“The Formal Method” By Boris Eichenbaum-Summary Grade A-

on August 30, 2016 in Essays, Masters Degree

In Boris Eichenbaum’s essay “The Formal Method”, as found in chapter two of Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan’s Literary Theory: An Anthology, he explores three distinct elements of formalism. Over the course of the work he concisely describes the definition and formation of formalist criticism to build toward the examples of formalism in practice with which he closes his paper.
“The organization of the Formal method was governed by the principle that the study of literature should be made specific and concrete”(Eichenbaum 7). With this simple declarative sentence Eichenbaum summarized the major tenet defining formalist critical theory. In the effort to give literary study the specificity and concreteness that Eichenbaum mentions, he points out two important distinctions: that of the difference between practical and poetic language, and the evolving relationship between form and content. Practical language, being solely for the purpose of communication and without autonomous value, is an entirely different language system from poetics and it is “important to establish this difference as a foundation for building a poetics”(8). It is by instituting the notion that poetic language has an autonomous value that formalist critics can begin to divorce form from content and analyze the use of images and structures without regard to specific content. The example Eichenbaum puts forward is, in reference to Osip Brik’s article, “the supposition that repetition in verse [alliteration] is analogous to tautology in folklore”(9). In this instance the alliterative voice is not merely an acoustic or aesthetic choice, but a form with a specific interpretive meaning.
It is the establishment of poetic language as a separate system that allowed the formalist critics to change the relationship between form and content. In effect form, “no longer had to be paired with any other concept, it no longer needed correlation”(9). Contradicting the classical notion that form was simply the vessel within which the content was kept, form could be foregrounded to transcend content and give to literary studies a standardized set of structures that would make up what Viktor Sklovskij referred to as “scientific poetics”. In this manner Eichenbaum posits that literary studies can, “establish the unity of any chosen structural procedure within the greatest possible diversity of material”(11). He proceeds to describe the transition in the study of form which ultimately becomes a complete inversion of the previous model leaving form the prime element for analysis and, “subordinating everything else as motivation” (11)
Having described both the definition and the formation of the formalist method, Eichenbaum continues on by giving specific examples of this method in practice. To that end he chose to pay particular attention to Sklovskij’s studies of Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy. By focusing on the elements of form as primary Eichenbaum is able to assert that Don Quixote as a heroic type is a response to the novel’s construction and not simply an element of the plot. In taking this analysis one step further into Sterne’s work, Sklovskij illuminates one of the primary factors of formalist criticism, the notion that the, “violation of form, is what in fact constitutes the content of the novel”(12). Eichenbaum found this transition even more problematic with regard to poetry as the formalist movement had to contend with the rise of “specialized literature” in the early twentieth century. As the formalists were trying to create a lexicon of concrete structures, “no theory of verse, in the broad sense of the word, was to be had”(13). However, Eichenbaum found the genesis of a rebuttal to this ambiguity in Osip Brik’s “On Rhythmic-Syntactic Figures” where Eichenbaum found, “the actual existence in verse of constant syntactic formations inseparably bound with rhythm”(13). This discovery implied that the structural continuity required for applying the specificity of the formalist method was not limited to the prosaic mode, but equally present in verse.
By clearly defining both the philosophy of formalist method as well as its evolution from previous theoretical models Eichenbaum highlights the new relationship between form and content in a critical style that creates consistent structures that exist throughout literature. The emphasis on close reading and, “the principle of the palpableness of form,” which, “had to be made concrete enough to foster the analysis of form itself”(9) is a vital part of Eichenbaum’s description of the formal method.

Works Cited
Eichenbaum, Boris. “The Formal Method.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell, 2004, pp. 7-14.

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