Jennifer Wilber works as an ESL instructor, substitute teacher, and freelance writer. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and English.
Introduction to Literary Theory
Through the application of literary theory readers can gain a much deeper understanding of the meanings woven into works of literature. Each different approach to literary theory can give a radically different insight into works of literature, and studying these different theories can give readers a more diverse look into many different possible interpretations of a specific story. By reading from these different perspectives, one can figure out what the author intended, what a particular piece of literature means to society as a whole, or even discover personal meaning woven into a story that may be radically different for someone else. Understanding literary theory adds a layer of meaning to literature that may enhance the reading experience.
Literary theory has had a profound effect on literary interpretation. As Berten’s states in his introduction to Literary Theory, “interpretation and theory cannot be separated at all. […] Whether we are aware of it or not, […] theory cannot do without interpretation.” Some theories focus primarily on meaning, while other focus mostly on form. Each approach to literary theory reveals something new when applied to specific literary works (Bertens).
Background for this Analysis
I originally wrote this piece as my final project for a class in literary theory while working on my bachelor’s degree at Southern New Hampshire University. For this paper, I chose to interpret The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant using the formalist and feminist literary theories. The symbols used in The Necklace play an important role in understanding the meaning behind the story, which makes this story an intriguing choice to explore from a formalist perspective. Likewise, the way this author chose to portray his female characters in contrast to his male characters creates a dynamic that begs to be explored through a feminist lens. Each of these theories plays a pivotal role in gaining a deeper understanding of the meaning behind The Necklace.
What is Formalism?
Formalism is an interesting literary theory because it tends to divorce literary texts from their environment and analyze them as standalone entities. Formalism relies heavily on symbolism and use of language in attempting to glean meaning from a literary text. According to Perdue’s Online Writing Lab, “Formalism attempts to treat each work as its own distinct piece, free from its environment, era, and even author (Brizee).” This is in contrast to many other theories, which tend to analyze the time period, culture, and personal life of the author when attempting to find meaning in literature. Formalism is different because it treats each literary text as a distinct work, which allows stories to remain deeply meaningful to people from any culture or time period. Formalism requires the reader to look at the language itself when attempting to decipher the meaning of a text. Formalist readings of literature “[estrange] the reader from the familiar and made fresh the experience of daily life (Brewton).” By making familiar language unfamiliar, formalists readings of literature “defamiliarize” the reader with language, making it seem new and different again, which allows the reader to gain a deeper insight into the meaning of the text (Bertens). This allows one to analyze the story from a fresh perspective.
One of the basic tenets of the formalist approach is “defamiliarization.” Defamiliarization uses language and symbols in such a way as to make the words and objects seem “new” to give the reader a fresh perspective on ordinary words or symbols. This idea that defamiliarizing the reader with ordinary things assumes that, by making these things appear unfamiliar to the reader, that they will then be able to gain a deeper appreciation and deeper insights into the hidden meaning of the text (Bertens). The symbols and imagery contained within a literary text hold more meaning in interpreting the text than does understanding the culture or time period that produced the particular text (Brizee).
A Formalist Analysis of The Necklace
The Necklace lends itself to analysis from the formalist perspective because of the deeply meaningful symbols referenced in the story. The necklace itself, for which the story was named, is a deeply meaningful symbol. The assumption that the necklace is more than simply a necklace, but a deeply meaningful symbol that gives insight into the deeper meaning of the story paves the way for a Formalist reading of this story.
The assumption that symbols that appear in a story are important to understanding the overall meaning of a story can be applied to a formalist reading of The Necklace. A compelling argument can be made that the necklace itself in the story is the most important symbol in attempting to understand the story. The necklace isn’t just a necklace, and only by defamiliarizing oneself with this familiar object can the reader discover what this symbol actually stands for. To find meaning in this story from a Formalist perspective, one must only look at the text (Bertens). What objects or ideas present in The Necklace actually stand for other concepts? In The Necklace, the necklace that Mathilde borrowed is a key symbol in interpreting the meaning of the story.
