Glossary Home Movements


In literature, formalism is a school of literary criticism and theory. It’s concerned more with the structure of the text than it is with any outside influence on the author.

Formalism does not consider the author’s personal history, cultural influences, and the actual content in the work itself. Instead, it focuses on the form and genre of the writing. For example, formalism is concerned with the use of grammar and syntax, and meter in poetry.

Formalism pronunciation: for-muhl-ehh-zum

Formalism in literature definition and examples

Definition of Formalism

Formalism is a form of literary criticism that focuses on a text’s use of structure. It would analyze the use of grammar, word choice, syntax, and how all the elements work together. With formalism, one does not spend any time concerned with the author’s influences, what the work might say about the contemporary moment in history.

Characteristics of Formalism

  • Focus on a literary work’s formal elements.
  • Analysis of grammar, word, choice, syntax.
  • Disregard to cultural or historical influences

Russian Formalism

An important type of formalism that relates directly to the work of the Society for the Study of Poetic Language. It was founded in 1916 in St. Petersburg. The formalist advocated for several basic ideas around literature. They included:

  • Wanting to produce a “science of literature.” It would be independent and factual.
  • Linguistics is a foundational element.
  • Literature is considered to be autonomous from external conditions.
  • Defamiliarization and plot/story distinction are important elements. The former refers to how literary language is different from ordinary language, and plot/story refers to the way that events of a work are separated out.

Formalism was not a movement that worked well after the Russian Revolution. Many writers did not like the Formalist approach, stating that there was no way to truly separate form from content and culture. The Formalists were at one point accused of being political after one writer, Shklovksy, wrote about how art was “always free of life” and never reflected in “the color of the flag.”

Formalism in Visual Arts

Formalism in the world of visual arts is the study of any kind of art through analysis. One might use comparisons to determine how successful the visual elements of a work of art are. One might study the use of color, line, shape, texture, and more. These things are usually emphasized over the content and meaning. Formalism is far less interested in the context and what the artist is trying to accomplish.


Why is Formalism important?

Formalism is an important approach to literary analysis. It is still used today. Understanding the Formalist approach will help you, as a reader and a writer, better visualize what it is about writing that makes it successful and unsuccessful.

What is the goal of formalism?

The goal is to understand a text through the formal elements the writer used. Formalism ignores the cultural influences that might’ve changed the way a writer did something.

What is true formalism?

True formalism is when someone truly does not consider the outside influences on a text when they’re analyzing it. It’s very hard to successfully do this as it requires you not to consider your own outside influences as well.

  • Realism: a literary movement that portrays everyday life exactly how it is.
  • Imagism: a literary movement of the early 20th century. The proponents were interested in the use of precise imagery and clear language.
  • Acmeism: a literary movement that emerged in the early 1910s in Russia. The movement is also referred to as the Guild of Poets.
  • Aestheticism: a literary and artistic movement in the 18th and 19th centuries that focused on the importance of beauty.
  • Literary Modernism: originated in the late 19th and 20th centuries. It was mainly focused on Europe and North America.

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