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Michael Riffaterre


  • Rifaterre was an influential French literary critic and theorist.
  • He finished college in France, and came to Columbia University to pursue his PHD there.
  • From 1974-1983 he eventually became the chairman in the French Department of Columbia University.
  • In 1982,  he became a university professor, was given the highest professorial rank and stayed devoted to his teachings until his death.
  • Rifaterre emphasized a generally structuralist approach and focused on the importance of understanding literature through it’s impact on it’s readers.
  • His favorite genre was poetry because to him it wouls “always remain the most clearly framed genre”.

Main Ideas:

-He would at the interextual syllepsis in literature.

-He focused on the  “perceiver and language code breaker” rather than the original text.

– Response Theory:

  • Decoding within a complex set of rules
  • Leading to the delight of recognition
  • Negotiation of a textual maze

– He believed a term referrs to “an operation of the reader’s mind”

-Intertextuality is a displacement of critical interest away from the author

-He believes that a fundamental characteristic of literary reading has to include approaching the text from the point of view of all possible relations one can make within it. Also, the reader’s own ideas/reaction to the text was important to take note of.

Although he was often called a structuralist, he would reject the typical idea of looking at the grammer, which structuralist where known to review in texts.

-He also didn’t agree with the idea that “all literary works of a given type share the same structure”. Instead, his belief on structure was that the importance in a literary work would come from the reader’s perception.

-He separates the reader’s own perspective in a literary work from the general elements readers usually pick up on when reading any text.

He believes there are two separate stages of reading:

  • First Stage – Where you read without having any information or context of the text. You read each word in order to make a connection to come up with a main idea.
  • Second Stage – After the reader is done doing a simple reading of the text, they start look for other “significance” of the work and come to this stage. In this stage, readers start comparing. Comparative reading also has two differents types, retroactive reading and intertextual reading.

-He rejected postructuralist “dispersal of meanings” because he claimed that the intertextual method that “guides the reader in his/her interpreting” was the only right way of reading.

Key Terms:

  1. Syllepsis: the use of a single construction that has two syntactic function
  2. Retroactive Reading: the way in which the reader keeps reviewing and comparing backwards, recognizing repetitions and variations upon the same structure(s)
  3. Intertextual Reading: finding similarities between one text to another

Important Work:

  • Le Style des Pléiades de Gobineau, essai d’application d’une méthode stylistique (1965)
  • Semiotics of Poetry (1978)

Work Cited:

Haberer, Adolphe. “Intertextuality in Theory and Practice.” Literatūra, vol. 49, no. 5, 2007, pp. 54–67., doi:10.15388/litera.2007.5.7934.

Martínez Alfaro, María Jesús. “Intertextuality: Origins and Development of the Concept.” Atlantis: Revista De La Asociación Española De Estudios Ingleses y Norteamericanos, vol. 18, no. 1-2, 1996, pp. 268–285.

“Professor Emeritus of French”. Michael Riffaterre (1924-2006). Columbia/ French. Columbia University

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