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Archetypal Stories

In the Poetics, Aristotle (4th century BC) developed the earliest known model of narrative form, based on the ideas of thematic organisation, completeness of form (1450b), and the creating and resolution of tension (1455b). The possibility of being even more specific depends on the validity of identifying characters as types. Aristotle viewed dramatic character in terms of making choices (1450b), so a wrong choice is made because of some defect of character, or 'tragic flaw' (1453a).

The models of Aristotle and Propp have been taken to suggest that all literature may be analysed as the interplay between a limited number of factors involving character and narrative form. This was formalised by the semiotician A.J. Greimas (Sémantique Structurale, 1966), in his actantial model of narrative, in which overt characters (acteurs) embody deep-structure functions (actants), whose interrelations may provide the framework for all narrative. Similar narratological models have been suggested by other Structuralist theorists, and the notion has been developed further in recent critical theory.

Question: It is a much quoted maxim that there are only seven stories in fiction and that all others are based on them. Is it true, and what might these seven stories be?

Reply: I'm not sure about plots for stories, but plots for plays is something my father Denis Johnston, had a lot to say about. Originally he thought there were seven, but then he realised there are in fact eight:

  1. Cinderella - Unrecognised virtue at last recognised. It's the same story as the Tortoise and the Hare. Cinderella doesn't have to be a girl, nor does it even have to be a love story. What is essential is that the good is despised, but is recognised in the end, something that we all want to believe.

  2. Achilles - The Fatal Flaw, that is the groundwork for practically all classical tragedy, although it can be made comedy too, as in the old standard Aldwych farce. Lennox Robinson's The Whiteheaded Boy is the Fatal Flaw In reverse.

  3. Faust- The Debt that Must be Paid, the fate that catches up with all of us sooner or later. This is found in all its purity as the chase in O'Neill's The Emperor Jones. And in a completely different mood, what else is the Cherry Orchard?

  4. Tristan - that standard triangular plot of two women and one man, or two men and one woman. The Constant Nymph, or almost any French farce.

  5. Circe - The Spider and the Fly. Othello. The Barretts of Wimpole Street, if you want to change the sex. And if you don't believe me about Othello (the real plot of which is not the triangle and only incidentally jealousy) try casting it with a good Desdemona but a poor Iago.

  6. Romeo and Juliet - Boy meets Girl, Boy loses Girl, Boy either finds or does not find Girl: it doesn't matter which.

  7. Orpheus - The Gift taken Away. This may take two forms: either the tragedy of the loss itself, as in Juno and the Paycock, or it may be about the search that follows the loss, as in Jason and the Golden Fleece.

  8. The Hero Who Cannot Be Kept Down. The best example of this is that splendid play Harvey, made into a film with James Stewart.

These plots can be presented in so many different forms (tragedy, comedy, farce, whodunit) and they can be inverted. but they still form the basis of all good writing. The fault with many contemporary plays is simply that they do not have a plot.

Rory Johnston
London NW3

Though theories of narrative may be useful analytical tools, it is, perhaps, doubtful whether claims of archetypal status can accurately reflect the complexity of possible narrative. It may well be that a certain level of generalisation is possible, and that formal approaches may capture regularities within genres, but the notion that there is a limitation on the number of possible stories, or of possible character-types, appears unlikely. A restricted set of story-types might be due simply to literary tradition, and so be merely stereotypical, rather than archetypal.

George Steiner (After Babel, page 486) notes that 'the concept of archetypes is seductive', but that there is no known biological mechanism which could explain it, and the types normally cited are so culturally specific as to suggest a purely historical explanation.

It is probably relevant that the most successful applications of archetypes have been to the study of folktales, which tend to recycle a limited number of themes. Labelling these as 'archetypal' may not be the most productive way of advancing literary analysis, because it implies boundaries on what constitutes literature, or at least risks encouraging simplistic analyses of narrative. We may reflect that Hamlet and Waiting for Godot have been considered 'problem plays' because they do not fit into stereotypical categories, but that does not disbar them from being successfully performed.

Perhaps the most practical, and light-hearted, demonstration of the limitations of the archetypal approach is provided by the online proppian fairy tale generator at Brown University. This has now been taken offline, but can still be found on the Web Archive. It's simple to operate: tick the required functions, and a story of sorts will appear. (An identical copy is also posted at Bucharest, and a slightly different version is also available: links to these are given in Wikipedia's article on Propp.)

Even the simpler eight-plot model described above, combined with Propp's seven archetypal characters, may suggest ways in which the plots of films or books can be analysed, and new stories can be constructed.

  • See also World Mythology Course Material (by Michael Webster at GVSU, Michigan. Note especially the link to 'The Hero's Three-Part Journey'.)

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