|Page Up |||Cambridge Academic Links: Content Page||| About ?|
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.
In a reply to a reader in the Notes and Queries section of The Guardian newspaper of 9 September 1991, the following listing of possible dramatic narratives was suggested by the son of the Irish playwright Denis Johnston (1901 - 1984, works including A Bride for the Unicorn, The Moon in the Yellow River, A Fourth for Bridge, The Golden Cuckoo, Nine Rivers from Jordan, The Tain, a Pageant).
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:
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.