French Structuralism, similarly to Russian Formalism, is concerned with the science of literature, and literary works. Ferdinand de Saussure, an influential figure of early French Structuralism thought that, in the same way Science breaks down its subjects into smaller, more definable parts, so too is it possible to find meaning in a text by breaking it down into smaller parts, and analysing them with reference to other texts (Schleifer, R. & Rupp, G. 2005). This break down of larger stories into smaller fragments makes what we have come to accept as normal into something that we question, or something that appears strange, and we can begin to see a relationship between texts through the common usage of these elements. Using this, Saussure fit individual works into larger structures by defining a system that details the rules of a structure, or genre, known as the langue, and the individual representation of a story element know as the parole (Schleifer, R. & Rupp, G. 2005). Structuralists are interested in how stories fit into the overarching structure of a group of texts created by the langue of a form. They pose that you can analyse a text based entirely on how it has been constructed to conform to this series of elements. After breaking down the story, and making the familiar strange, relationships between these literary ideas can be seen and analysed. Examples of these concepts can be extrapolated from the German fairytale The Goose-Girl. This tale was originally collected by The Brother’s Grimm in 1815, and then released in a second edition in 1819 (Lang, Andrew, ed., 1965). It is an interesting fairy tale, as many of its themes, characters, and plot points share similarities with other fairy tales, and as such, the tale fits into a larger structure of literary texts in general.
Looking at how The Goose-Girl fits into the langue of fairytales, we can see that many stereotypical aspects have been transferred to this tale that would be out of place in any other literary structure. The inclusion of magical beings, including a fairy and talking horse, is an example of this conformity to the langue of the structure. These specific aspects are shared by many of the Grimm’s collected tales, and thus do not feel out of place. This text does nothing to break from tradition and include elements that do not conform to the langue of the fairytale.
Building upon the method of analysis of the Russian Formalist Vladamir Propp, French Structuralists consider how a literary text conforms to a certain number of plot points, known as functions, or narratemes, which are seemingly present in all folktales (Barry, P 2002). Whilst not all of them must be fulfilled in one story, the structure and movement between narratemes in a story is vital. The Goose-Girl follows many of Propp’s thirty-one proposed functions.
In The Goose-Girl, The Princess fills the role of the hero. She leaves her home, fulfilling function 1. She is then told of the charm the lock of hair given to her by her mother holds and is inadvertently warned not to lose it; function 2. Not only does the plot continue to fit into these conventions, but so do the characters. As mentioned, the Hero of this tale is the Princess. She fulfils this role simply by going on a journey. A character, known aptly as The Helper, helps her along. In this story the helper character is her horse, Falada. The complication of the story is triggered through the villain. In The Goose-Girl, the villain is the Princess’ maid, whom, like the Princess, is not given a name. It could also be said that the character of Curdken is the villain of the story, but the fate of his character does not fall well into how Propp’s 31 functions says it should. The Maid could also fill the role of the ‘false-hero’. This story, then, merges the two characters into one persona, whose ultimate fate is acceptable to the few functions prop sets up concerning them. As such, the folktale can be placed into the genre because it is structured with the necessary narratemes of the group. These plot elements, however, can only create meaning if they are pitted up against their binary opposite.
Binary Opposites are two opposing concepts, which are defined by each other (Fogarty, Sorcha 2005).In the same way a green traffic light can mean nothing without the opposite red, neither can a plot element mean anything without its contrary. There is no hero without a villain, because the villain is defined by the hero, and vice versa. When looking for these binary opposite in The Goose-Girl, many are instantly apparent. Of course, there is a hero and a villain, but this example is furthered with the two opposing ideas of wealth and poverty, and also of freedom and slavery. These ideas are question with another binary opposite however, which is of power and weakness. As can be seen, the powerful character is the poor and enslaved maid, where as the weak character is the hero, the wealthy and the free character. This inversion of ideas leads to the complication in the story, and thus creates meaning in the narrative. These are not the only binary opposites present in the text.
The safety of the princess home is paralleled with the danger of the unknown as she leaves. The helper, Falada, opposes the hinderer and the King opposes the lowly Curdken. These binary opposites, define one another. A helper cannot help without a hinderer hindering. A King cannot be powerful without subjects. A place cannot be safe if there is nothing from which to be saved.
As can be seen, The Goose-Girl is a part of a larger structure of literature, and thus conforms to a set of rules, which all similar texts also comply with. The Goose-Girl cannot be analysed on its own, as it cannot exist apart from the structure it was created under. Therefore the only possible way to find meaning in a literary text, such as The Goose-Girl, is to study it in terms of how it conforms to the langue of a structure. This brings new light onto the text, as we can view it in light of what we know about other tales that both influence it, and are influenced by it, and thus can understand its place in the history of literature and of society.
Schleifer, R & Rupp, G 2005a, ‘Structuralism’, John Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism (2nd Edition), John Hopkins University Press.
Schleifer, R Rupp, G 2005b. ‘Saussure, Ferdinand de’, John Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism (2nd Edition), John Hopkins University Press
Lang, A, ed. 1965 (Originally published 1889), ’Goose Girl’, The Blue Fairy Book. New York: Dover.
Barry, P 2002, ‘Structuralism’, Beginning theory: an introduction to literary and cultural theory, Manchester University Press, Manchester, pp. 39-60.
Fogarty, S 2005, ‘Binary Oppositions’. The Literary Encyclopedia.
[http://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=122, accessed 11 September 2010.]