Formalism and Structuralism

One of the most dominant aspects of structuralism is the concept of binaries oppositions. Choose a short passage from any work of fiction and discuss the binaries that are present.  Remember when you discuss the binaries to also discuss the third mediatory figure that makes these binaries appear ‘natural’. 

The truth dawned on me: that Man had not remained one species, but had differentiated into two distinct animals: that my graceful children of the Upper-World were not the sole descendants of our generation, but that this bleached, obscene, nocturnal Thing, which had flashed before me, was also heir to all the ages. (45)

The enemy I dreaded may surprise you. It was the darkness of the new moon……. The Upper-World people might have once been the aristocracy, and the Morlocks their mechanical servants; but that had long since passed away. The Eloi, like the Carlovingian kings, had decayed to a mere beautiful futility. They possessed the earth on sufferance: since the Morlocks, subterranean for innumerable generations, had come at last to find the daylight surface intolerable………. I came out of this race age of ours, this ripe prime of the human race, when Fear does not paralyse and mystery has lost its terrors.  (54)

(H.G Wells, 1895, The Time Machine).





Mind/ soul
















The Time Machine
Male “these inhuman sons of men” (59)Civilisation “the noise of machinery” (51)
Power “once their mechanical servants”
Good “damned souls” (71)
Female “flowers, dancing”Wilderness/ Animalistic
“Their intellectual degradation” (59)
Servants “well-fatted cattle”
Dystopia “the same beautiful scene, abundant foliage, splendid palaces and magnificent ruins” (71)










Binary opposition is one of the most dominant aspects of Structuralism which, in language and thought, separates terms that are opposite in meaning. For two terms to be truly ‘binary’, the opposing classes must be mutually exclusive, “the means by which units of language have value or meaning; each unit is defined against what it is not” (Sassure).

While natural binaries exist in magnetic forces (N/S, E/W) or symmetry-asymmetry, many binaries are organised within a hierarchal structure (eg. Male-Female, Black-White, Order-Chaos, and Good-Evil). Upon deconstruction, the validity of the hierarchal order can exposed as contradictory as “the privileged member of the binary pair depends on the other, marginal, member but needs to deny this dependency to maintain its superiority”.

H. G Wells’s short story The Time Machine provides both natural and hierarchal binaries, which position readers to accept his ideology. Set in the future, the distinction between what is utopia and dystopia is revealed through a Structuralist hierarchal order. Day versus Night is paralleled with Good versus Evil and Male versus Female. The former of each pair would naturally be superior to the latter within patriarchal ideologies. Wells reinforces this structure by providing the binary opposite of the Passive and Active, suggesting that passivity is subordinate to activity. Passivity, often associated with femininity is seen in the genteel-natured Eloi (Weena), is shown as subordinate to masculinity/ activity, personified by the barbaric Morlocks: “the Eloi possessed the earth on sufferance” (54).

(Literary Studies 2011)

However, this passage shows an obvious contradiction of the cultural perspectives of the reader’s ‘natural’ way of thinking. While the Eloi are passive and feminine (“beautiful futility” 54), they are also good, dwell during the daytime and exist peacefully together in a version of utopia:“the same beautiful scene, abundant foliage, splendid palaces and magnificent ruins” (71). The traditionally preferred masculine Morlocks are presented as evil, wild, and represent negative dystopian fears of cannibalism and mechanization. The central protagonist, the scientist, acts as the mediatory figure, who creates the arch between these gender binaries as masculine and active yet preferring the utopian Eloi.

The scientist exposes the binary system as an unstable site of meaning: as a male he expresses his disgust of the active masculine Morlocks as evil, immoral, and wild: “this bleached, obscene, Nocturnal Thing” (54). While the scientist himself is active and masculine to protect the female Eloi, Weena, in the traditional phallocentric system, his passivity and genteel nature proves that the meaning is not determinate, fixed and reliable in a black and white system of order.

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