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Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp ( ; — 22 August 1970) was a Russianmarker formalist scholar who analyzed the basic plot components of Russian folk tales to identify their simplest irreducible narrative elements.

Biography

Vladimir Propp was born on April 17, 1895 in St. Petersburg to a German family. He attended St. Petersburg University (1913-1918) majoring in Russian and German philosophy. Upon graduation he taught Russian and German at a secondary school and then became a college teacher of German.

His Morphology of the Folk Tale was published in Russian in 1928. Although it represented a breakthrough in both folkloristics and morphology and influenced Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes, it was generally unnoticed in the West until it was translated in the 1950s. His character types are used in media education and can be applied to almost any story, be it in literature, theatre, film, television series, games, etc.

In 1932, Propp became a member of Leningrad University (formerly St. Petersburg University) faculty. After 1938, he shifted the focus of his research from linguistics to folklore. He chaired the Department of Folklore until it became part of the Department of Russian Literature. Propp remained a faculty member until his death in 1970.

Narrative Structure

Vladimir Propp extended the Russian Formalist approach to the study of narrative structure. In the Formalist approach, sentence structures were broken down into analyzable elements, or morphemes, and Propp used this method by analogy to analyze Russian fairy tales. By breaking down a large number of Russian folk tales into their smallest narrative units, or narratemes, Propp was able to arrive at a typology of narrative structures.

Functions

After the initial situation is depicted, the tale takes the following sequence of 31 functions:

