Formalism in the broadest sense refers to a type of criticism that emphasizes the "form" of a text rather than its content. Formalist critics also tend to eschew discussion of any elements deemed external to the text itself (history, politics, biography).

More narrowly, Formalism refers to the critics and theorists working in Russia (actually, the Soviet Union) in the 1910s and 1920s. Major figures include Victor Shklovsky (Theory of Prose), Boris Eichenbaum (Theory of the Formal Method), Vladimir Propp (Morphology of the Folktale), Yuri Tynianov ("On Literary Evolution"), and Roman Jakobson ("Linguistics and Poetics"). Mikhail Bakhtin is often inappropriately lumped in with the Russian Formalists, but he has more in common with  and  approaches.

Russian Formalists emphasized the "literariness" of artistic texts, which they found in the linguistic and structural features of literature (as opposed to its subject matter). For example, Victor Shklovsky, in his famous essay "Art as Technique," offers his notion of defamiliarization as the defining feature of literary texts. Art takes that which is familiar and "makes it strange," slowing down the act of perception and making the reader see the world in new ways (think, for example, of how Cubist painting changes our perception of everyday objects and forces the viewer to work to reconstruct the image).

The Formalists also introduced the distinction between what they called "syuzhet" and "fabula"--roughly translated as "discourse" and "story"--that is, the distinction between the abstract storyline (fabula) and the virtually infinite number of ways in which that story can be "plotted" (discourse). The Formalists, understandably enough, often emphasized those texts that had complex, sophisticated, and often self-reflexive plots and language, features that flaunt their "literariness" (Tristram Shandy, the Quixote, Nikolai Gogol's skaz narration, etc.).

The Russian Formalists were among the first to bring a scientific approach to literary analysis and influenced other movements such as the Prague Linguistic Circle and , and their work has many affinities with  and the Chicago School of critics. While many have criticized some formalists' unwarranted exclusion of history and context from literary analysis, their sophisticated insights into the workings of narrative have been invaluable to a wide variety of critics and theorists, particularly those working in narrative theory.

FABULA (or "story"). A term belonging to the study of prose, fabula designates the raw material which will be processed to become a narrative. The story is the purely chronological series of events, which will be recounted, in the order in which they took place, which is not necessarily the order of the narration. The fabula will be organised into  to become a narrative.


SIUZHET (or "plot"). The siuzhet is the narrative counterpart of the  or story before it is being told and like fabula refers to prose. The siuzhet is purely literary. It is an artistic construct, whereas fabula is the chronological string of events. Siuzhet organises fabula using delays, digressions, chronological disruptions, etc. In fact  is the key concept: the siuzhet is the defamiliarising narrative version of the fabula.

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Rejecting the subjectivism of nineteenth-century literary scholarship, the Formalists insisted that the study of literature be approached by means of a scientific and objective methodology. Their emphasis upon the scientific study of poetic language may be viewed in four ways. First, it may be traced to the more general nineteenth-century West European turn toward classification, genealogy, and evolution in the human sciences. In his best-known work, Morphology of the Folktale (1928, trans., 1958), Propp, a somewhat more peripheral yet not unimportant figure in the Formalist movement, employed the rhetoric and methodology of  and Georges Cuvier in his attempt ...

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