Push Me, Pull You.

37788084343093605_97fq9uva_fAs some of you know, my research field is narrative organisation and sad though it may be, I am fascinated by the ways in which writers shape their narratives and the infinite variety of options open to them when it comes to not only giving a voice to those options but also signalling their intentions to the reader.  I can happily spend hours drawing up detailed maps enabling me to chart my path through the relationship between the linguistic surface structure that we as readers encounter and the underlying notional structure which the author has been driven to communicate.  Don’t worry, I’m well aware that it is only a matter of time before the men in white coats come pounding down my garden path and drag me off to some safe, secure and well-padded room, but until such time arrives I shall go on worriting about how a novel is working and fretting myself until I’ve sorted it out.

Before too long, anyone who works in this field is certain to encounter the writings of Vladimir Propp, who was equally passionate about studying the organisation of a specific set of Russian folktales.  A basic tenet of his theory is that each of the tales he studied is impelled by one of two motivating forces.  The actions are driven towards either the vanquishing of the villain of the piece or the liquidation of a lack experienced by the story’s hero.  So, for example, Little Red Riding Hood, (not from his corpus, but to take a story we all know) is clearly an example of villainy vanquished, while Cinderella is more closely related to lack liquidated.  Now, I know it’s not always as clear cut as one or the other.  I could make a case for Cinderella being villainy vanquished and just don’t get me onto the subject of Jack and the Beanstalk because the last time I tried to explicate that particular tale it took me over 13,000 words.  However, the point that interests me here is that Propp sees the dynamic of story as being teleological in nature; it is driven by the final purpose it serves; it is concerned with what Aristotle called the final cause.

However, last week I came across a different approach towards describing the narrative dynamic.  In his lectures for the Great Courses’ series, The Art of Reading, Timothy Spurgin talks about stories being impelled either by the hero going on a journey or by a stranger coming to town.  Because he’s coming from a literary background his examples are rather more ‘up-market’ than mine.  The former he exemplifies through Jane Eyre, while for the latter he suggests Great Expectations.  Now again, I would respectfully suggest that certainly in the case of Great Expectations you can argue both ways. Undoubtedly, it is the appearance of Magwich which starts the ball rolling, as it were, but there is definitely an argument to be made for saying that the novel then proceeds along the lines of hero goes on a journey.  However, once more, this isn’t what really interests me.  What drew my attention most sharply was that for Spurgin the dynamic force of the narrative is lodged in the way in which it begins; that is, his position is diametrically opposed to that which Propp takes.

For reasons which it would probably take me at least another 13,000 words to explain, I am strongly drawn to the teleological argument.  There are various elements deeply embedded in narrative structure that correlate, indeed, respond, directly to the story’s eventual dénouement.  I know, I took an entire thesis to describe just one of them.  (You see, I get sadder by the minute!)  But that doesn’t mean that I am going to reject Spurgin’s argument out of hand.  All sorts of interesting questions come to mind.  Do we differ in our approach because I am a linguist whilst he comes from the literary side of English Studies?  What, if any, correlation is there between the two systems?  Does one of the ‘igniting moment’ (a linguistic term, not his) options always lead to one of the final cause choices or are all of the four possible combinations viable?  You can probably think of others including, no doubt, does any of this actually matter?

Well, it does to me, because, as I said at the beginning of this post, I am fascinated by the way in which writers choose to organise the narrative structure by means of which they tell their story.  If I had still been working in academia I would be starting on a project now which would probably keep me happily employed for two or three years at the very least.  Ironically, because I’m retired and my life is no longer so tightly focussed, I don’t have the time to do that.  Nevertheless, I am going to be keeping my eyes open and putting whatever I read to the test in order to see what the relationship between the two systems might be.  And, I would really welcome any thoughts that you might have about this, especially any examples of texts that you think are of particular interest.  After all, I may not have access to academic colleagues in the way that I used to but who needs that when I have the whole blogging world to stimulate me, question my thoughts and add their own?

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10 thoughts on “Push Me, Pull You.

