Literary Analysis – Structuralism

On this page is an analysis of The Gold-Bug from a structuralist view. Focusing predominantly on language, structuralism argues that words only hold specific value because of their relationships to other words. The meaning of signs (words) only stems from a comparison or contrasting of that sign against other signs, which are, based on the specific relationship, classified as either the signifier or the signified.

The signifier and signified are components of the sign, and neither can exist on their own. Saussure said that “language is a form and not a substance”, meaning that words are not named based on any physical quality, instead merely as a labeling service. For example, a table is called a “table” simply because it is not a chair. We need vectors to differentiate these items, because they are, by nature different. Their names however, are not. Is there anything especially “table-ish” about a table that it must be named so? No. Likewise, there is nothing essentially “chair” about a chair. What is “chair”? It cannot be defined, because it’s used only as a label to mark the physical object. To prove this point, consider the labels for chairs and tables were reversed. In this parallel universe, chairs are tables and tables are chairs. Is it possible to find any fault in that? It’s not, because it’s just as valid as the system we abide by in our world.

Sign – Treasure
Signifier (Symbol) – Buried chest
Signified (Concept) – Gold and jewels

Value – “Treasure” can be similarly compared with “money” and dissimilarly contrasted with “prize”. Money is often an aspect of treasure, yet treasure will usually be composed of other valuables as well, such as jewels and gems. A prize is a lump sum, like a treasure, but it is often won, not found. Treasures are hidden or kept off-limits, while prizes can be obtained by entering a contest.

Sign – Skull
Signified (Symbol) – Bone
Signified – Death; the ominous nature of a skeleton

Value – “Skull” can be compared with head and contrasted with “femur” (or any other bone in the body). Head and skull are similar in the fact that they both occupy the same region, with the skull actually part of the head as the feature that gives it structure. However, skull refers to the actual layout of bone, while head is merely everything above the neck. “Femur”, like skull, is inside the body and only visible after death. While both the femur and skull are part of the same collective unit, they share neither the same position, structure or purpose.

Sign – Master
Signifier (Symbol) – Servant
Signified (Concept) – Unheralded authority and dominance over another individual

Value – “Master” is loosely similar to “boss”, although it represents a being much more powerful. Both signs, however, portray people who are in charge of others. Master can dissimilarly be contrasted with “servant”, the person who he is in charge of. Although the master has absolute power and control over the servant, according to structuralism, one wouldn’t exist without the other.

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