices called foregrounding.
  • Foregrounding means the use of language in such a way it deviates from the normal pattern to make it strange.
  • This making the language strange is called ‘ostranenei’ or ‘literariness.’
  • Victor Shklovsky wanted to move away from the analysis of literature in social, political, and psychological perspective so he came up with the term ‘defamiliarization’ which means the way in which poetic language is different from everyday language.
  • Formalists are of the opinion that poetry is not poetry because of its grandeur meanings but because defamiliarizing the language which draws its attention to its own artificiality to the way it says what it says.

Essential questions of the Formalist Approach:

  • What makes a text literature/literary?
  • What do all literary texts have in common?
  • Is there a common literary factor?

Technical terms of Formalism:

  • Fabula (story) vs Syuzhet (plot)
  • Practical and poetic language
  • Literature and literariness
  • Foregrounding

The last three concepts are already discuss above

Fabula and Story:

Fabula means stroy and syuzhet means plot.  In simple words, the events of the story and the way the story is told.

Take, for example, a restaurant menu: the actual meal (fabula) may differ from the way it is presented on the menu (syuzhet).

In the same way, there is a distinction between the actual sequence of a story’s event as they happen and the way they are presented in the narrative. For example, the fabula is always chronological, moving from beginning to end, whereas the syuzhet may start in the middle (in media res) and then jump back and forth within the chain of events.


Defamiliarization is a device which makes strange the habitual perception in ordinary language. Shklovsky says that when every object of the world becomes familiar to us we become habituated to that object. Our everyday life then becomes a life of “prose perceptions,” which means, tiling become known but not perceived. The process of perceiving this world becomes so automatic that the objects no longer register upon our senses. “Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war.” Against this prose perception there is the world of art which, Shklovsky says, “exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.