From a formalist perspective, the symbol of the necklace the is key to interpreting the story. The necklace, though it appeared beautiful and very valuable, was actually worthless. The necklace symbolizes the main character, Mathilde’s, obsession with her own beauty and being perceived as wealthy. Like the necklace, Mathilde is beautiful, but she doesn’t have much worth as a person. She wasn’t born into a wealth family, as she tries to appear, and she doesn’t have any skills that would allow her to be independent without needing a husband. She was deceived by Madame Forestier into believing that the necklace was valuable in the same way she deceived her husband into sacrificing everything for her (De Maupassant).
The Necklace can easily be interpreted from a formalist perspective if the reader becomes defamiliarized with common everyday objects that appear in the story and view the necklace itself as a symbol of the main character’s place in society. Both Mathilde and the necklace are beautiful, but neither has the monetary worth they appear to have. This interpretation is based entirely on the content and language of the story and doesn’t require the reader to be familiar with the author’s life or other works, or with the society and time period in which it was written. This formalist interpretation stands on its own and relies on the text itself.
What is Feminist Literary Theory?
Feminist literary theory interprets texts from a feminist perspective. Feminism refers to a collection of different movements which each focus on equal rights for women, and in many cases, other marginalized groups. First-wave feminism has its roots in the suffrage movement. This gave way to second-wave feminism in the early 1960s to late 1970s, which build on creating more equal working conditions for women. Third-wave feminism came about in the early 1990s-present and focuses more on equality between women and men, as well as equality for people of all racial and economic groups, sexual orientations, and other marginalized groups. Feminist criticism in literature is concerned with the way in which women (and more recently, other marginalized groups) are portrayed in literature. Alongside feminist political movements, feminist criticism focuses on how the relationships between men and women are portrayed in literature, how literature defines femininity and masculinity, and how male and female roles are defined (Brizee).
A basic tenant of feminist literary theory is that masculinity and femininity are presented as binary oppositions in literature. Women are assumed to be passive and inferior, whereas men are assumed to be active and superior. Within these binary oppositions, the feminine is always associated with the “inferior” term. This idea, according to feminist theorists, is derived from patriarchal western culture. These ideas are damaging to women as well as men because they “curb the imagination” and are “therefore oppressive in general (Bertens, 137-41).”
A Feminist Analysis of The Necklace
Feminist Criticism also lends itself to analysis of The Necklace. Feminist theory “challenges the paradigms and intellectual premises of western thought, but also takes an activist stance by proposing frequent interventions and alternative epistemological positions meant to change the social order (Brewton).” Unlike a formalist reading, a feminist analysis of this story analyzes the ways in which the cultural environment of the time shapes attempts to interpret the story. The main female character, and her interactions with her husband and society in general, can be analyzed from a feminist perspective. Her behaviors in the story can be seen as resulting from the expectations that society places upon women. This theory calls attention to the (usually negative) way in which female characters have been portrayed in literature throughout history.
Feminist literary theory would argue that in The Necklace, Mathilde’s behavior, self-image, and world view are completely shaped by the expectations and attitudes of the patriarchal society in which she lives. Mathilde truly believes that she is special and deserving of special treatment because of her physical appearance and charm, despite the fact that she isn’t wealthy and hasn’t accomplished much in her life (though, as a woman, she wouldn’t be expected to have many accomplishments unrelated to family life). Her focus on her looks and obsession with the appearance of wealth via material accessories (expensive looking clothing and jewelry) show that women are expected to focus primarily on their looks and attracting a man who can provide them with luxuries (De Maupassant).
