Vladimir Propp, Umberto Eco, and the Mechanisms of Narrative

Blog Entry #1: "Vladimir Propp, Umberto Eco, and the Mechanisms of Narrative"

After I graduated from college, I lived for seven years in garrets in various arrondissements of Paris, spending my days reading fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Among the non-fiction authors I explored were Michel Foucault (whose lectures I simultaneously attended at the Collège de France), Claude Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Ferdinand de Saussure, Claude Bremond, Umberto Eco (before he was a novelist), and Julien Greimas. Several of these writers conspicuously referred to Vladimir Propp’s seminal study of Russian folktales, translated into English as The Morphology of the Folktale

I tracked down Propp’s study in my local librarie. What I found between its covers astonished me. The Russian anthropologist had categorized thirty-one plot “functions” and “roles.” (These “roles” were not characters; they were more like character masks. The same character, for example, can be a “seeker” or a “victim” at different points in a story.) From these “functions” and “roles,” Propp claimed,  the plotlines of the entire corpus of recorded Russian folklore were generated. Propp’s “functions” included items such as “The Victim Submits to Deception And Thereby Unwittingly Helps His Enemy” and “The Seeker Agrees to or Decides Upon Counteraction.”

These “functions,” it seemed to me, resembled the “tropes” or musical symbols used in Torah cantillation – melodic inflections which could be strung together in any number of ways, in any key, producing infinite melodies. Only a handful of Propp’s “functions” might appear in a given folktale, joined together according to a set of rules that Propp attempted to summarize.

Decades after Propp wrote his Morphology, Umberto Eco wrote a now-famous essay entitled “Narrative Structures in Fleming,” in which he showed how Ian Fleming permutated a similar but smaller set of “units” into the plots of his spy novels. In Eco’s words:

“In Casino Royale there are already all the elements for the building of a machine that functions basically on a set of precise units governed by rigorous combinational rules.”[1]

When Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose came out, I was one of the first to buy it. I already knew he was brilliant; it hardly surprised me that he had combined his deep understanding of popular literary forms with a treasure-trove of arcane knowledge and delivered an eminently readable, highly intelligent novel.

 It seemed to me that this approach to fiction writing was both original and valid in our democratized culture. In Europe and in America, I had come across so many bad writers of popular fiction and so many wonderful stylists of poorly structured fiction – but very few who knew how to tell an engaging story in an artful, intellectually stimulating manner.

Over the succeeding years, whenever I read a novel, I noticed Propp’s “functions” and Eco’s narrative “units” popping up all over the place. I began adding my own devices to the list – “identity confusion,” “secret,” and several others. Often, sitting in a restaurant with my wife after a play or movie, I would sketch on a napkin the order of these devices in that particular piece. I found it fascinating, the ways writers strung them together, perhaps unconsciously creating hidden architectures full of symmetries and subtle surprises.

When the Chair of the Film Studies program at Point Park University’s Conservatory of the Arts asked me, last year, whether I wanted to teach a Screenwriting course, I said, “No, but I might want to teach a course on ‘Universal Elements of Narrative.’” The idea would be to expose students to the ideas of Propp, Eco, and others, and to read and analyse classic works of fiction in the light of these concepts – totally disregarding style, narrative voice, characters, psychology, and other literary (and extra-literary) considerations except insofar as they shed light on these plot devices.

I agreed to include Joseph Campbell’s “Hero With a Thousand Faces” in the reading list, even though I’m not a great fan of Campbell. As I see it, Campbell took his ideas from James George Frazer, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Vladimir Propp, then took credit (or at least much of the credit). Further, with his “monomyth” concept, I think Campbell incorrectly places emphasis on the similarities between stories, rather than on their infinite variety. (This misplaced emphasis he inherits from Frazer’s analysis of death-and-rebirth rites in ancient religions. Wittgenstein, critiquing Frazer, got it right: “The most noticeable thing seems to me not merely the similarities but also the differences throughout all these rites.”[2])

Of course, I warn my students that analysis and creation are very different processes. A thorough knowledge of scales and chords does not make one a great jazz musician. A good ear and good instincts matter far more than technique.

There is, of course, much more to a good novel than clever plotting. That said, I have little use for the Romantic notion that great works of art spring to the minds of long-haired geniuses from out of the ether, or from Muses’ whisperings. There is no downside to understanding how the mechanisms of narrative operate.

[1] From The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts. Indiana University Press, 1984. p. 146.


[2] Quoted in Smith, Mark S. Origins of Biblical Monotheism : Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts. Oxford University Press, 2001. p 108.