Literary competence is essentially a reader’s ability to internalize a system of literary rules and codes taught in their society, the system of rules and codes “that tell us how to make meaning when we read literature” (Tyson 230). In America literary competence would be determined by how much of the Western literary tradition the reader has internalized. Reading competence is much more than reading literacy, it stretches into the underlying structure of literature, and into genres and narrative. The many rules and codes are as arbitrary as words themselves, generating meaning from a society over a specific period of time. A competent reader is one who can make sense of literature the way society would hope us to, and to understand the significance of any given text.

Structuralism’s aim is to understand “the fundamental structures that underlie all human experience and, therefore, all human behavior and production” (209). So let’s take a look at the five structural components described by Jonathan Culler.

The convention of distance and impersonality is the mental adjustment the reader makes when “we know we’re entering a fictional world, and this creates a fictional distance, so to speak, that carries with it a kind of impersonality that would not be present if we knew we were reading a factual account of a human being’s personal experience” (231). In other words, we read fiction and literature differently than we read other things.

Naturalization is the process the reader employs to transform the “rhyme; meter; divisions into stanzas, acts, or chapters; and interior monologues,” etc, into terms that make sense to real life; it’s “the process by which we transform the text so that the strangeness of its literary form…makes sense in terms of the world we live in” (231).

The rule of significance is the attention we pay to a literary work because we assume it deserves a higher level of scrutiny than other writings. Maybe there is more meaning in the text than is at first understood, and therefore it requires a closer examination.

The rule of metaphorical coherence is that the two components of the metaphor “have a consistent relationship within the context of the work” (232).

The rule of thematic unity simply means there must be a main point, or coherent theme to the literary work. Thematic unity includes “(1) theme as a binary opposition (good versus evil), (2) theme as the resolution of a binary opposition (good conquers evil), and (3) theme as the displacement of a binary opposition by a third term (good-versus-evil is absorbed by an all-encompassing Nature[)]” (232).

Works Cited

Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Originally published at on April 14, 2012.

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