Structuralism Theory and Ethnic Studies Applied

Structuralism Theory and Ethnic Studies Applied

by Emmanuel Paige

Title of chosen passage:  Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)

Structuralism was chosen to analyze Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë because it is well suited to examine the literary and fictional elements within the Gothic fiction structure. “A major contribution to the study of structure in literature was made by the intellectual movement called ‘structuralism.’” (Ryan). This can be compared to “the rules governing how chess pieces can be moved, which exist apart from the game yet make it possible” (Ryan).

The advantage to using structuralism is it eliminates outside influence that most of the other theories incorporate. It can compare related structural items shared across works without external influence. Ceteris paribus, all things being equal, is mandatory for this theory. If we are to compare short stories, novels, or artwork, they must all have similarities that can be compared to each other and must conform to the established rules and structures set forth in that genre or style. The disadvantage is that certain things like the history, culture, and psychology of the author are not taken into account. For Gothic fiction, Structuralism is a great theory to use because it can show the “cookie cutter” mold that these stories used to create tales that were predictable and followed strict adherence to the principles guiding these romantic tales.

“Literary structure is also the shape a work has by virtue of its similarity to other works” and that many “follow the same basic plot outline. Claude Lévi-Strauss, a French anthropologist, found that very diverse myths display similar themes, characters, and stories. When placed on top of one another, they display almost identical structures, much as human bodies all have the same skeletal form” (Ryan). Structuralism is beneficial for looking at Gothic fiction because it follows the premise that “Structure in a literary sense also means that works of literature obey conventions that pertain to particular genres” (Ryan).

The term “Gothic” is derived from the Goth people and their culture during the Middle Ages. They are known for a distinctive style of influential designs in architecture, literature, and art. Gothic fiction is a distinct form of literature that shares this influence. It is a genre steeped in a tradition of stock elements and tropes: castles, moats, and moors, tyrants, barons, damsels in distress, lovely maidens, hauntings, ghosts, and murders.  Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, and Dracula by Bram Stoker are classic examples of novels that have the fundamental structural elements of the Gothic style. There is usually a handsome hero, a tyrant or villain, a damsel in distress, and some secret shrouded in mystery. There is often a spirit of revenge, combined with an adventurous and suspenseful plot that is always set in a dark and gloomy castle. 

“Without the structure of meaning provided by codes, a work of literature would not make sense to its audience. A list of randomly selected events would not function like a work of literature. Add meaning derived from codes the audience recognizes, and the list or sequence of events begins to be a work of literature (Ryan). In Jane Eyre we see stock characters and cultural codes from the structure of the Gothic elements at once: “Well, Jane, being so, it was [my father’s] resolution to keep the property together; he could not bear the idea of dividing his estate and leaving me a fair portion: all, he resolved, should go to my brother, Rowland. Yet as little could he endure that a son of his should be a poor man. I must be provided for by a wealthy marriage” (Brontë). This shows wealth and culture of an aristocratic nature with an estate and property and the foreshadowing of a marriage. These are wealthy people doing things that rich people do, and that is where any good Gothic story begins.

“Fictional narratives generally follow a logical pattern shaped by the consequences that ensue from the actions of the characters” (Ryan). All fiction has basic elements (plot, character, setting, mood, theme, dialogue, etc.) and Gothic fiction in literature is no exception. “In literature, it is more common to speak of generic groupings of works that have similar compositional elements. All tragedies, for example, have structural elements in common such as a moment of recognition or anagnoresi” (Ryan). The patterns of the Gothic are all represented in this passage from Brontë’s novel.

In the passage, abruptly, the there is a shift to a conflict and secret revealed (anagnoresi), “The honeymoon over, I learned my mistake; she was only mad, and shut up in a lunatic asylum. There was a younger brother, too—a complete dumb idiot” (Brontë). It gets even better when a twist is thrown in, “My father and my brother Rowland knew all this; but they thought only of the thirty thousand pounds, and joined in the plot against me” (Brontë). This is standard fare for Gothic fiction. The stage is set and the story will unravel from here with the marriage going sour with the discovery that the bride is cruel and had “a pigmy intellect” full of propensities.

The final element that comes from the structuralist vantage point of a shared trait across all Gothic fiction is that of a tyrant: “Bertha Mason, the true daughter of an infamous mother, dragged me through all the hideous and degrading agonies which must attend a man bound to a wife at once intemperate and unchaste” (Brontë). This is also observed “In Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Catherine betrays Heathcliff, who represents a positive and vibrant sense of nature that Emily Brontë endorses. Tragedy results from her betrayal of true feeling for more worldly goods” (Ryan) when Heathcliff becomes the tyrant in the end. These are petty tragedies and tyrannies upon the surface, but at some point, they become crucial to the plot and outcome of the Gothic structure. This is all revealed through the lens of Structuralism in literary theory.

