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Glossary of Literary Theory
by Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown


An application of the linguistic model to literature, associated in the early part of this century with the Moscow and Prague Linguistic Circles. According to the precepts of Russian Formalism, content is the "motivation" of form, and the literary work is an assemblage of devices which function within a total textual system. "Literariness" emerges when these devices, normally perceived by the reader to be familiar and conventional, are foregrounded, brought into an unaccustomed prominence such that the effect upon the reader is one of estrangement or defamiliarization. Literature, by "baring the device," deautomatizes one's perceptions, its language composing a deliberate set of deviations from the norms of ordinary language. In its hybridization -- its heterogeneous mixture of devices, conventions, forms, and techniques -- literature, in the words of Roman Jakobson, is "organized violence committed on ordinary speech." In a general sense, "formalism" is applied to any critical approach (including New Criticism) that regards the text as a self-enclosed universe of discourse, subject to interpretation without reference to biographical or historical context.

© Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown,
University of Toronto
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University of Toronto English Library
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Last modified: March 31, 1997