Selden's Structuralist Method: Moving from Structuring Rules to Theses

Structuralism's "Historical Situation" and the Theories to Come:     Structuralism is one of the last great attempts by theory to Explain Everything according to a coherent and teachable system.  In that way it resembles New Criticism, which also emphasized a method which was supposed to yield "objective," "correct" results no matter who used it.  Structuralism's dependence on "binary oppositions" might have doomed it to imperfect success, but had it not been for structuralism, there would have been no post-structuralisms (Deconstruction, Feminism, late Marxism, etc.).   All of those theories developed by dismantling the explanations provided by Structuralist methods to demonstrate the incompleteness or bias of those explanations.  (They usually turned out not to be saying Structuralist conclusions were wrong, just incomplete in dangerous ways.)   In the right kind of literature, Structuralist analysis still can produce excellent, publishable results containing genuine insights about the text's operations.   Using any theory, in the end, seems to depend on using it on the right kind of text and in the right way, fully aware of one's decisions and their necessary costs.  Think about ways one might combine theoretical approaches.  Some of these theories are dependent on mutually exclusive assumptions (e.g., where is the poem?   what are meanings and how are they generated?), but when this is not the case, theoretical approaches can be combined to produce really powerful results.

        For instance, what about the reader's class- and ideologically-determined responses to the work, the text's ideological structure, itself, or the psychological subtext of the work, as sources of some of those binary oppositions?  In that case, the Structuralist portion of the analysis would be guided by Marxist or Psychoanalytic assumptions about the significance of the text's structuring categories.  In the summary and extension of Selden's thinking, I have anticipated a collaboration between Structuralism and Reader-Response theory, which we'll get to in two weeks--basically, I'm paying attention to how the deep structuring rules reveal themselves to audiences over the course of the play.

Selden's Structralism:    Raman Selden's adaptation of Jonathan Culler's "literary structuralism" (Practicing Theory and Reading Literature 56, itself an adaptation of Levi-Strauss) already has begun silently applying some Reader-Response methods in combination with Structuralism.  This can work even though Structuralism reads "synchronically," looking at the text all-at-once as a finished structure, and Reader-Response reads "diachronically," following the reader's halting progress from beginning to end of the work's "musical score."  Culler helps us see that "reading a story" is more than just assembling the syntax and diction into sentences--readers have to employ learned rules for how genres operate in order to understand what they are reading, and the literary work manipulates those learned rules to create beautiful, terrible, puzzling effects.  These two ways of interpretive reading complement each other if used carefully.  However, unlike Tyson, Selden does not actually offer the argument that would arise from the binary opposition clusters that he develops from Death of a Salesman, but that is because he treats as obvious what Structuralism would say about the consequences of these binary relationships (59).  In case those consequences are not obvious, here is how they appear to me in a thesis I derived from Selden's binaries:

I.  Selden says: "The Big Talk of the Lomans increases with their failure.  Conversely Charley's parental silence and Bernard's modesty coincide with Big Success.  'Taking interest' is negative, while 'taking no interest' is positive.  [ . . . ]  Moral failures correlate with career failures; the amount of talk or dream is in inverse proportion to career success" (59).  That's the first, essential Structuralist move, because it converts the vertical relations among the binary oppositions into their structuring rules, and it shows the binary pairs are related to each other by associations that imply their larger/deeper mythic significance.

II.  In the play's system of values, the privitives, or unprivileged terms, contains some things we conventionally believe are good, but links them to evil outcomes: "taking interest" and "dreams" are associated with "moral and career failures," and "talk."  This cluster of terms implies to the audience the rule that "disinterested, moral and careerist success can be had only by suppressing talk and by trading dreams for realities" [Arnie's extension of Selden's thinking].  The pathos of Willy's fall is produced by the audience's evolving realization that he misinterprets these structuring binaries, and that while in the grip of this misunderstanding, he is inevitably doomed, just like Oedipus or Agamemnon or Medea.  This is all the more affecting because of what Willy and his wife say when they talk about the essential function of the salesman in our culture, like the warrior or the queen in ancient Greece, and about the necessity to respect these men as human beings ("Attention must be paid...").  It is hard to argue with that, but while we're "paying attention," what we're attending to is doomed.  The play achieves its artistic success by transmitting the wisdom of those structuring rules about success and failure, and by making audiences witness their destructive effects upon a familiar and important member of our community.  That underlying structure produces the audience's sensation of tragedy.  That would be the explanation of the literary Structuralist thesis, which is the level of analysis your paper would need reach regarding the Hemingway story. 

        You have to go beyond merely setting out the binaries, and establishing the rules that govern them, in order to have "interpreted" the text using Structuralism, rather than merely describing the text.  You have to say something about the way it is made or the way its rules will be interpreted by its audience (Culler).  That is what English 200 sometimes calls the answer to your best readers' "So what?" question.  It derives its importance from what E.D. Hirsch called the "significance" of the poem's meaning, what it has to do with Miller's art, American culture in the 1950s (or 20??s), modernity and models of male adulthood, etc. etc.  This is an extremely important stage to reach, because without it, all you will have done is something perilously close to merely describing the work, as if (in a New Critical interpretation) you noted a thematic pattern of ironies involving "sight" in King Lear but failed to draw conclusions about what this pattern should mean for the play's audience.

[When you have an answer for the "So what?" question about your structural pattern and its governing rule with the Hemingway story, your "Working with Structuralism" paper would be done.  However, Selden takes the Structuralist rules and show us how the play assembles them diachronically for the audience.  This is more Reader-Response methodology than Structuralism, and it appears to draw on Marxist methods, as well, but it really helps explain the dramatic impact of the deep structure on the play's audience.]