  1. Enjoyed the post! I’m also drawn to the teleological approach, and I’ve actually been thinking about Propp as a way to address a problem of the Odyssey: the setting up of the contest of the bow in Book 19. Penelope’s motivation is opaque, because it’s hard to see why she would do it if she doesn’t realize it’s Odysseus before her, but the poet isn’t one to imply – Homer is always beautifully explicit about everything – so it would be weird if, in this one place only, he kept P.’s knowledge secret yet had her act on it. A mentor of mine suggested I think about it in terms of a Proppian function, which has been helping, although I’m not there yet. Of course, the constantly replenished stacks of papers to grade doesn’t help either… In any case, the Homeric poems and Greek tragedy both lend themselves well to teleological readings, I think, given that the outcome, but not the path to it, is pretty much prescribed by tradition.

    1. Trophos, the subtitle of my thesis was actually ‘this way through the woods’ because it was about the pathway chosen to meet the dénouement of a story. Given that I was working for the most part with traditional tales the woods image seemed particularly appropriate. I flirted with Propp on the sidelines of this because my chosen means of analysis is tagmemics and I don’t know the ‘Odyssey’ well enough to offer a suggestion, but it seems to me that it would be interesting to follow this through because I’ve always thought that the function idea would work particularly well with oral stories from all cultures. It’s the same principle as repetition; if you draw from a relatively small stock of known functions but make each occurrence your own by the variation you choose, you make your life as story-teller a lot easier. Perhaps we should talk more about this?

  2. Interesting and informative post; I’ve always meant to investigate Propp, and should’ve long before now in graduate school, but always managed to take the slacker’s way out and get by with just a blurb or summary. You make a good case for reading the original. I’ve never heard of Spurgin before, so that’s a new interest for me. It sounds quite intriguing, too. And “Push Me, Pull You,” given the nature of your argument, was a very good title for the post!

    1. Shadowoperator, the Spurgin is a series in the Great Courses programme (I don’t know if I mentioned that) which I’ve been listening to. Most University libraries would have a copy of Propp I would imagine and it isn’t that long a read. The infuriating thing is that he is working with a relatively small corpus of stories that in general we don’t know in the West so you have to do some catching up on tales he tends to assume you know. Nevertheless, I’d definitely recommend it.

      1. Yes, I’ve heard of the Great Courses series, though I’ve never listened to it. And thanks for the extra info on Propp; Scribe Doll at Scribe Doll’s Musings might have a clue as to where to find the Russian folk tales. It’s worth a shot asking her, at any rate (her name is Katherine Gregor).

  3. This was really interesting. I have never heard of Propp or Spurgin before. What do you make of books that don’t have traditional plots or really any plots at all? Something like Roberto Bolano’s 2666, for instance? It starts off being a sort of journey, a search for an author, but then it completely changes focus and all the characters who began the book disappear and we end up in the fictional town of Santa Teresa, Mexico with a whole new set of characters that have nothing to do with the first. In the final section of the book we get the biography of the author who was being searched for at the beginning. It’s kind of a book of associations and inferences with lots of structure but no plot. There is no final cause but there isn’t anything impelling it all forward at the start either.

    1. I haven’t read this, Stefanie, so I can’t really comment, but my general response would be that a book like that only exists because of our awareness of a universal plot structure. It is written against it and read against it and we recognise its potency because we recognise what it isn’t.

  4. Hmmm, intriguing. It makes me think of the 7 basic plots (apparently Christopher Brooker has written a book about them, you probably know it already! http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3632074/Everything-ever-written-boiled-down-to-seven-plots.html ) which sort of divide up into those provoked at the start by a strange occurrence, and those oriented towards the end. I hadn’t thought, I suppose, of having to choose between them. Though we did use to offer a popular essay question about what would happen to novels if you removed the ending (as indeed many nouveaux romanciers did). And EM Forster was all about the causality (you’ll definitely know the one about the king dying, and the queen dying, but only when the king died and the queen died of grief did you have a story) which seemed to me to orient the story in the middle. Don’t mind me, I’m just thinking out loud and none of this may be useful! I hadn’t really considered it before, or at least not in this light.

    1. I’ve always thought the Forster was the perfect example of the difference between the literary approach towards narrative and the linguistic one. Forster needs contextual causality. I will always be looking for grammatical evidence. Perhaps this is where the difference in the two approaches I discussed lies. I need to think about this more.

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