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Note: Structuralism, semiotics, and post-structuralism are some of the most complex literary theories to understand. Please be patient.
It all began with a linguistics professor who gave a series of lectures on language at the University of Geneva between 1906 and 1911. He had a very bushy mustache, studied more dead languages than most people know exist, and was named . He died in 1915, before (gasp!) he'd had a chance to compile his revolutionary ideas on the structure of language into a book. But Saussure's students came to the rescue: after he died a couple of them went through mountains of lecture notes and compiled those into a book that was published in 1916 as Course in General Linguistics. Snoopy? Maybe. But if they hadn't poked around in his stuff the theory of structuralism would never have gotten off the ground.
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When we try to define things, we often start with what they're not. It's hot because it's 97 degrees out, but we understand that because we know it's not cold. Something's cooked because it's not raw. The Kardashians are famous because they're not not famous (is there any other reason?). Structuralism is all about determining sets of opposites and using those to figure out deep patterns underlying the structure of pretty much anything.
is another fellow who was exposed to Saussure's ideas through the Prague School linguists. And no, he didn't use structuralism to define jeans based on being not other pants—this was the anthropologist Lévi-Strauss.
Because structuralism emerged from linguistics, theorists from this school make a big deal about language. But what really is language, anyway? Structuralists define "language" super broadly: sure, language is that thing we do when we open our mouths and put some words together in a sentence. But for structuralists language can be any form of signaling—not just speech or words, but anything that involves communication. Red, yellow and green traffic lights? Yup, that's a language. National flags? Check. Our fancy Louis Vuitton bag that we wouldn't be caught dead without in public? Yes dahling, that's key to the language of "fashion": by sporting that bag we're signaling to everyone who stares after us in envy: "I'm stylish and I'm loaded."
For example, codes that represent all sorts of things permeate everything we do: "the performance of music requires complex notation...our economic life rests upon the exchange of labor and goods for symbols, such as cash, checks, stock, and certificates...social life depends on the meaningful gestures and signals of 'body language' and revolves around the exchange of small, symbolic favors: drinks, parties, dinners" (Richter 809).
Roman Jakobson was the most important of the linguists inspired by Saussure. He was a Russian linguist who ended up taking the techniques of examining language in little pieces—kind of like it's made of chemicals in a test tube—into the realm of what language actually meant. Thanks to Jakobson and other Prague School linguists, Saussure's ideas would make their way into universities the world over.
Lévi-Strauss took ideas from structural linguistics and applied them to culture. He argued that culture is also structured like a language: on the surface, cultures may seem different, but if we dig deep enough we'll find that they're organized by the same "rules" and structures. For instance, families may be defined differently in different cultures, but something common to cultures all over the world is a taboo on incest. Marry your mom? Kind of gross. Everyone agrees on that (well, everyone but , but that's the whole point of starring in a Greek tragedy). Anyway, this is one of the foundational "rules" that all cultures share.
But then, the 1940s happened, and that's when theorists and scholars from other fields started paying attention. Hey, they said. This stuff about language and structure is pretty interesting. And you know what? It kind of applies to everything. We can analyze familial patterns in terms of language, and can even give it the fancy term "kinship." We can analyze fashion trends in terms of language. We can even analyze what people eat in terms of language.
Structuralist thought is pretty central to the way we approach reading and talking about great books. When it comes to literature, structuralist theorists care about discovering the structures or rules that govern groups of literary works. So when we talk about the narrative elements of a novel, for example—things like plot, character, conflict, setting, point of view—we're borrowing the structuralist idea that there are certain principles or structures that can be found in all novels. The same goes for other types of literature. Whether we're talking about epic poetry, or tragic drama, or postmodern literature, we're assuming that there are certain "structures" that these texts have in common with one another. Like the green-means-go of traffic lights, but more relevant in a lit class.