Emily Balsamo

The Lonely World of Vladimir Propp


Illustration by Naomi Bardoff

I recently came across an old copy of Vladimir Propp’s The Morphology of the Folktale in my parents’ house. As a person with a strong interest in morphology and a moderate interest in folktales, I eventually read it, after carrying it around for a few weeks. In this text, Propp’s aim was to break down the narrative structures of a corpus of Russian folktales into elemental parts, eventually creating a system that can produce formulae that represent the plot of each tale. In the early chapters, Propp describes the multitudes of tables and the sheer bulk of data that he worked with. Not only does he acknowledge the eccentricity of his method, but he also goes to great lengths to smack talk the methods of others, specifically their emphasis on theme, saying, “If division into categories is unsuccessful, division according to theme leads to total chaos.” Reading this, I imagined a John Nash character maniacally plastering tables and charts on the walls while cursing his contemporaries in a secluded log cabin in a snowy birch forest.

What is Propp’s interest in doing this? He describes his work as an end in itself; he believed that such a system that produces formulae from folklore was inherently academically valuable and that his methodology would spread to other fields. While his work has been cited and is indisputably influential, later academics have viewed it solely as a point of departure. Even the author of the book’s preface, Louis A. Wagner, acknowledges the text’s deficiency standing alone.

Propp falls within the tradition of structural analysis, his main contemporary being Claude Lévi-Strauss. Within the field of structuralism, there exist two main methods of analysis; syntagmatic and paradigmatic, with our two heroes, Propp and Lévi-Strauss, adhering to these two methods respectively. Syntagmatic analysis aims to codify the linear structure of the narrative, while paradigmatic analysis takes what Propp would designate as a thematic approach. Like linguistic syntax, these narrative morphemes that Propp produces come together like words (or combined morphemes) to form a narrative sentence. The order here is key, and context is irrelevant. Just as a syntactician would ignore the age, sex, or wardrobe of a speaker when recording his or her speech, Propp has no patience for circumstance in his analysis. In fact, in a rather bold statement in his introduction, he explains, “We shall not speak at present about the historical study of the tale, but shall speak only about the description of it, for to discuss genetics, without special elucidation of the problem of description as it is usually treated, is completely useless.” Elucidation of the problems of description here refers to the study and understanding of texts; what all literary theorists, folklorists and semioticians strive to achieve. As Propp understood this problem, there needed to be syntagmatic, scientific analysis relating to narrative structure. He was the first person to employ this method of elucidation of the problems of description, and he never delved into genetics; does this mean that at the time this text was written, Propp considered the existing discussion of folklore to be completely useless? Cue the scene of the man in the woods.

Lévi-Strauss’s paradigmatic analysis took a more holistic approach to the text. In “La Structure et la Forme,” he explains, “For structuralism there is no such difference between the form and the content: there is no such category of abstract, on the one hand, and a category of the concrete, on the other. The form and the content have one and the same nature and therefore they both undergo the analysis.” For Lévi-Strauss, form is defined through its content, but there is no form of structure, i.e. structure is not something that could be reduced to a definite quantity of constant elements. Conversely, according to Propp “the quantity of the functions is limited.”

From his formidable corpus of folktales, Propp did in fact find only a limited number of functions, 31:

  1. A member of a family leaves home (the hero is introduced);
  2. An interdiction is addressed to the hero (‘don’t go there’, ‘go to this place’);
  3. The interdiction is violated (villain enters the tale);
  4. The villain makes an attempt at reconnaissance (either villain tries to find the children/jewels etc; or intended victim questions the villain);
  5. The villain gains information about the victim;
  6. The villain attempts to deceive the victim to take possession of victim or victim’s belongings (trickery; villain disguised, tries to win confidence of victim);
  7. Victim taken in by deception, unwittingly helping the enemy;
  8. Villain causes harm/injury to the hero’s family member (by abduction, theft of magical agent, spoiling crops, plunders in other forms, causes a disappearance, expels someone, casts spell on someone, substitutes child etc, commits murder, imprisons/detains someone, threatens forced marriage, provides nightly torments); Alternatively, a member of the hero’s family lacks something or desires something (magical potion etc);
  9. Misfortune or lack is made known, (hero is dispatched, hears call for help, etc. Alternatively victimized hero is sent away, freed from imprisonment);
  10. Seeker agrees to, or decides upon counter-action;
  11. Hero leaves home;
  12. Hero is tested, interrogated, attacked, etc., preparing the way for his/her receiving magical agent or helper (donor);
  13. Hero reacts to actions of future donor (withstands/fails the test, frees captive, reconciles disputants, performs service, uses adversary’s powers against them);
  14. Hero acquires use of a magical agent (directly transferred, located, purchased, prepared, spontaneously appears, eaten/drunk, help offered by other characters);
  15. Hero is transferred, delivered or led to whereabouts of an object of the search;
  16. Hero and villain join in direct combat;
  17. Hero is branded (wounded/marked, receives ring or scarf);
  18. Villain is defeated (killed in combat, defeated in contest, killed while asleep, banished);
  19. Initial misfortune or lack is resolved (object of search distributed, spell broken, slain person revived, captive freed);
  20. Hero returns;
  21. Hero is pursued (pursuer tries to kill, eat, undermine the hero);
  22. Hero is rescued from pursuit (obstacles delay pursuer, hero hides or is hidden, hero transforms unrecognizably, hero saved from attempt on his/her life);
  23. Hero, unrecognized, arrives home or in another country;
  24. False hero presents unfounded claims;
  25. Difficult task proposed to the hero (trial by ordeal, riddles, test of strength/endurance, other tasks);
  26. Task is resolved;
  27. Hero is recognized (by mark, brand, or thing given to him/her);
  28. False hero or villain is exposed;
  29. Hero is given a new appearance (is made whole, handsome, new garments etc);
  30. Villain is punished;
  31. Hero marries and ascends the throne (is rewarded/promoted).

