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Structuralist Poetics on Novel Reading

The Book (Credit: routledge.com)

The Book (Credit: routledge.com)

The idea of structural analysis refers to the study or analysis that stresses on the intrinsic elements of literary work. This technique claims that the work itself is independent or autonomous which means that the way we understand is without considering the author’s biography, the social background of its creation, the philosophical outlook or world view of the author. Teeuw says that structural analysis tries to discover and explore what the work is; its shape and effect, for and from the work itself. All of the structuralists agree that literature critique must be centered on the work itself, without paying attention to the author or the reader; what is needed by an interpreter is only close reading (Teeuw, 1984: 135) or intensive reading as Guerin et al use it (1979: 76). The knowledge about the author and his social background often drives an interpreter into fallacy.

Formalists [or structuralists] begin with a careful, close reading of the text. The reader pays close attention to such things as imagery, connotation and tone. After the individual words, formalists concern themselves with structures and patterns: the interrelationships of words, the overall form of the work. Thus formalism is sensitive to any repetition of words, image, or structural patterns in the theme, plot or setting (Guerin, 1986: 8).

Structuralists believe that the valid analysis upon a work of literature must be retained from what inside it, and not to go beyond out bond. The analysis, as the result, is ‘the supreme and the pure’ meaning of a work of literature.

Culler introduces structuralist poetics in his book Structuralist Poetics; Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature. The role of structuralist poetics is “to make as explicit as possible what is implicity known by all those sufficiently concerned with literature to be interested in poetics” or in other words “it is the theory of the practice of reading” (Culler, 1975: 258-259).

Poetics of the Novel brings an interpreter to reveal novel according to a system that rules the process of interpretation. Culler formulates Poetics of the Novel to unify the terms  used by structuralists. Poetics of the Novel offers the “basic convention” to do reading activity over a novel and to capture its force. The force that makes a novel really a mimesis of the world charged with meaning (Culler, 1975: 189). Although Culler points out that Structuralists realize the potential of producing meaning of a text is always personal, infinite, and present and they, as the frontiers of objectivity, are in difficult position to answer this fact (Culler, 1975: 243) but this formulation, stirred by him, may help understand the core of structuralism approach.

The term poetics, according to Aristotle, is distinguished from theoria (theory) or praxis (practice) in the primacy of its activity of making. Poetics is the active questioning, since that time, about how does, how should, how could, art be made. Poetics and poetry are from the Greek word poiein: to make. Poetics is concentrated on the act of making, rather than self-expression.[1]

Poetics means “the products of the process of reflection upon writings, and upon the act of writing, gathering from the past and from others, speculatively casting into the future”.[2] Bernstein explains that poetics is not an institutionalization of interpretation but rather to be the optional convention on the way of reading a literary work. It opens other possibilities of interpretation and meaning. He says that “one of the pleasures of poetics is to try on a paradigm and see where it leads you”.[3]

The poetics function according to Jakobson is to project the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination (in Culler, 1975: 56). Culler says that Poetics of the Novel must be considered as an optional way of interpreting literary works. It will help give meaning towards a novel by systemic interpretation but gives not any meaning.

According to Culler, there are six elements within a novel to focus regarding the objective convention to conduct a close reading over a novel. Culler names that six elements as the Poetics of the Novel. The Poetics of the Novel are: Readability (lisibilité dan illisibilité), Narrative contracts, Codes, Plot, Theme and Symbol, and Character.

1. Readability (lisibilité dan illisibilité)

A readable text is a text that has coherence and intelligibility, which it employs and challenges its reader as a whole. The three elements to consider the novel as readable is that novel of ‘having coherence and intelligibility’ in plot, theme, and character. “The process of [close] reading is that of implicitly recognizing elements as of a particular level and interpreting them accordingly” (Culler, 1975: 192). A good novel then can be said as challenging to reading. In other words, it fulfills the expectation of structuralist reader about the coherence of plot, theme, and character within a novel.

Khotbah di Atas Bukit, a novel by Kuntowijoyo is a good example. The character of Popi in coherence with plot and theme makes the readers need to ‘redefine’ the meaning of Popi after closely reading the novel. The novel shows explicitly the theme, Khotbah di Atas Bukit. It takes the readers to relate it to the plot of the novel and the character of Popi. The word khotbah in English means ‘a preach’, while the words di atas bukit can be translated as ‘on the top of the hill’. The plot of the novel is full of shock; as a preach shocks your soul. The thematic opposition in the novel, which are richness/modesty, pleasure/suffering, unaccompanied/togetherness,  strengthten the title as a theme. Later on, these bring the readers to refer Popi, lover of the main character. In Indonesian, a word added with suffix –i transforms to be an adjective word. The word pop is an adjective word which means pop as same as its English origin meaning. Pop + i makes a bold meaning, that is so pop; so well known or things that everybody knows and wants. While the name of the main character, Barman, may refer to the metathesis of Brahman, Hindu’s priest.

