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Structuralism and Narrative

Trevor Pateman

Abstract: A very short introduction to structuralist accounts of fairy tales, myths and narrative fiction in the work of Vladimir Propp, Claude Levi -Strauss, and others

`Every novel has a beginning, a middle and an end. But not necessarily in that order.' Thus it seems [but I cannot get Google to confirm it] Somerset Maugham, an unlikely structuralist but in this sentiment entirely at one with structuralist theorists of narrative, including the first one, Aristotle, to whose Poetics Somerset Maugham, if it is he, alludes (see Aristotle, On the Art of Poetry, Chapter 7).

Any structuralist account of narrative will distinguish between the subject matter, events or history narrated and the manner of their narration, fabulation or discursive rendering. But if structuralism could tell us no more than Somerset Maugham told, it would be nothing to become excited about.

In fact, structuralists have been able to tell us quite a lot more. For example, in the Morphology of the Folktale (1928), Vladimir Propp set out to show for a group of 150 Russian folk tales that all of them could be generically classified in terms of thirty one narrative functions distributed among seven dramatis personae. Each story is comprised of a subset of the thirty one functions occurring - remarkably enough - in an invariant order. This interesting classificatory achievement becomes fascinating as soon as it is realized that Propp's empirically derived classification appears to fit an indefinite number of stories - oral, written, enacted or filmed - and from diverse cultures.

Little Red Riding Hood [in some versions : Little Red Cap] for example, begins in a way which, some ordering problems aside, you will have no difficulty in assigning to the first eight of Propp's functions, as they follow on from the delineation of what Propp calls the `initial situation':

  1. One of the members of a family absents himself/herself from home.
  2. An interdiction [prohibition] is addressed to the hero.
  3. The interdiction is violated.
  4. The villain makes an attempt at reconnaissance.
  5. The villain receives information about the victim.
  6. The villain attempts to deceive the victim in order to take possession of the victim or their belongings.
  7. The victim submits to deception and thereby unwittingly helps the villain.
  8. The villain causes harm or injury to a member of the family.

Propp's attempt to specify a narrative structure underlying diverse surface content has suggested teaching strategies for creative writing which extend to the writing of stories techniques usually confined to poetry. Thus, instead of giving a story title, teachers can offer Propp's functions as a story structure, rather as they might give the structure of a haiku or a sonnet as the form in which a poem is to be written.

However, Propp's account is not without its problems, and it suggests some immediate questions.

One problem concerns vagueness in the specification of functions, so that it is a matter of interpretation whether something in a story is to count as, say, the violation of an interdiction. Not all cases are as clearcut as Little Red Riding Hood straying from the path when she has been told by her mother not to do so.

One question arising is why there should be precisely thirty one functions and seven dramatis personae. For an orally narrated tale, it is reasonable to suggest that hearers can hold in their heads only about seven characters (see G. A. Miller, `The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two'), but thirty one has no obvious explanation, and other structuralists, like A.J. Greimas, have sought to rationalize it to a more magical number.

Among later structuralists, the most famous, Claude Levi-Strauss, believes that underlying structures - whether in kinship systems, myths, rituals or objects such as masks - are evidence for the way the mind works. He assumes, like Chomsky, that the human mind always and everywhere works in the same ways. For Levi-Strauss, following in the footsteps of another linguist, Roman Jakobson, the leading idea is that the human mind operates in terms of binary oppositions and that such oppositions structure all the phenomena of human culture. Myths, for example, provide an imaginary resolution of the contradictions into which our binary ways of thinking lead us. So the Oedipus myth is a meditation on the conflict between a society's belief that human beings spring from the earth (autochthony) and the evident fact that they are born of the union of man and woman. The Oedipus myth makes sense of this opposition by putting it into parallel with the opposition between overvaluing blood relations (Oedipus's incest) and undervaluing them (Oedipus's patricide). (See Levi - Strauss's essay, `The Structural Study of Myth', for a full exposition.)

Binary oppositions are at work in plastic art too. In one of his most accessible books, The Way of the Masks, Levi -Strauss seeks to show for the masks of the Indian tribes of the northwest coast of North America that those masks which are plastically similar in different tribes are linked to myths with opposite meanings, whereas masks which are opposite are associated with similar myths. So the Kwakiutl mask of Dzonokwa and the Cowichan Swaihwe mask are plastically opposites: one is black, the other white; one has sunken, the other protuberant eyes; one has no tongue, the other a noticeably large one; etc. But they are linked to similar myths: both Dzonokwa and Swaihwe are the source of riches. [There is a longer discussion of The Way of the Masks elsewhere on this website].

These thumbnail sketches from Levi Strauss show the characteristic structuralist concern with relational (diacritical) rather than inherent or intrinsic meanings. Neither Propp nor Levi Strauss tries to locate the meaning, significance or essence of a tale, myth or mask by reflecting, phenomenologically or psychoanalytically, on its own particular and peculiar properties. Rather, they work at meaning by locating each story or artifact in a set (what Levi-Strauss calls a `transformation set' ) such that each individual element stands in differential, contrastive or oppositional relation to every other.