III.  The play first offers us a view of "taking interest," and of "talk or dream" from Willy's point of view.  Audiences who believe in the "American Dream" plot pattern (self-improvement, Horatio Alger, even The Great Gatsby!) are primed to see the hero's successful triumph over his adversity by a combination of "interest" and "talk or dream" (i.e., Romance or Comedy).  The tragic "reversal of expectations" (which Miller manipulates because he knows we expect a tragedy--at least after opening night!) would have involved the hero's values remaining intact, so if the genre is Tragedy or Satire, the hero's world will be the cause of the negative outcome, but the "American Dream" will be allowed to remain intact as the hero's salvific faith.  That's the start of Selden's first Reader-Response move that builds upon his Structuralist analysis.

IV.  The intercut scenes involving Willy's relations with the haunting memory of his successful brother Ben, and with his sons, establish another binary system  which associates Willy's idea of success with death.  That explains the structural rule governing Willy's choice of suicide for the insurance money, rather than robbing a bank or even getting a different job.  The binary association of Willy's "American dream" idea of success with sterility explains the structuring rule which motivates Willy's, Happy's, and Biff's unproductive sexual relations with women who are not their wives, vs. Bernard's ordinary procreative success.  This association destroys the audience's ability to interpret the play as a simple advocacy of the "American Dream" ideology, and instead it connects the "Dream" itself to failure, sterility, and death.  The audience registers this fact simultaneously with its admission that it cannot turn away from Willy's destruction merely because he's a lowly salesman--"Attention must be paid."  Once we have assented to that command, we're caught in the tragic katharsis of identification with Willy's predicament.  That's Selden's second Reader-Response move. 

[Selden stops there, of course, but I've gotten seriously interested in this for my own reasons.  The play was produced 1949, in the year I was born, and I tend to identify with some of the issues that my father and Willy Loman, struggled with, at least in an abstract sense.  What follows is an attempt to show you how some compatible theories can be combined to extend our interpretive reach.  In this way, you could read a scholarly essay using Structuralism to generate a thesis about the primary source assigned in your literature class, and your paper could take the scholar's original thesis and build upon it, rather than echoing it, until you arrived at an entirely original conclusion, much like Selden's stage III and IV "Reader-Response" moves might have been produced in response to some other critic's Structuralist reading of the play's deepest rules.]

V.  Miller, writing in the late 1940s when the Capitalist West opposed the Communist East in the Cold War, has created not just the tragedy of the common man, but the tragedy of the "American Dream."  The play challenges audiences to identify with and then to reject the values Willy lives by, which also happen to be values that many in the audience believe in.  However, the play does not offer (in Charley and Bernard) an especially attractive alternative "Dream."  Their version of Capitalism, with its passions firmly in check and its procreative/business productivity completely channeled by the System, is associated with "never [taking] an interest in anything"--mental sterility empty of dreams or speech.  What is this play but "a dream in speech"?  Think about the "inverse" of Miller's play, something we might call not "Death of a Salesman" but "Life of a Lawyer"--five acts of meetings and speeches to the judge, but no dreams, no struggles, no passions, and no heroism Even Bernard's and Charley's language has been scrubbed of the poetic metaphors and similes which characterize the Loman family's discourse ("the woods are on fire!"; "it gets like bowling or something").  In the last act, as Willy goes off-stage toward his suicide, he takes with him his running conversation with the Dream of Ben's Dead Success.  The audience, trapped unexpectedly by their own involvement in the failed "sale" of Willy's dream, experiences first-hand the pity and terror Aristotle said were the hallmark of great tragedy, and the audience also leaves the theater wondering how to live in this new "dreamless" world.  Perhaps Miller was daunted by anti-Communist witch-hunting, or simply disbelieved the Marxist view of history, but his play ends on a stunningly barren note.  Miller could awaken his audiences from the "American Dream" but he could not give them a "New Dream" because he associates dreaming, itself, with danger.  In that way, the play is something of a failure even in its great success.  Literature sells dreams--Miller's Death of a Salesman is about the death of a poet, or of poetry, itself.  That's a late-Marxist move, with some Deconstructive tendencies thrown in.

Or at least that's where Selden might have taken the analysis.  Structuralism's scientific premises make it unusually good at detecting insights which can be used to make predictions.  I would want to check out interviews with Miller on his intentions (New Critics, avert your eyes!) and statements he may have made about Marxism, or about Capitalism, especially with respect to the play.  I would also want to see if his later work or earlier work offered any "slating" evidence that this system of structuring rules worked in his fundamental creative mentality.  If I'm right, some of them should be visible, but with changes, as LÚvi-Strauss predicted and as most authors' developmental history suggests.  Audience reaction to the play's opening night in New York, at the Morosco Theater, was extremely unusual.  The play went well until the final curtain.  The actors waited, and waited, but there wasn't a sound from the audience.  Was the play a flop?  The actors peeked through the curtain and saw that the people were still in their seats, talking about their lives.  Miller has been quoted as saying this was evidence of the play's quasi-mythic appeal--not "entertainment" in an ordinary sense.  That anecdote, a New Historicist move, would enable an introduction to set up the need to do a new Structuralist analysis of this much-studied play. 

        Fitting theoretically grounded interpretation into the ordinary rhetoric of academic papers is an important step when you move out of a class dedicated to studying theory, itself.  When you use any interpretive method other than revisionist New Criticism (close reading and finding themes), you owe your readers at least a brief explanation of why the theory you are using will show us something we have not seen yet.  Combine that with the survey of previous, or at least recent research on the MLA Bibliography and you have a nice "hook" to pull readers in.  Click here for a list of ways scholars use other scholars' research, and you'll see the introductory survey of previous work is number one on the list.