Structuralism is an intellectual movement which began in France in the 1950's and is seen in the works of anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss. Simon Blackburn says "structuralism is the belief that phenomenon of human life are not intelligible except through their interrelations. These relations constitute a structure, and behind local variations in the surface phenomena there are constant laws of abstract culture" (Wikipedia on structuralism). One of the most basic ideas of structuralism is the belief that things cannot be understood in isolation, they have to be seen in the larger structures they are part of. So structuralism seeks the inter relationships through which meaning is produced. "In the literary theory structuralist criticism relates literary texts to a larger structure which may be a particular genre, a range of inter-textual connections, a model of universal narrative structure or a system of recurrent pattern or motif"(Wikipedia on structuralism in literary theory and criticism). Each text has a structure in it. So everything written has certain rules that govern the structure. In short a structuralist is to find out the fundamental units on which the text is constituted and the rules that govern these units.
An example to explain this is the study of fairy tales by Vladimer Propp. He found that fairy tales have, 'after an initial situation', 31 functions irrespective of languages. So when we see the construction princess – Stepmother - prince it brings to our mind the story of Cinderella and snow white. Both these stories have the same structure where princess and prince represent goodness stepmother represent evil. Since the prince and princess represent goodness a rule that govern the structure evolves that they must marry together.
Another example is the study of Judith Butler on Greek mythology of Oedipus. She has found a structure in this myth. She brings to our attention three characters, King Laius, Oedipus and Antigone. All these three had some illegal relations. King Laius had an illegal relation to a young boy. Oedipus has married his mother and Antigone daughter of Oedipus has buried her brother against the decree of the King out of her illegitimate love towards her brother. The society does not promote the illegitimate relation of man to man, illegitimate relation of parent to child and illegitimate relation between siblings. This illegitimate relation brought disaster to their family and the city. The rule that govern this structure is that the society allows only heterosexual relation. So in a structuralist approach there is a movement from the interpretation of individual texts to understand larger abstract structures that contain them.
Structuralism originated with a heavy dependence on Aristotelian science and 19th century science which tried to find out the building blocks of science by dividing atoms into subatomic patterns that is by going deep into its structures. Like that the structuralist also tried to understand the building blocks of language and found that phoneme and sememe are the foundations of language.
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. 3rd. New Delhi: Viva Books, 2012. Print.
Pinto, Anil. Class Lecture. Twentieth Century Critical Traditions. Christ University. Bangalore, India. 11 Nov. 2013.
Wikipedia contributors. "Structuralism." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopaedia. 02 Nov 2013.
(Notes of the lecture delivered on 11 November. Prepared by JobinT.James)