Structuralism & Semiotics
Dudes to know:
 Ferdinand deSaussure
 Claude Levi-Strauss
 Roland Barthes
 Jacques Lacan
 Michel Foucault
 Northrop Frye**
 As
a literary theory, developed in the
1950s and 1960s, adopted from
theories other areas such as sociology,
psychoanalysis, anthropology, etc.
**All interrelated!**
 Reactionary criticism, attempts to
place literature into a system and
assign value judgments to works.
Principles of Structuralism
 Meaning
occurs through difference
and SIGNS’ relationship to each
other. Ex: woman vs. lady
 Much of our imaginative world is
structured in binary sets (opposites)
which assign structure and meaning
to signs. Ex: cruel vs. humane
Principles of Structuralism
 Forms
the basis of SEMIOTICS, the
study of signs.
 Sign = union of SIGNIFIER and
SIGNIFIED. Ex: c-a-t, fuzzy critter
that goes “meow”
 CODES provide signs with context cultural context, literary context, etc.
Principles of Structuralism
 Emphasizes
that humans create
meaning. Structuralism, then, allows
us to examine our relationships with
literature, art, society, etc.
 Our sense of self -- our consciousness
-- exists in relation to outside
collective influences. We are NOT
Principles of Structuralism
 Reality
is conventional; our
perceptions of the world around us
are bound up in conventions, codes,
signs, etc. The “social construction of
 Structuralism’s ultimate argument is
There is a connection between our
concept of reality, the self, society,
consciousness, and unconsciousness.
They are all connected to each other
and are bound by the same laws, signs,
and conventions.
When reading a “text”:
Look for…
 Parallels in plot
 Echoes in structure
 Reflections/repetitions in
 Contrasts in situation/circumstance
 Patterns in language/imagery
Barthes’ five “codes”
Barthes identifies five codes which he
says provide the underlying narrative
structures for all literature.
When reading, attempt to place a work
in the system of codes.
The codes are:
Proairetic - provides indications of
actions; “reality”. Ex: The ship
sailed at noon.
Hermeneutic - poses questions or
enigmas that provide narrative
suspense and involve the reader.
Ex: if the narration indicates a
knock on the door, the reader asks
herself, “Who is it?”
Codes continued
3. Cultural - contains references beyond
the text which are considered
common knowledge (allusions,
metonymy). Ex: if a character is
described as driving a hybrid car,
there are certain cultural assumptions
attached to that character.
Codes continued
4. Semic - linked to a theme on the
character level, when a series of signs
and ideas surround an individual.
5. Symbolic - linked to theme on a
larger level. Consists of contrasts and
pairings related to the most basic
binary polarities - man/woman,
good/evil, lost/recovered, etc. **
Frye’s fictional modes
- the hero is superior in kind
to other men and the environment of
other men; generally a story about a
 ROMANCE - the hero is superior in
degree to other men; ordinary laws of
nature are suspended; often has
supernatural powers
Fictional modes continued
MIMETIC - superior to men,
but not to the environment; hero is a
leader. (Often found in epic and
 LOW MIMETIC - Jane Austen’s
bread and butter. Everyday hero;
appeals to our common sense of
humanity. Romantic comedies.
Fictional modes continued
- hero is inferior to other
men or his environment. Ben Stiller’s
lifeline. Includes satire.
Apply these modes to tragedies and
comedies. Thus, you can have a high
mimetic tragedy (Macbeth) or a low
mimetic comedy (Pride & Prejudice).
 Definition:
a symbol, usually an
image, which recurs often enough in
literature to be recognizable as an
element of one’s literary experience as
a whole (individually and collectively)
Apocalyptic vs. Demonic
 Apocalyptic:
archetypes that reflect
ultimate human desire (roughly
equated with our sense of heaven)
 Demonic: archetypes that reflect
everything that society rejects; a total
inversion of the apocalyptic (roughly
equated with our sense of hell)
Archetypal forms
 Divine
world = society of gods
 Human world = society of men
 Animal world = domesticated flocks
 Vegetable world = garden
 Mineral world = cities, construction
Apocalyptic imagery: divine
One God
All ultimate unity
Idealized world
Emphasis on heavenly bodies
** Mythical AND analogical
Apocalyptic imagery: human
One man
 Christ (though he operates in a divine
context as well)
 3 types of fulfillment: individual, social,
and sexual
 Philosopher-kings
 Sexual symbolism - two bodies become one
 Chaste people, like Sir Galahad
Apocalyptic imagery: animal
 One
 King as shepherd
 Birds (esp. doves)
 Horses and hounds (romance)
 Unicorn (emblem of virgins)
 Ass
Apocalyptic imagery: veggie
 One
Tree (of Life)
 Fruit and leaves on a tree = bread and
wine (communion)
 Flowers (esp. flowers)
 Enchanted forests of Shakespeare’s
comedies, Robin Hood, etc.
Apocalyptic imagery: mineral
 One
Building, Temple, or Stone
 City = “house of many mansions”
 Geometrical and architectural images
 Stairways, ladders, even Rapunzel’s
Demonic imagery: divine
Perversions of apocalyptic imagery are
 Vast,
menacing powers of nature
 Fate
 Sense
of human remoteness and
Demonic imagery: human
 Ego runs rampant
 Perversion of the 3
areas of
fulfillment in apocalyptic imagery
 Loyalty to a tyrant diminishes the
 Sacrificial victim, scapegoat
 Mob violence blends the first 2
Demonic imagery: animal
 Monsters,
beasts of prey
 Wolf, traditional enemy of sheep
 Tiger
 Vulture
 Serpent
 Dragon (soooo contextual)
Demonic imagery: veggie
 Sinister
 Heath (recall Macbeth)
 Waste land
 Scaffold (as a modulation of the tree
of life)
Demonic imagery: mineral
 Waste
land (again)
 Cities of sin and destruction (Babel,
Reno, etc.)
 Images of perverted work
(instruments of torture or war)
 Sinister spirals (maelstrom)
Archetypes and Cycles
Images fall into cyclical movements.
1. Divine = death/rebirth
2. Fire-world = heavenly bodies
3. Human = dreaming/waking
4. Animal = life/death
5. Veggie = natural cycles (seasons)
6. Mineral = golden ages, etc.
7. Water cycles
Cycles and Genres
 4 Mythoi: generic plots
 These 4 mythoi can be seen
as aspects
of a single unifying myth, which
corresponds this way…
 Agon
- conflict
 Pathos - catastrophe
 Sparagmos - anarchy
 Anagnorisis - recognition/triumph
Mythos of Spring: Comedy
 Young man wants young woman.
 Resisted by some opposition.
 Twist enables the hero to have his
 Appearance/adoption of a new society
or social order.
 Often paternal figures provide
Mythos of Summer: Romance
 Quest/adventure
 Perilous journey,
crucial struggle,
exaltation of the hero. (Notice how
the 3-part structure parallels that of
 Archetype: dragon-killing, leviathan
 Can be applied to Exodus
 Connected to fertility rites
Mythos of Autumn: Tragedy
 Tragedy actually moves cyclically
 Hero is on top of the wheel of
fortune; when he declines, his
subordinates do his living for him. In
some tragedies (Adam), the hero
creates new life after the fall.
 Sense of natural law and justice
 Binary structure instead of tertiary
Mythos of Winter: Irony/Satire
 Remember
that irony is “realistic”;
we are supposed to look down on
characters and events from a higher
 Satire is militant irony: wit founded
on a sense of the absurd, and an
object of attack
Wheeee! You’re done!

Structuralism & Semiotics