‘A preach on the top of the hill’, as the title of the story, depicts that happiness does not come from the things people usually fight for; richness or lovers. The preach is a hard thing to do with such material especially doing the preach on the top of the hill when almost nobody there to join the climb.

2. Narrative Contracts

This term might be called as: items whose only apparent role in the text is that of denoting a concrete reality. Elements of this kind confirm the ‘mimetic contract’, make the readers believe the story and can compare it to the real world. (Culler, 1975: 193-194). This structural element puts a bold definition that structuralists consider that narrations would provide the readers with life-likeness, ‘the world’ they can imagine and compare with the real world.

Narrative contracts talks upon three matters: (1) what deductions or connections the narrator presumed to accept by his readers. Culler states it in his words: “the narrative indicates what he [the narrator] needs to be told, how he might have reacted, what deductions or connections he is presumed to accept [by his readers].” (Culler, 1975: 195), (2) how does the narration guide the reader to imagine the novel’s world (Culler, 1975: 196-197), and (3) how is the position of the narrator within a novel to bring the readers grasping meaning (Culler, 1975: 200-201).

Barthes says that narrative contracts ensures the narrator and the reader are signified throughout the story itself (in Culler, 1975: 195). This term deals with how the narration makes the readers to believe that the story might be true in the real world. The readers are invited with an open door of life-likeness. Here is an example of an opening passage of Hemingway’s short story A Clean Well-Lighted Place taken from the book An Introduction to Fiction:

It was late and every one had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electrical light. … the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference (in Kennedy, 1983: 77).

The life-likeness is presented in the narration. The narration constructs the situation before the dialogues of the characters arise. The narration instantly structures the readers’ mind about a character, which is an old man. It also provides the readers with the setting: place, time, and situation. Furthermore, it also contributes the scheme on the readers’ mind: (1) It is a silent night and there is an old man who needs to be alone, or it might be (2) a lonely old man sits on an empty café.

The narrative contracts confirms the mimetic expectation (of the real world) and assures readers to be able to interpret the text as about a real world. It gives the readers the world they know (Culler, 1975: 193). The readers can not comprehend only dialogues without knowing whose dialogue it is, and the readers can not understand also the environment (time, situation, place, etc.) if there is no narration in the story. Or in simple words, it becomes problematic when the readers do not know what to imagine and to expect from a novel comparing to their world (Culler, 1975: 196).

3. Codes

Culler states that understanding code deals with the comprehension of reading a text or a work of literature. Culler quotes from Barthes and Lévi-Strauss that code helps the readers get total meaning of the text. The elements to understand code includes cultural background, cause-effect understanding, semantic features knowledge, symbolic and thematic reading (Culler, 1975: 202-203).

Teeuw claims that even though work of literature contains universal truth, but still every work of literature needs to be read as cultural product. But this is not to be focused only on the cultural background as sociologists do. Text is autonomous and self-sufficient, that is not to argue in the structuralists’ discourse, but to read is to understand also the convention of the work. Teeuw says that codes of literary work deal with language knowledge and cultural background of the work (Teeuw, 1983: 15 -35). This statement is actually the same as Culler’s description about codes.

Teeuw gives example about this in interpreting one line of Goenawan Mohamad’s poem Z:

Di bawah bulan Marly —————-Under the moon of Marly

dan pohon musim panas ————-and the summer season’s trees

The second line states that its setting is in the summer season. It gives some Indonesian readers a conclusion that Marly to be March and July since those months are in summer seasons, as exactly shown on the next line. Also, the word Marly can be such an acronym of Mar(ch and Ju)ly. According to rezeptionisaesthetic this interpretation is well accepted. But this is not the ‘correct’ interpretation. The setting of the poem is Paris but the interpreter who has interpreted the word Marly to be Mar(ch and Ju)ly fails to capture its true setting. Marly actually is a place for recreation near Paris. The interpretation of Marly to be Mar(ch and Ju)ly is ‘incorrect’, or innocent interpretation, this happens because in Indonesian the meaning of bulan refers to ‘moon’ and ‘month’. So, the process of interpretation needs a total comprehension about the text in this case, semantic feature aspect (Teeuw, 1983: 37-38).

