Tips for First-Time Structuralist Interpreters
Remember, to do adequate work, you need find only one of the text's structuring associations of binary oppositions, but to find one you can explain clearly probably will require you to sketch a description of as many as you can find at first. As your analysis grows more robust, it will begin to explain relations among more sets of binary oppositions within the same structuring rule or myth. Experience has taught me that students' early attempts to do Structuralist analysis run into three predictable problems: mistaking the surface details of the text for deep structure so they get far too many superficial details in their stack; mixing structural functions by trying to associate functions named by different parts of speech (nouns with verbs vs. nouns with nouns, for instance); and failing to notice the missing half of a binary pair (i.e., the "NOT-" form of what is in the story).
The first tip should be obvious: make sure you're constructing binaries from the same parts of speech! Construct binary pairs by linking nouns with nouns, verbs with verbs, adjectives with adjectives, and adverbs with adverbs. Confusing the part of speech will cause you to misunderstand whether what you're describing is a "position" (noun), a "function" (verb), a "status" or "state" (adjective), or a "way of being/doing" (adverb). Because we assume that 215 students know the roles of the parts of speech (silly us?), we didn't explain that. Now do you see why you should have studied grammar?
In each binary system, decide which is the privileged or "higher" element, and arrange all of your binary oppositions in columns with the privileged halves on one side and the unprivileged halves on the other.
The second tip is more subtle: Structuralists don't "explain it all." They only explain what they believe to be the most important binary structures that govern some of the text's apparently arbitrary external features. If you have a huge list of binary oppositions, you're looking too much at the surface of things. Pull back and look at the abstract kind of thing or action or attribute you are describing. Remember that structuralism's claims of interpretive power rest upon having found deeply-buried structures that would have to be named by noun or verb values sufficiently abstract to begin taking some other, more specific representative textual features under its wing by the process of association. Move up another level of abstraction and try synonyms until you reach one that can capture the associated specific textual features and generate an accurate opposing term. Ask yourself what basic binary appears associated with the most important noun positions (e.g., male <--> female) or verb-actions (e.g., dreading <--> being dreaded) or adjective/adverb qualities (e.g., hard <----> soft ; loud <---------> soft). That will require you to ask what class or genre of thing the nouns and verbs fall into. Classes and genres are important to structural analysis because they can be called upon to do things in a wide range of similar contexts. For an example that is both practical and theoretical, think what a dramatist must do when the play has introduced its basic cast and the dramatic conflict must be discovered. We have to call upon a kind of function that can be played by many specific sorts of character, and even by inanimate things, but which takes the form of a "disrupter of expectations": a messenger, a villain, an unexpected friend, a letter, a weapon or a reward, for example. Were you to concentrate too much on the specific messenger or reward, you might miss the structural function it performed.
Once you have named a sufficiently abstract position, function, status or state, or way of being/doing so that you can cluster under them a set of specific elements from the text, reorganize your stack of associated binaries in a hierarchy from most abstract to least abstract, always keeping the privileged members of the binary oppositions together in the same column.
The third tip is the most subtle: don't assume that, because one half of the binary is not named in the text, that it is not present. Structuralists assume that we know by perceiving differences, and that requires that we simultaneously must be aware of a thing and its antithesis, what it is not. For instance, a child might not know that a green "unripe apple" was still an apple, though the opposite of a red "ripe apple," but adults always unconsciously can infer the existence (at one time) of a green apple when detecting a ripe red apple in the grocery bin--otherwise they couldn't pick the ripe ones or discriminate among nearly ripe ones. Therefore, some halves of binary oppositions are somewhat like ghosts haunting the text, perhaps all the more significant because they are not (cannot be?) named. (In the example of the "disrupter of expectations," the binary half would be the "restorer of expectations," perhaps a second messenger, a hero, a second friend, another letter, a shield or a price paid, but more likely mixed rather than matched [e.g., disruption of expectations by a messenger restored by some hero or reward which reinterprets the message, or disruption of expectations by a weapon restored by some kind of price invisibly paid].) What silences the missing half? Is it really gone, or has it been repressed? Freud famously wrote that the repressed, in psychology, always returns, transformed into symptoms (Moses and Monotheism, 1937). Levi-Strauss makes use of the same kind of reasoning when he discusses how successive forms of a myth develop mediating positions between previously irreconcilable binary oppositions.
The fourth tip is to pay attention to the significance of what Raman Selden calls the "privative" and "privileged" terms in your binary oppositions. Except in naturally occurring binaries, like electron spin or magnetic polarity, privilege and its opposite are awarded by assumptions that the Structuralist analyst can expose while describing the rules that appear to govern the binary oppositions in the text. On page 56, Selden gives an interestingly varied array of exemplary binaries that (following Culler) he says readers will call upon in order to attribute significance to a text. In what kinds of texts is the first term in the pair privileged and the second privative, and in what other texts are those positions reversed? "Appearance and reality, Heaven and Earth, court and town, country and city, body and soul, reason and feeling, high and low."
Generating a thesis to explain what's important about the binaries requires you to find things that are not obvious. Look for surprising vertical associations, ones which have no obvious logical connection. When cultures or artists are doing structural work, they may discover hidden binarism in the physical universe (e.g., "handedness" and symmetry in molecules or plants), they may invent binarism where none exists to solve some social or psychological problem (e.g., when people want to reproduce, who initiates the process?), or they may reverse or bend a naturally occurring binary by association (e.g., assigning "left-handedness" an unprivileged position to explain random misfortune or to assist quick decision making). Your goal as a Structuralist interpreter of literature is to use a binary opposition to explain what is happening beneath the surface of the text, and how that affects the surface details connected to it.
To review, you must simplify textual details to the abstract classes they belong to and discover their opposites. Then stack the binary pairs in hierarchical (highest abstraction at the top) associations. Make sure you've reached the highest level of abstraction in each pair, and provide the missing halves of binaries or discover where they're hidden if they have been suppressed but still leave traces in the text. Then look for the unexpected associations they create for signs of the author's/text's/culture's covert agenda. How would you do that with the examples below, drawn from "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife"? Note that when I started with them on this page, below, they were solitary binaries, and they were at different levels of abstraction. The hyperlinks take you to my "second draft," after I've performed the later steps, and started to look for what I can discover while looking down on the text from this high level of abstraction. The bottom comments on each hyperlink page are the "third draft," preparatory to writing something coherent which might sum up what I see in the inter-working of what we might call the "closure," "gender," and "maleness" binary sign systems. For your "Working With Structuralism" assignment, you only need to show how one binary system's operation reveals something about the text's/author's hidden agendas, but the next step in most structural analyses usually looks at several binary systems working together.
Does this help? Questions will be answered and suggestions will be welcomed! Below are some hyperlinked analyses of binary oppositions in "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife" from Hemingway's In Our Time. I started from three pairs of opposing terms that most readers should be able to see without difficulty.
openness <----------> closure
The Doctor's Wife <-----------> The Doctor
Dick Boulton <-------------> The Doctor