Title of second chosen passage: Maya Angelou, “And Still I Rise” (American, 1978)

Ethnic Studies is a well-equipped literary theory lens to analyze “And Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou because she is of African American descent and the poem is about their heritage, ancestors, struggle through slavery, and modern movement to ‘rise above’ the oppression and inequality. Although race seems to be the primary focus, it can be refined to a state that “Ethnicity is a cluster of heritable traits, most of which – hair color, skin tone, and the like – are insignificant” (Ryan). Ethnicity has to do with analyzing the history and culture, among other things such as countries of origin, language, and lifestyle. Looking through the lens of Ethic Studies in literary theory it is possible to view diverse cultures and races from their own perspectives to understand their human condition. “For all of its contingency and irrelevance, ethnicity nevertheless remains one of the most powerful reasons for either bonding together or falling apart. While external traits such as skin color cannot be construed as expressing internal racial essences, such traits are the visual language of human identity and human community. History speaks a different language from science, and race and ethnicity, for all their imaginary qualities, are not easily erased or ignored” (Ryan).

The advantage to using Ethnic Studies for this piece (“And Still I Rise”) seem clear in that this is a poem written about the struggle of the African American from slavery to the present day, which at the time of writing was during the aftermath of the outcome of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s and how forward progress for these individuals was flourishing. The downside to using this theory is that it automatically assumes a binary opposition between one race and another saying that one is the privileged (oppressor) and the other is the marginalized (oppressed) persons. There are no distinction disadvantages other than it tends to villainize the middle-aged white man and encourages disposal of “classic literature” by authors such as William Faulkner. “Faulkner helped ensure that his culture would continue to enforce the exclusion of African Americans from the education that would have allowed them to contradict the white picture of them” (Ryan).

A close reading of the text shows a “rising” upward (lifting oneself up and being proud) while overcoming oppression, as in the history of the African Americans and slavery, which is the point of this motivating poem. It speaks of “bitter, twisted lies” of the oppressor who “trod me in the very dirt . . . like dust, I’ll rise” (Angelou). This poem speaks of dark moments in history, of slavery, of oppression, of inequality, and shows how “Just like moons and like suns, / With the certainty of tides, / Just like hopes springing high, / Still I’ll rise” (Angelou). Through the lens of Ethnic Studies, it is possible to feel empathy and contemplate the reality of the struggle the African Americans faced through history to modern times.

The pride in this poem shows in the way she says, “I walk like I’ve got oil wells / Pumping in my living room” (Angelou). This pride is well-deserved and with “hopes springing high” and it is spoken as a promise that the oppressor will not “see me broken? / [with] Bowed head and lowered eyes?” This will not happen because there is a leaving behind of fear. There is a rising above the oppressor and a claiming of pride and heritage in history for the African Americans, “Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, / I am the dream and the hope of the slave” (Angelou).

“Ethnic difference persists most palpably as economic difference, since race was often connected in the past to the economic exploitation of one group by another” (Ryan). The poem “And Still I Rise” is written from the point of view of the exploited and marginalized. In this poem, “Slavery is probably the most obvious example, and the legacy of such practices is palpable in the continued difference in wealth and economic power between white and black ethnic groups in the United States and elsewhere” (Ryan).  From the viewpoint of the narrator, the privileged want to “kill me with your hatefulness” (Angelou) and that is the crux of the problem. However, according to the poem, the descendants of the slaves shall continue to rise above and be proud. This is their story told from their viewpoint, and with this lens it is possible to see that “Ethnic literature records quite distinct cultural, social, and psychological realities” (Ryan).

Literary theory contributes to interpretation of literature by allowing different lenses to be applied to an analysis of a work or artifact. This results in a specific set of conditions, or parameters, that act as type of filter or constraint to be applied to the work to include, exclude, or combine factors to form an opinion. A story can be viewed uniquely with these constraints and allow a focus on the underlying issues and structures. It is possible to understand cultural and social issues from a unique perspective with literary theory. It changes one’s understanding of literature by giving an insight into multiple layers of meaning and interpretation. Literary theory is worth the time and effort because it allows for a rich and diverse interpretation of the work under the various lenses available to the critic, reviewer, or casual reader.

Works Cited

Angelou, Maya, “And Still I Rise” (American, 1978). Poetry Foundation.

Brontë, Charlotte, Jane Eyre (1847). Project Gutenberg.

Ryan, Michael. Literary Theory: A Practical Introduction. 3rd Edition, 2017.

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