“What are the gains of structuralism? To begin with, it represents a remorseless demystification of literature. It is less easy after [A. J.] Greimas and [Gerard] Genette to hear the cut and thrust of the rapiers in line three, or feel that you know just what it feels like to be a scarecrow after reading The Hollow Men. Loosely subjective talk was chastized by a criticism which recognized that the literary work, like any other product of language, is a construct, whose mechanisms could be classified and analysed like the objects of any other science. The Romantic prejudice that the poem, like a person, harboured a vital essence, a soul which it was discourteous to tamper with, was rudely unmasked as a bit of disguised theology, a superstitious fear of reasoned enquiry which made a fetish of literature and reinforced the authority of a ‘naturally’ sensitive critical elite. Moreover, the structuralist method implicitly questioned literature’s claim to be a unique form of discourse: since deep structures could be dug out of Mickey Spillane as well as Sir Philip Sidney, and no doubt the same ones at that, it was no longer easy to assign literature an ontologically privileged status. With the advent of structuralism, the world of the great aestheticians and humanist literary scholars of twentieth century Europe — the world of Croce, Curtius, Auerbach, Spitzer and Wellek — seemed one whose hour had passed. These men, with their formidable erudition, imaginative insight and cosmopolitan range of allusion, appeared suddenly in historical perspective, as luminaries of a high European humanism which pre-dated the turmoil and conflagration of the mid-twentieth century. It seemed clear that such a rich culture could not be reinvented — that the choice was between learning from it and passing on, or clinging with nostalgia to its remnants in our time, denouncing a ‘modern world’ in which the paperback has spelt the death of high culture, and where there are no longer domestic servants to protect one’s door while one reads in privacy.
The structuralist emphasis on the ‘constructedness’ of human meaning represented a major advance. Meaning was neither a private experience nor a divinely ordained occurrence: it was the product of certain shared systems of signification. The confident bourgeois belief that the isolated individual subject was the fount and origin of all meaning took a sharp knock: language pre-dated the individual, and was much less his or her product than he or she was the product of it. Meaning was not ‘natural’, a question of just looking and seeing, or something eternally settled; the way you interpreted your world was a function of the languages you had at your disposal, and there was evidently nothing immutable about these. Meaning was not something which all men and women everywhere intuitively shared, and then articulated in their various tongues and scripts: what meaning you were able to articulate depended on what script or speech you shared in the first place. There were the seeds here of a social and historical theory of meaning, whose implications were to run deep within contemporary thought. It was impossible any longer to see reality simply as something ‘out there’, a fixed order of things which language merely reflected. On that assumption, there was a natural bond between word and thing, a given set of correspondences between the two realms. Our language laid bare for us how the world was, and this could not be questioned. This rationalist or empiricist view of language suffered severely at the hands of structuralism: for if, as [Ferdinand de] Saussure had argued, the relation between sign and referent was an arbitrary one, how could any ‘correspondence’ theory of knowledge stand? Reality was not reflected by language but produced by it: it was a particular way of carving up the world which was deeply dependent on the sign-systems we had at our command, or more precisely which had us at theirs.”
— Terry Eagleton, “Structuralism and Semiotics,” Literary Theory: An Introduction