Structure of a Literary Work

Structure of a Literary Work


the structure of a work of literary art; its internal and external organization, and the ways in which its constituent elements are connected.

Structure integrates a literary work and enables it to embody and communicate its content. When a literary work is first apprehended, its structure is not consciously perceived and identified, since the work is apprehended as an entity. But when literary scholarship poses the task of studying “how a work is made,” it becomes necessary to identify the work’s structure and to make a profound study both of the structure and of its role in the creation and perception of the work.

All scholarly studies of works of literature and art contain structural analyses. However, in the 20th century, owing to the development of structural analysis, the study of a work’s structure has become a specialized methodological trend in art studies and in literary theory and criticism. This trend has acquired a number of theoretical bases as a result of the prevalent methodological orientation in scholarship; an example is the development of structuralism in literary criticism.

The dissociation of structural analysis from the study of content is inherent in the phenomenological aesthetics of N. Hartmann and R. Ingarden, philosophers who studied works of art primarily in terms of their structural “layers.” Structural analysis was also separated from the study of content in a number of studies by members of the Society for the Study of Poetic Language (OPOIAZ) that analyzed systems of “devices” used to create a literary work. Contemporary Soviet literary theorists have sought to overcome the limitations of structural analysis existing in the legacy of the formalist school. Although these theorists have not yet achieved a unified concept of structure, of methods of analyzing structure, and of the role of these methods in art studies and in literary theory and criticism, the chief ways of resolving this task can be outlined.

However distinctive the structure of a given work of literature or art, the structure has features in common with the structural principles of other works of the same genre. A work’s structure defines not only the work’s form and content, but also the general features characteristic of genre, style, a specific literary trend, literature as an art form, and, finally, art as a whole.

Whereas aesthetics seeks to construct a model of a literary work as an integrated system of images, literary theory must indicate the ways in which the unchanging structural principles that are common to all the arts apply to works of literary art. At the same time, literary theory must take into account the flexibility of the structural principles of literary works, both in terms of morphological (genre) trends and of historical trends—those trends engendered by shifts in literary methods, styles, and schools.

The structural model of a literary work may be represented as a nucleus surrounded by several outer layers. The literary material constituting the work forms the outermost layer. This material, examined independently, is a text which, being a selection from the colloquial or literary language of a nation, is generally written in a certain style. Examples are the loftiness of M. V. Lomonosov’s odes, the refined, fashionable vocabulary of I. Severianin’s poetry, and the deliberate coarseness of V. V. Mayakovsky’s vocabulary. The text as such, however, does not have literary meaning. A work’s outer layers become artistically meaningful only to the extent that they are symbolic, that is, to the extent that they express their own inner meaning and radiate the poetic energy emanating from the work’s nucleus of content.

In contrast to the content of everyday, business, scientific, and scholarly texts, the nucleus of a literary work, which includes the work’s subject and idea, has a bilateral structure. This structure is composed of both intellectual and emotional elements, since art both apprehends and evaluates life. Since the literary outer layer of a work must be united with the spiritual nucleus, and since the outer layer must be as lucid, expressive, and poetically meaningful as possible, the work has two intermediate layers, usually called the inner and outer form.

A literary work’s inner form is a system of images which, like the work’s content, are entirely ideal in nature. At the same time, these images have an emotional element and consequently appeal to the reader’s imagination, in the form of characters and their interaction (the plot). The work’s outer form is another level at which the work’s content is presented to the conscious mind, not to the imagination.

In literature, the outer form is a system of means by which the material of language is organized so as to activate the text’s phonic aspect. In poetry, these means include rhyme, assonance, and alliteration. The outer form gives a work its rhythmic, stylistic, and compositional structure. In poetry, this structure is expressed in meter and rhythm. In terms of style and composition, structure is expressed in a work’s architectonics, in the consecutive or reversed development of the action, in the means of achieving transitions, in dialogue, and in authorial speech. The sum of the ways in which the outer form structures a work makes the text the source of new, suprasemantic content, which is found in the work’s subtextual meaning.

Thus, the structure of a literary work embraces the work’s characters, theme, plot, composition, and architectonics. A work’s structure reveals these elements individually and in terms of their coordination and interdependence within the work as a whole. This is of significance insofar as the work’s structure is hierarchical in nature. The work’s content (its nucleus of ideas and themes) functions as a controlling subsystem that communicates information from level to level until this information permeates the work’s literary substratum. At the same time, as in every self-governing system, there is a reciprocal connection as well—the reciprocal influence of form on content. The structuring of literary material into a work’s outer form and the subsequent emergence of the inner form from the outer form alter the instructions coming from the nucleus of content and sometimes change this nucleus to a significant extent.

Thus, the study of a literary work’s structure is not in opposition to traditional analysis in terms of content and form; rather, it develops and gives precision to analysis, since it reveals the inner structure both of the work’s content and form. The structural approach also helps elucidate the morphological, historical, and methodological diversity of literary forms, a diversity related to variations in the principles governing the construction of works of literary art.

Each structural element is of greater or lesser relative importance within a given work. In poetry, for example, the outer form is of considerably greater importance than in prose; in the detective novel, the plot is immeasurably more important than in other genres. The lyric and the epic differ in the mutual relationship of their content’s intellectual and emotional aspects. On the other hand, the structural distinctions between the classical drama of Corneille, the romantic drama of J. L. Tieck, and the realistic drama of Chekhov are entirely apparent.

In conclusion, the analysis of a literary work’s structure presupposes knowledge of the structural principles of works of art; knowledge of the application of these principles to literature and to specific literary genres, trends, and styles; and, finally, the ability to detect and reveal the structural uniqueness of the work under study, a uniqueness engendered by the distinctiveness of the task resolved by the writer.


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