Mathilde is shallow, materialistic, and manipulative. These negative traits are often associated with femininity when masculinity and femininity are presented as binary oppositions. Mathilde believes that she deserves a life of luxury simply because she is beautiful. Her husband, on the other hand, is an actual hardworking man, and makes many sacrifices for Mathilde, such as working hard to replace the necklace that Mathilde lost and trying to provide her the life of luxury that she wants. From the theoretical lens of the feminist perspective, this could be interpreted as a comment on how society values men and their accomplishments over women. Feminists would see it as highly problematic that the woman was portrayed in such poor light. The fact that Mathilde was presented as shallow and materialistic, while her husband was portrayed as a hardworking man who makes endless sacrifices for his wife represents the way that women and men are viewed by society as a whole. From a feminist perspective, this story is symptomatic of a greater trend in society to view women as inferior to men (Bertens, 137-41).
The opposing ways in which women and men are presented in literature, such as The Necklace, demonstrates the inequalities that women face in society as a whole. Women are usually associated with negative traits, such as shallowness and materialism, whereas men are usually associated with more positive traits. In The Necklace, Mathilde attitude that she is worth more than other women in her social class simply because of her looks demonstrates the idea that women are valued primarily for their beauty over everything else. By understanding literature from a feminist perspective, readers can begin to be aware of these trends in everyday life as well.
Putting These Theories Together
After applying these two theories, it became apparent that the necklace in the story isn’t just a necklace, but a powerful symbol that drives the plot. The necklace stands for the main character, Mathilde, but the story is about much more than the necklace or about the characters. A formalist analysis reveals that the necklace in the story stands for something other than a piece of jewelry. While the necklace is beautiful, it is ultimately worthless. In a formalist analysis, defamiliarizing oneself with the familiar object of the necklace, the reader can see that the necklace symbolizes Mathilde. A feminist analysis takes this idea a step further and argues that Mathilde’s plight isn’t a product of her own intrinsic worthlessness, but of the patriarchal society that she lives in. She isn’t allowed to be anything other than a beautiful, but worthless object valued only for her looks. Literary theory is important to literary studies because it provides a diverse set of frameworks for exploring and interpreting literary texts from many different perspectives. Only by looking at texts through different lenses and considering different ways of thinking about the meanings woven into the stories can we fully appreciate literature.
Bertens, Hans. "Chapter 2, 6." Literary Theory: The Basics. London: Routledge, 2001. 28,45 123-149. Print.
Brewton, Vince. "Literary Theory." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, n.d. Web. 25 June 2016. <http://www.iep.utm.edu/literary/>.
Brizee, Allen, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski, and Elizabeth Boyle. "Welcome to the Purdue OWL." Purdue OWL: Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism. Purdue, 17 Aug. 2015. Web. 25 June 2016. <https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/722/01/>.
De Maupassant, Guy. "The Necklace." Bartleby.com. Ed. Brander Matthews. American Book Company, 2000. Web. 25 June 2016. <http://www.bartleby.com/195/20.html>.
Questions & Answers
Question: What are the differences between feminism and formalism?
Answer: Formalism and feminist literary analysis are two different approaches to interpreting a literary text. The different critical methods for interpreting and evaluating literary texts can give readers very different insights into a work of literature.
In literary theory, formalism is a critical approach that analyzes, interprets, and evaluates the inherent features of a text, such as grammar, syntax, and literary devices. As stated in my article, formalism heavily relies on symbolism and the use of language in attempting to figure out the meaning of a literary text. The formalist approach interprets the text only based on the symbolism, imagery, and form contained in the text, and does not consider the historical context or culture that the text was written in.
Feminist literary analysis, on the other hand, is highly concerned with historical context and the cultural conditions that produced the text. Feminist literary analysis and criticism is informed by feminist theory and the politics of feminism (feminism referring to a collection of political and social movements which each focus on equal rights for women, and in many cases, other marginalized groups). Feminist literary analysis, as I explained in the article, looks at the way in which women are portrayed in a literary work, and analyzes the work through the lens of the culture and period in which the work was written. The feminist literary analysis focuses on how the relationships between men and women are portrayed, how femininity and masculinity are defined, and how male and female roles are assigned in literary works.
Formalism is more concerned with the form the literary text takes, while feminism is more concerned with the cultural context of the literary text.
© 2018 Jennifer Wilber