Another example is the analysis on Pengakuan Pariyem, a lyric prose by Linus Suryadi A.G. One who does not know the cultural background of traditional Javanese women, makes a ‘mistake’ by analysing it to be the hypocrite acts of Pariyem, a Javanese woman. But one who knows the cultural background of it makes no such innocent analysis. To be acknowledged, traditional Javanese women are pleased to have children from their aristocrats. They believe that the children are valuable gifts from God. They feel blessed to have the aristocrats’ children. Therefore, one who does not know the cultural background of the novel of Pengakuan Pariyem, likely to translate the title in English to be The Confession of Pariyem rather than to translate it The Revelation of Pariyem. Even though the lyric prose Pengakuan Pariyem is kind of kitsch because of its exploration towards sexual intercourse in which in other ways Suryadi could have camouflaged it. However an analysis over this lyric prose in Sastra, Tata Nilai, dan Eksegesis done by Suyitno is an example of obeying the codes (1988: 134-160).

It is interesting also to notice the interpretation of a beautiful poem Malam Lebaran (Eneste, 1989: 108). Situmorang’s poem Malam Lebaran is interpretated by Junus as ‘an abstraction of symbolical meaning’. The poem itself contains only a single line following the title.

Malam Lebaran   ————————— Lebaran night

Bulan di atas kuburan ——————–The moon’s above the graveyard

He, Junus, says that the poem means that when comes the joyful lebaran night, moslems are thinking of their relatives that have passed away (Junus, 1981: 73). Junus’ interpretation differs from the author’s intended meaning who states that this poem is purely naturalism. Situmorang, the author of Malam Lebaran, says that the poem is inspired by his experience seeing the moon above the graveyard during lebaran night (Situmorang in Eneste ed., 1989: 348-349).

Both interpretations are correct and do not violate the codes. Lebaran night actually is the time indicating the end of moslems’ fasting month. But then in Situmorang’s term, lebaran night does not refer to just one night. Situmorang points out that the nights after the real lebaran, approximately five nights afterward, regard as lebaran night(s) also. This definition makes Junus differ from Situmorang. Junus gives reason that in lebaran night, in which it lasts for only a night, the moon does not come in a sight-able sphere. So Junus argues that the words lebaran night must be symbolical. That is why both interpretations are correct. The author of the poem is considered as an interpreter when comes to an interpretation. Other interpreters are as equal and legitimate as the author regarding the activity of giving meaning towards a text.

Junus’ is correct because every literary work is multi interpretable and autonomous in its meaning. There is no relation between the author and the meaning of the work, or to state the matter in a different manner, the author is not the only one to have privilege in giving meaning after the work is born to the world (Junus, 1985: 9, 19-20). Junus then quotes the words from Thadee Klossowski, the son of Comte de Rola-Balthus on Guardian Weekly, 27 November 1983.

I won’t talk about my father because he doesn’t want people to talk about him. I’m an obidient son. My father thinks it’s not by speaking about painter that one speaks of painting. I believe he’s right (in Junus, 1985: 9).

A good example of codes violation is provided by André Hardjana in his book Kritik Sastra: Sebuah Pengantar. Hardjana cites from Sastrowardojo’s lecture material about transgression of codes on an analysis over Situmorang’s poem Cathedrale de Chartres by Pradopo (Hardjana, 1994: 46-49). Pradopo’s analysis contains several failures when interpretating the word pekan kembang and the two lines of the Situmorang’s poem Cathedrale de Chartres.

Pradopo defines pekan kembang as a concealment word for the place where prostitutes offer themselves to customers (Pradopo, 1988: 81; 1994: 66). Pekan in Indonesian according to Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia signifies two meanings. The first signifies pasar [traditional market] and the second is a week (TPKP P2B, 1989: 659). Pradopo, who comes from Yogyakarta, signifies pekan to be pasar and then describes pekan kembang as pasar kembang. Pradopo elucidates pekan kembang to be pasar kembang because in Yogyakarta pasar kembang is the place of prostitutes. Such description violates the codes since the setting of the poem is in France and it is not in Yogyakarta. Pradopo is snared on his cultural background about the definition of pekan kembang. While Sastrowardojo signifies pekan kembang as Burton Raffel’s, which is flower stalls (Hardjana, 1994: 47).