And only 8 character types (dramatis personae):

  1. The villain: struggles against the hero.
  2. The dispatcher: character who makes the lack known and sends the hero off.
  3. The (magical) helper: helps the hero in the quest.
  4. The princess or prize: the hero deserves her throughout the story but is unable to marry her because of an unfair evil, usually because of the villain. The hero's journey is often ended when he marries the princess, thereby beating the villain.
  5. Her father: gives the task to the hero, identifies the false hero, marries the hero, often sought for during the narrative. Propp noted that functionally, the princess and the father cannot be clearly distinguished.
  6. The donor: prepares the hero or gives the hero some magical object.
  7. The hero or victim/seeker hero: reacts to the donor, weds the princess.
  8. False hero: takes credit for the hero’s actions or tries to marry the princess.

Each of these functions and dramatis personae contain several subcategories, and come together as formulae through complicated syntactic representation. Here is a taste:

Through painstaking notation, Propp manages to be extremely specific regarding sub-functions, character type, and most impressively, temporal syntax. Through his tailor-made system of morpho-syntactic notation, he accounts for linear, non-linear and parallel motion. Again, in syntagmatic analysis such as this, order is paramount.

Propp’s work, specifically the designation of the aforementioned functions, is dependent on and necessitates repetition. While Lévi-Strauss’s paradigmatic analysis is speculative and deductive and unfit for replication, Propp’s work depends upon continuity, non-unique structures and recurrence. The result, then, is something that can be easily replicated. In the title and introduction, he makes an analogy to linguistics, pairing his plot functions with morphemes. A morpheme, an indivisible meaningful unit of a word, is by definition non-unique. For example, ‘book’ is a non-divisible part of the words ‘book,’ ‘bookshelf’ and others. If I were to fabricate a cluster of phonemes, ‘ghak’ for example, it would not become a morpheme in English until it acquired a semantic meaning and was validated through repetitive use. None of Propp’s functions appear in only one tale from his corpus; if this were the case he would broaden the description of the function to include more tales.

Lack of uniqueness is not only necessary to define Propp’s functions, but it becomes a feature of each tale. For example, a 17th-century stage production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and the 1996 film adaptation would share the same Proppian formula, though there are clear differences. Propp is only interested in what is shared, not what is exceptional. Lévi-Strauss concluded, “Formalism destroys its own object. Formalism drove Propp to a conclusion that there is only one and the same tale.” Propp would not object; he wrote that “all the functions of the fairy-tale belong to one and the same narration,” which looks to be a reconstruction of the original narration.

Propp, who fancied himself a hard scientist, so much focuses on the idea of narrative structure that he eschews any discussion of ‘theme,’ explicitly stating that a discussion of this topic is inherently unscientific. In his distinctive fashion of not shying from insult, he stated, “A theme is usually defined in the following fashion: a part of the tale is selected (often haphazardly, simply because it is striking), the preposition “about” is added to it, and the definition is established.” His problem with this method of categorization is the haphazard element, a word conjuring the most negative connotations within Propp’s world of scientific methodology. He seems to think that what strikes the reader is what the reader takes away as a distinguishing point of the text; isn’t this generally true? If you were to ask a friend what his or her favorite book is about (another curse word in Propp’s mind), he or she would respond with a thematic description of what struck him or her most. Why does Propp find this attitude to be so impertinent? As he discusses in the early chapters of Morphology, he is the only person in his time who feels this way. This begs the question; what would Propp say if someone were to casually ask him what his favorite book was about? Would he respond with a systematic list of functions in syntactic order, modifying dramatis personae variables?

From the aforementioned functions, someone from Lévi-Strauss’s anthropological tradition would deduce a monarchy in Russia’s history by the existence of a princess, a belief in magic, and the importance of marriage, among other cultural features. Propp expressed no interest in such deduction, though he would likely not disapprove of the use of his categorization as a basis for further research. Lévi-Strauss used structuralism and formalism to anthropological ends; Propp was simply not interested in understanding culture through his work.