There is a standard structuralist source and account of how and why this should be so which derives from the work of the linguists Ferdinand de Saussure, Nikolai Trubetzkoy and Roman Jakobson. According to them, it is in the nature of languages as conventional systems of arbitrary signs that they can only generate meanings or values diacritically and not intrinsically. Thus the value of the phoneme /p/ in English is defined by the other phonemes of English and not by any intrinsic properties of /p/. Likewise, it is claimed for semantic units that the value of (say) Sheep is established in relation to Lamb, Ewe, Ram, Mutton, etc. and not intrinsically. Any textbook of structuralism, such as Terence Hawkes' Structuralism and Semiotics, emphasizes such points as defining what structuralism is all about.

This whole approach is fraught with problems. Phonemes are very different from semantic units, which have a reference as well as a sense, such that it seems untrue to say that they have no substantive meaning of their own. A less mysterious account of diacritical and differential meaning might be given by saying that the diacritical and differential on the plane of structure (what Saussure calls `synchrony') is the product of real dialogue on the plane of history (what Saussure calls `diachrony'). Let me elaborate.

Structuralism is, by definition, an ahistorical, synchronic approach to the study of the products of cultural endeavour, considered independently of their authors, consumers and circumstances of production. As such, it has been the target of reproaches by Marxists and others. Famously, Sartre and Levi-Strauss argued over the very question of structure versus history: see Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason and the last chapter of Levi-Strauss' La Pensee Sauvage. But structure and history are mutually necessary, not mutually exclusive. Stories, myths, masks or novels develop historically, each creator working in a context established by predecessors, contemporaries, models and rivals with whose work his or her own is intertextual or dialogic (to use the language of Julia Kristeva and Mikhail Bakhtin). The outcomes are sets of works internally related by differences and distinctions. In an important sense the audience (reader, listener) always encounters such differences ahistorically, as if the works had no history, and for that reason the structuralist approach is validated. When, for example, I read a novel `for pleasure', I do in large part read it without regard to its history and hence in such a way that the text is placed, though not quite in the way T.S. Eliot thought, in a simultaneous order of other texts, so that after my reading I might want to compare Achebe's Things Fall Apart with Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge or Empire of the Sun with Henry James' What Maisie Knew. Any particular comparison may be inept or far-fetched, but no logical howler is made in making it. In my own mind, though I only partly realise it, all the novels I have ever read form a sort of transformation set.

But to bring in to the narrative the reader, the audience, in this way is a most unstructuralist thing to do. The scientific quest of structuralists from Propp through to Gerard Genette (in Narrative Discourse) is for structures considered independently of writers and readers alike, structures which are at work whether we know it or not: It is not we who think in myths, says Levi-Strauss in a brilliant thumbnail of his approach, but myths which think in us, and unknown to us. This strongly realist and essentialist element in structuralism is one of its aspects from which, in works like Roland Barthes' S/Z, Post-Structuralism was a reaction. But in my view, such realism and essentialism is fundamentally correct, however hard it may be to get the story right.

Some Key Figures for Structuralism

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) Swiss linguist and inspiration for modern structuralism through his posthumous Course in General Linguistics, which sought to complement historical, diachronic linguistics with a cross-sectional, static or synchronic linguistics. For an introduction see Jonathan Culler's Saussure.

Victor Shklovsky (1893-1984) Prolific Russian writer and leading figure in the Russian formalist movement 1913-1930, originating the idea - later appropriated by Brecht - that art does its work by creating estrangement. He described Tristram Shandy as the most typical novel in world literature. For an introduction, see Tony Bennett, Formalism and Marxism and on this website the essay on Formalism.

Roman Jakobson (1896-1982) Another prolific Russian who eventually reached the USA during the Second World War, where Levi-Strauss encountered him. He wrote and lectured in many languages. See his Six Lectures on Sound and Meaning and the famous essay, `Linguistics and Poetics'.

Vladimir Propp (1897-1970) Russian folklorist, known almost entirely for his Morphology of the Folktale, but author of other works, some now translated as Theory and History of Folklore.

Claude Levi-Strauss (1910-) Anthropologist, for many years Professor at the College de France and the key figure in establishing structuralism in France. For an introduction see Edmund Leach, Levi-Strauss and on this website the essay on The Way of the Masks.

Roland Barthes (1915-1980) French writer and critic influenced by Sartre and Brecht as well as Saussure. From his early Marxist-Structuralist Mythologies he progressed through Post-Structuralism (S/Z) to autobiography (Camera Lucida). He was never an academic critic, much more the marginal, tubercular intellectual. [ He was my Director of Studies when I spent a year in France as a graduate student (1971-72)]. For an introduction see Jonathan Culler, Barthes and on this website my essay "How is Understanding an Advertisement Possible"

Website version published 2005. Lightly revised from the essay of the same title appearing in Trevor Pateman, Key Concepts: A Guide to Aesthetics, Criticism and the Arts in Education(London: Falmer Press 1991)