The second failure of Pradopo’s analysis is the interpretation on the two lines of the poem Cathedrale de Chartres. The two lines are:

Ah, Tuhan, tak bisa lagi kita bertemu —–Oh, God, nor I meet thou at face anymore

Dalam doa bersama kumpulan umat —–In a solemn prayer among these believers

Pradopo considers these two lines as the effect of French existentialism (Pradopo, 1988: 84; 1994: 68-69). Pradopo has truly captured its setting that is France, but saying that those two lines are affected by French existentialism is over the text. He does not get total involvement in the text. The explanation for these two lines of the poem is easy. Christians or Catholics always find themselves in hardships when joining a prayer in other countries churches. They lose the atmosphere and the solemnity of a prayer. They feel strange in light of the different language used in a prayer (Hardjana, 1994: 48-49). Pradopo fails to capture this in his analysis but Sastrowardojo succeeds.

4. Plot

Barthes states that plot is a sequence of actions, constitute the armature of the readable or intelligible text (in Culler, 1975: 205). Kenney describes that plot in fiction is an arrangement of events according to the casuality of relationship (Kenney, 1966: 13). Dictionary of World of Literature defines plot: “the framework of incidents, however simple or complex, upon which the narrative or drama is constructed; the events of the depicted struggle, as organized into an artistic unit” (Shipley ed., 1962: 310). Brooks and Warren explain plot of the story as “Plot may be said to be what happens in a story. It is the string of events. It may also be said as the structure of an action as presented in a piece of fiction”(Brooks and Warren, 1959: 77). Then it can be said that the plot of novel is the artistic arrangement of events or it is referring to the deliberately arranged sequence of interrelated events that makes up its basic narrative structure.

Good story suggests the readers a good plot. According to Aristotle’s Poetics, good plot has identifiable beginning, middle, and end as coherence and unity (Shipley ed., 1962: 310 and Abrams, 1981: 138). The unity within a plot does not mean that the events are focused to a single character, but it refers to the relationship and order among the events, or in Aristotle’s words:

The unity of a plot does not consist, as some suppose, in its having one man as its subject. An infinity of things befall that one man, some of which it is impossible to reduce to unity; and in like manner there are many actions of one man which cannot be made to form one action. …The truth is that, just as in the other imitative arts one imitation is always of one thing, so in the poetry of the story, as an imitation of action, must represent one action, a complete whole, with its several incidents so closely connected that the transposal or withdrawal of any one of them will disjoin and dislocate the whole. For that which makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no real part of the whole (Aristotle in Fyfe, 1966: 24-25).

The beginning of a story always provides the readers with a situation in which there are some elements of instability. At this phase, the author gives the necessary background information to develop the story. The information given may include the establishment of situation, scene, the introduction of character, and potential conflict. The middle of story is a phase when potential conflict begins to arouse. This also continues to the point when the conflict reaches its highest intensity. It is also the period of readjustment of conflict in the process of seeking a new kind of stability. In the end of the plot, some points of stability is reached. The conflict that has been brought into, has been resolved. This section also presents the impact of the conflict to the story. Kenney adds that “any plot that has a true beginning, middle, and end and that follows the laws of plausibility, surprise, and suspense must have unity” (Kenney, 1966: 22). A good plot according to Kenney is not just having identifiable beginning, middle, and end but it must have also the obedience to three issues; plausibility, surprise, and suspense.

Plausibility means that the story must convince the reader on its own story. The sequence within the plot must be logical in its own story. It is not realism but rather to make sense to the readers. Imaginative literary work must have conflict to realistic one, but plausibility is not the same as realism. The readers have no right to demand that the story be realistic, but plausibility takes focus on the way the story is true to itself. The second and the third issues are surprise and suspense. Surprise deals with the way the story against the readers’ expectation. It makes a good plot attractive. Then suspense refers to how a plot makes the readers’ to have uncertain feeling and anticipation towards the events. Suspense makes the readers to rouse and to sustain their interest (Kenney, 1966: 20-22 and Shipley ed., 1962: 235, 404).

It is also important to recognize that events within plot are mainly chronological, the temporal sequence is often deliberately broken and the chronological parts are rearranged in order to get emphasis and effect. An author may start his story at one point and end it at another. There might be some expected effects that he tries to create. The device for interrupting the flow of a chronologically ordered plot is flashback.