Propp was born into a German family in St. Petersburg, where he lived and worked his entire life. His corpus was of Russian folktales, but he made little effort to specify that his work relates only to the folktales of his country (Russia) and made no mention whatsoever of his heritage (German). He was searching for universals, a system that would work cross-culturally, or even independent of culture. Propp lacks interest in culture and history to such an extent that when discussing his corpus, he claimed that his study would vary little if he had studied the Arabian Nights rather than Russian folktales. A bold claim, though it should be noted that the last sections of Homer’s Odyssey closely follow functions 23-31.

In the first few chapters of Morphology, where Propp outlines his methods and the academic context of his work, he goes to great lengths to defend the necessity of his own work, often at the expense of others. Towards the end, he briefly mentions that his work could be the basis of historical study, though historical study without thorough narrative categorization is useless. Why does he only briefly mention this? Any person with an interest in folklore would be far more interested in historical study than narrative categorization, though Propp treats the subject as a mildly interesting potential product of his work, not worthy of lengthy discussion. To return to the question I have been circling, what is the point of Propp’s work, both in his own perception and in the reality of scholarship? The world of Propp and reality are sharply contrasting here, as Propp alone values his work as an end in itself. He aims to categorize narrative as Linnaeus categorized biology (he actually claims that we were in a “pre-Linnean” phase of folklore studies prior to his research). However, Linnaeus’s taxonomy, which aimed to systematically link living beings by descent and type, is arguably of limited intellectual interest in itself (Propp would disagree), though it has great biological applications. Just as Linnaeus’s work has been seen as more of a means than an end, Propp’s work, specifically the text at hand, has been a point of departure for many semioticians, anthropologists, and linguists, though none of the academics treat his methods as he had hoped. Did Propp imagine future generations making gigantic charts to codify literature? Yes. Did they? Sort of.

At a superficial glance, Roland Barthes’s work seems very similar to Propp’s. In “An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives,” Barthes divides texts into three levels: functions, actions and narrative. However, Barthe’s concept of function differs greatly from that of Propp, as Barthes’s concept of function is something Propp would eschew as a mere unscientific theme or motif, haphazardly drawn from the text. Barthes also tried his hand at folklore analysis, with his 1957 text Mythologies. Certainly influenced by Propp, Barthes analyzed and classified (though relatively crudely) signs rather than narrative points, coming to a Marxist anthropological point. Arguably closer to Propp, Algirdas Greimas, a semiotician, also showed considerable influence from Propp in his work, including an analysis of Lithuanian mythology. However, he goes to what Propp would call genetic and thematic lengths without the thorough analytical foundation Propp would demand. That is, Greimas does not begin with the syntagmatic component that Propp explicitly designated as necessary for further analysis. Moreover, Greimas discusses the portrayal of life and death, social structures, and comparison with non-Lithuanian mythologies using a paradigmatic approach.

In perhaps a less serious application of Propp’s analysis, a recent paper by Orlando Jaquez was published at MIT entitled “Propp and the Folktale of Reality Television: Toward a Structure of Reality Shows.” In his analysis of what he calls ‘competitive’ shows, his Proppian functions include:

  1. Introduction of contestants.
  2. A challenge is introduced.
  3. The contestants are divided into groups.
  4. Groups compete with the object of eliminating a player.
  5. Elimination is carried out by a vote.
  6. When the number of contestants falls below a certain point, a new game plan is introduced.
  7. The final “ultimate” challenge takes place.
  8. A winner is introduced.

This structure indicates more than simply a competition; the structure is not that of a game of soccer or hockey. “Survivor” is meant to mirror Darwinism, but needs to force the point. “The Apprentice” should test what could be tested through years of self-motivated work, though due to time and attention span constraints, a plot must be formulated. The implied goal of this study is not an analysis of these shows in itself; there is not such a reverence for the text as Propp had. Jaquez is aiming to make a point about the need for these shows to mimic reality. Propp would have approved of Jaquez’s methods, as he did begin his study with a strict Proppian analysis. However, Propp was not an anthropologist, and would likely have disapproved of the social conclusion that Jaquez drew.

What do we think about an academic whose work is valuable, but whose intention has proved not to be? It is often the case in academia that scholars’ past work is currently seen primarily as passé, something from which to build upon, but it is rarely the case that the work of a scholar has only ever been seen as a point of departure. What did Propp think of those who have seen value in his work, albeit through methods he explicitly condemned?

Propp’s eccentricity has always been on the forefront of discussion regarding his work, and it is difficult to read Propp without coming to conclusions about his character. He plunged into an incredibly laborious project that nobody had ever tackled (in the general opinion, for good reason), and without any contemporaries of his own, fiercely attacked the existing establishment of his field. He valued one specific modus operandi above all else, a unique priority of scholars of any era. He had no interest in the society of the characters in his tales, the social context in which these tales we told, or how variants of tales differed from one another. Propp revered the text, seeing it as an entity that is valuable independent of the society from which it was produced. His approach to scholarship took the same text-based attitude. Procedure is king, and anything “unscientific” be damned. To say that there is method to his madness is an understatement; method is the defining characteristic (and possibly the cause) of it.

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