Take Away Concepts 1
Structuralism: Saussure, Culler, Barthes
Structuralist theories about how linguistic signs function can be used to analyze literature
Literary texts are linguistic constructs.
Literature participates in, shapes, and is molded by culture – and culture, as Culler and
Barthes note, functions as does language.
Literature is a signifying system of signs (and thus functions as do linguistic systems)
insofar as its referent (or “meaning”) is at a distance from it.
Barry says for eg. “A signifying system…is a very wide concept, it means any organized and
structured set of signs which carried cultural meanings” (45).
Linguistic signs are arbitrary, and the meanings we often accept as “natural” are in fact only a
convention. A particular word or phrase might recur in a literary work – its meaning in the text
can be considered by thinking of it as a sign with an arbitrary link with the referent or a signifier
with a random link to the signified. How does approaching the text through the arbitrary nature
of linguistic signs shift or change meanings of literary work?
Is there any word or phrase that is significant or recurring in MB that could be usefully
considered in the context of the arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign where signifiers are
not intrinsically connected to the signifier but only depend about context or convention?
One eg. is the word “marriage”: For instance, Pinkerton’s “marriage” is a cultural sign; its
social signifier is the ceremony at the beginning of the opera. But what exactly is the
signified? The tragedy at the center of the opera can be seen as a result of the
fundamentally arbitrary nature of the link between signifier and signified, where meaning
is maintained only through the force of community contract and convention. The signifier
– the ceremony – is linked to a different signified for Pinkerton (a temporary bond of
convenience) than the signified attributed to it by Butterfly (eternal union).
Linguistic signs are relational: they “mean” only in relation to others. Thus:
Any literary text creates meaning only in relation to the larger structures of genre and
literary convention that govern it. A poem made of fourteen lines can only be
‘understood’ if we know what “sonnet” is; the heightened emotionality and replacement of dialogue with singing in opera only has meaning within conventions of genre. Also, in
other cases, departures from convention of genre – such as Modernist, stream of
consciousness novels such as Joyce’s – can be understood only in relation to the
conventions of the 19 century realist novel which he displaces.
How does looking at MB in terms of the generic convention and pattern help us
‘understand’ what is means and, more significantly perhaps, how it means?
Another kind of linguistic “relationality” – Meaning of linguistic signs depends on
the establishment of dyads or binaries – we do not understand “dark”
independent of “light”. Binaries or dyads are central to how literary works make
meaning. We cannot understand “hero” without its binary “villain.” Often a
character is pitted against another who is his or her “opposite” – only then can
authorial meaning be conveyed. If the character is seen in isolation, and not as a
part of the implicit binary, then he/she fails as a sign, fails to create meaning.
Also, literary work have all sorts of other binaries – in settings (for eg.
outside/open sea vs. inside/prison like house in Madame Butterfly), value
systems (Eastern superstition vs Western rationalism) etc. which are
fundamental to the meanings attributed to a literary text.
Consider how your understanding of MB is dictated by the various kinds of binaries
around which the opera is structured?
Relationality of language also works via the paradigmatic process, the process in
which each sign is “like-but-not quite the same” as another sign. Different
elements in a work can be seen as occupying a paradigmatic chain – for eg.
Suzuki only makes sen