All events or conflicts that the characters face are within the frame of a plot. The events are governed by a rule, which deals with cause and effect relationship. It means that an event is a consequence of the previous one and what happens now will have a consequence in the future or later development of the story. Thus analysing plot is “to be a study of structuring process by which plots take shape, and that one of the best ways of discovering what norms are at work was to alter the text and consider how its effect is changed” (Culler, 1975: 223). It is just as Culler points out that analysing plot means to read the story in which disparate incidents are treated as a logical development to structure the larger thematic structure (Culler, 1975: 222). So the essence of analysing plot according to Barthes, as Culler agrees, is “to explicate ‘the metalanguage within the reader himself’, ‘the language of plot which is within us’” (Culler, 1975: 224).

5. Theme and Symbol

The structuralists have not made theme a separate object of study because theme is not the result of specific set of elements but rather the name of the forms of unity in the text or to the ways of elements come together and cohere (Culler, 1975: 224). Brooks and Warren define that “theme is the point or meaning of a story or novel” (Brooks and Warren, 1959: 688). While Martin and Hill point out theme as “the central philosophical or moral idea of a novel, what the novel is really about” (Martin and Hill, 1996: 30).

Barthes argues in Culler that a text is always symbolic. Every text always offers as Barthes states ‘a whole space of substitution and variation’ to the readers to do extrapolation. The readers make the meaning of the text based upon the thematic oppositions. Some examples of thematic oppositions are such as: evil/good, forbidden/permitted, active/passive, Latin/Nordic, sexuality/purity (Culler, 1975: 225). Furthermore, these thematic oppositions in a text, which seats beside one another, present a symbolic condensation. This symbolic condensation requires the readers to do symbolic reading that exploits the opposition and gives it a place in larger symbolic structure (Culler, 1975: 226).

Culler discusses about symbol on its association to semantic transformation of a text. In some ways, he agrees to the direction brought by Barthes regarding the basic mechanism of recuperation. Culler seems to be interested towards Barthes’ that the anti-thesis within a text makes every reader has the freedom to create his own symbolic code (Culler, 1975: 225-226). This symbolic code brings a reader to the meaning in the semantic transformation as Goethe has said (in Culler, 1975: 229).

Hamlet is an example to show what theme and symbol mean. Hamlet’s theme is revenge. Shakespeare defines revenge in tremendous way. Evil/good, forgiveness/revenge, forbidden/ permitted are things contrasted in Hamlet. To be or not to be, a line in Hamlet causes symbolic condensation to the readers. Hamlet might be a symbol of human irony. Another example is Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea. This novella gives a symbolic condensation about the mystery of life. It shows  thematic oppositions: luck/misfortune, winner/loser, human/nature.

6. Character

Character according to Steinmann and Willen is a fictional person described or impersonated in a work of imaginative literature (Steinmann and Willen, 1967: 697). Culler in his book Structuralist Poetics says that structuralists do not put much interest in the character. Barthes as quoted by Culler argues that structural analysis has done so much variation in treating character in novel but they still define the character as ‘participant’ rather than as ‘being’ (Culler, 1975: 232). Characters are only participants since they take part in the way of events and forces are able to meet rather than as an individuated essence. The structuralists put characters as important element but only on the terms of interpersonal and conventional systems. “A structuralist approach has tended to explain this (the character aspect) as an ideological prejudice rather than to study it as a fact of reading” (Culler, 1975: 230).

The naming of character for structuralists grows into a point where Culler says that “Whatever their role outside the novel, our models of the braggart, the young lover, the scheming subordinate, the wise man, the villain – polyvalent models with scope for variation, to be sure – are literary constructs which facilitate the process of selecting semantic features to fill up or give content to a proper name” (Culler, 1975: 237). Todorov in Culler argues that whatsoever the naming of character is directed or teleological set based on our cultural models (Culler, 1975: 237). It means that a character is named as hero or villain because of our cultural models definition. The naming of a character in the sense of only to what it is written in the novel is incomplete, so the readers tend to use their cultural models in the process of naming a character.

The characters in novel are vital. Without character there would be no plot to build and therefore there will be no story. Even so, the character in the novel mostly can not be completely described by the author. Kenney states that “the necessity placing character in a unified work of art forces the author into a series of choices. He must always be prepared to sacrifice one interest – for instance, the interest of life likeness in character for its own sake – for the sake of other, for instance, the interest in plot, in theme, in the unity of the whole” (Kenney, 1966: 25). The statement from Kenney is precise to what that has been pointed out by Todorov and Culler, this sacrifice makes incompleteness upon the process of naming the character.


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[1],[2],[3] Robert Sheppard. 1999 – 2000. The Necessity of Poetics. , http://www.pores.bbk.ac.uk

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Structuralist Poetics on Novel Reading by Dipa Nugraha is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at dipanugraha.blog.com.

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