The connection of form and content in the literary work of art in Russian Formalism

Essay, 2003

9 Pages, Grade: 1,6



1 Introduction

2.1 The emergence of the Russian Formalist movement
2.2 The connection of form and content
2.3 Application to a short story by F. Kafka

3 Conclusion


1 Introduction

Redirecting attention from the author to the foregrounding of language itself, the supporters of Russian Formalism, which began to blossom at the beginning of the 20th century, stressed their concern with the literariness of literature and found a different approach to the ontogeny of literary texts. One of the central tenets of their theory was the assumption that form and content can not be separated in the literary work of art. Regarding previous movements in literary theory, this stance was rather provoking and the growing significance of the theory in the course of time led, inter alia, to a ban on the movement by the Soviet Regime in the 1930’s.

2.1 The emergence of the Formalist movement

“Fascination with the discoveries of the literary vanguard and impatience with the obsolete procedures of academic scholarship”[1] was in Erlich’s view the impetus which propelled the emergence of the Formalist movement. The previous theories of Symbolism and Futurism were both backgrounds and main targets of criticism for this pioneering movement, incarnated by the nineteenth-century literary and linguistic theoreticians Aleksander Potebnya and Aleksandr Veselovsky, for example. Symbolism could be called a current of the urge for aesthetics in literature all over Europe, believing in a poésie pure and the l’art pour l’art principle, whereas Futurism took up a radical stance again every form of traditionalism in history, art, philosophy and literature and searched radically for new meaningfulness in language distortion and extravagant language bombast. Although “following Wilhelm von Humboldt, Potebnya saw poetry and prose as distinct, as separate approaches to the understanding of reality linked by their dependence upon language” and stated “that the study of literature as literature must be primarily a study of language as opposed to prose or practical-scientific language”[2] similar to the Formalists, his view on art as “thinking in images” made him an object of derision in Formalist writings.

Around the year 1915 the Moscow Linguist Circle and the Opoyaz became places for like-minded students to meet and discuss verbal devices and techniques in poetry. Opoyaz was the Russian acronym for “Society for the Study of Poetic Language”, which united Russian Formalists as, for example, R. Jakobson, V. Shklovsky or B. Eichenbaum in Petersburg until 1927. The Moscow Linguist Circle had been founded one year before, in 1915, by a group of students of Moscow University. As V. Erlich writes, “Russian Formalism (…) was essentially an indigenous movement”[3], which does not diminish the significance it had for literature theory in general.

Apart from many disagreements among the leading figures of the movement they were united in the attempt to move beyond “sterile biographism which focused attention on the minute details of the poet’s life rather than on the work of poetry and its components”[4] Nevertheless, members of what can be loosely referred to as the Formalist school agreed that, in the words of Boris Eichenbaum, “our scientific approach has had no such prefabricated program or doctrine, and has none.”[5]

2.2 The connection of form and content

Unlike the Symbolists, the Formalists’ aim was not making the unfamiliar familiar, but making strange the familiar, what became known as defamiliarisation. Texts with this formal property make a shift away from conventions and slow down the reader’s response. Therefore, the Formalists attacked the Symbolists’ notion that literary always deals with imagery and that a word represents an object in itself rather than simply pointing to something different. Instead, they regarded literature as verbal structure and claimed that texts need not be profound to be literature but that anything can be literary if it is made strange by language devices such as defamiliarisation. As familiar language was considered a circular movement which had to be broken through, defamiliarisation of language was supposed to lead to a new perception of the world and to change the previous representation of world in prior literature, which had become so conventional that the reader’s response was automatised. “Art is in this context a way of restoring conscious experience, of breaking through deadening and mechanical habits of conduct (automatization)[6] This automatisation regarding both the perception of world and of literature could only be interrupted by the technique of making strange. “The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important[7], as Shklovsky put it.


[1] Victor Erlich. Russian Formalism: History: Doctrine. 4th Ed. The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1980. P. 63.

[2] Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis. Eds. Russian Formalism: Four Essays. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1965. P. xi.

[3] Victor Erlich. P. 58.

[4] Victor Erlich. P. 54.

[5] Boris Eichenbaum. The Theory of the „Formal Method”. P. 102.

[6] Fredric Jameson. The Prison-House of Language. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972. P. 51.

[7] Victor Shklovsky. Art as Technique. P. 12.

Excerpt out of 9 pages


The connection of form and content in the literary work of art in Russian Formalism
University College Cork
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ISBN (eBook)
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Russian, Formalism
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Anneke Richter (Author)Victoria Lodge (Author), 2003, The connection of form and content in the literary work of art in Russian Formalism, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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