  1. ABSENTATION: A member of a family leaves the security of the home environment for some reason. This may be the hero or perhaps it’s some other member of the family that the hero will later need to rescue. This division of the cohesive family injects initial tension into the storyline. The hero may also be introduced here, often being shown as an ordinary person. This allows the reader of the story to associate with the hero as being 'like me'.
  2. INTERDICTION: An interdiction is addressed to the hero ('don't go there', 'don't do this')The hero is warned against some action (given an 'interdiction'). A warning to the hero is also a warning to the reader about the dangers of life. Will the hero heed the warning? Would the reader? Perhaps the reader hopes the hero will ignore the warning, giving a vicarious adventure without the danger.
  3. VIOLATION of INTERDICTION. The interdiction is violated (villain enters the tale). The hero ignores the interdiction (warning not to do something) and goes ahead. This generally proves to be a bad move and the villain enters the story, although not necessarily confronting the hero. Perhaps they are just a lurking presence or perhaps they attack the family whilst the hero is away. This acts to further increase tension. We may want to shout at the hero 'don't do it!' But the hero cannot hear us and does it anyway.
  4. RECONNAISSANCE: The villain makes an attempt at reconnaissance (either villain tries to find the children/jewels etc; or intended victim questions the villain). The villain (often in disguise) makes an active attempt at seeking information, for example searching for something valuable or trying to actively capture someone. They may speak with a member of the family who innocently divulges information. They may also seek to meet the hero, perhaps knowing already the hero is special in some way. The introduction of the villain adds early tension to the story, particularly when they are found close to the previously-supposedly safe family or community environment. The eloquence or power of the villain may also add tension and we may want to shout at their targets to take care.
  5. DELIVERY: The villain gains information about the victim. The villain's seeking now pays off and he or she now acquires some form of information, often about the hero or victim. Other information can be gained, for example about a map or treasure location or the intent of the 'good guys'. This is a down point in the story as the pendulum of luck swings towards the villain, creating fear and anticipation that the villain will overcome the hero and the story will end in tragedy.
  6. TRICKERY: 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). The villain now presses further, often using the information gained in seeking to deceive the hero or victim in some way, perhaps appearing in disguise. This may include capture of the victim, getting the hero to give the villain something or persuading them that the villain is actually a friend and thereby gaining collaboration. Deception and the betrayal of trust is one of the worst social crimes, short of physical abuse. This action cements the position of the villain as clearly bad. It also raises the tension further as we fear for the hero or victim who is being deceived.
  7. COMPLICITY: Victim taken in by deception, unwittingly helping the enemy. The trickery of the villain now works and the hero or victim naively acts in a way that helps the villain in some way. This may range from providing the villain with something (perhaps a map or magical weapon) to actively working against good people (perhaps the villain has persuaded the hero that these other people are actually bad). We now despair as the hero or victim acts in a way that may be seen as villainous. Perhaps we worry that the hero will fall permanently into the thrall of the villain. Perhaps they will become corrupted and evil also. We also fear for the reputation of the hero who may be perceived as evil and thus never find the true treasure or win the hand of the princess.
  8. VILLAINY and LACK: Villain causes harm/injury to 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, comits murder, imprisons/detains someone, threatens forced marriage, provides nightly torments); Alternatively, a member of family lacks something or desires something (magical potion etc). There are two parts to this stage, either or both of which may appear in the story. In the first stage, the villain causes some kind of harm, for example carrying away a victim or the desired magical object (which must be then be retrieved). In the second stage, a sense of lack is identified, for example in the hero's family or within a community, whereby something is identified as lost or something becomes desirable for some reason, for example a magical object that will save people in some way. 'Lack' is a deep psychoanalytic principle which we first experience when we realize our individual separation from the world. Lack leads to desire and deep longing and we look to heroes to satisfy this aching emptiness.
  9. MEDIATION: Misfortune or lack is made known, (hero is dispatched, hears call for help etc/ alternative is that victimized hero is sent away, freed from imprisonment). The hero now discovers the act of villainy or lack, perhaps finding their family or community devastated or caught up in a state of anguish and woe. This creates a defining moment in the story as we wonder what will happen now. Perhaps we do not realize that the hero is the hero, as they may not yet have demonstrated heroic qualities. We feel the lack in sympathy for the act of villainy, but the hero may just have arrived on the scene or may be undistinguished from other grieving family members.
  10. BEGINNING COUNTER-ACTION: Seeker agrees to, or decides upon counter-action. The hero now decides to act in a way that will resolve the lack, for example finding a needed magical item, rescuing those who are captured or otherwise defeating the villain. This is a defining moment for the hero as this is the decision that sets the course of future actions and by which a previously ordinary person takes on the mantle of heroism. Having made this decision, acting with integrity means that there is no turning back, for to do so would be to remove the mantle of heroism and be left only with shame.
  11. DEPARTURE: Hero leaves home;
  12. FIRST FUNCTION OF THE DONOR: Hero is tested, interrogated, attacked etc, preparing the way for his/her receiving magical agent or helper (donor);
  13. HERO'S REACTION: Hero reacts to actions of future donor (withstands/fails the test, frees captive, reconciles disputants, performs service, uses adversary's powers against him);
  14. RECEIPT OF A MAGICAL AGENT: Hero acquires use of a magical agent (directly transferred, located, purchased, prepared, spontaneously appears, eaten/drunk, help offered by other characters);
  15. GUIDANCE: Hero is transferred, delivered or led to whereabouts of an object of the search;
  16. STRUGGLE: Hero and villain join in direct combat;
  17. BRANDING: Hero is branded (wounded/marked, receives ring or scarf);
  18. VICTORY: Villain is defeated (killed in combat, defeated in contest, killed while asleep, banished);
  19. LIQUIDATION: Initial misfortune or lack is resolved (object of search distributed, spell broken, slain person revived, captive freed);
  20. RETURN: Hero returns;
  21. PURSUIT: Hero is pursued (pursuer tries to kill, eat, undermine the hero);
  22. RESCUE: Hero is rescued from pursuit (obstacles delay pursuer, hero hides or is hidden, hero transforms unrecognisably, hero saved from attempt on his/her life);
  23. UNRECOGNIZED ARRIVAL: Hero unrecognized, arrives home or in another country;
  24. UNFOUNDED CLAIMS: False hero presents unfounded claims;
  25. DIFFICULT TASK: Difficult task proposed to the hero (trial by ordeal, riddles, test of strength/endurance, other tasks);
  26. SOLUTION: Task is resolved;
  27. RECOGNITION: Hero is recognized (by mark, brand, or thing given to him/her);
  28. EXPOSURE: False hero or villain is exposed;
  29. TRANSFIGURATION: Hero is given a new appearance (is made whole, handsome, new garments etc);
  30. PUNISHMENT: Villain is punished;
  31. WEDDING: Hero marries and ascends the throne (is rewarded/promoted).


Occasionally, some of these functions are inverted, as when the hero receives something while still at home, the function of a donor occurring early. More often, a function is negated twice, so that it must be repeated three times.

Characters

He also concluded that all the characters could be resolved into only 7 broad character types in the 100 tales he analyzed:

  1. The villain — struggles against the hero.
  2. The donor — prepares the hero or gives the hero some magical object.
  3. The (magical) helper — helps the hero in the quest.
  4. The princess and 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 can not be clearly distinguished.
  5. The dispatcher — character who makes the lack known and sends the hero off.
  6. The hero or victim/seeker hero — reacts to the donor, weds the princess.
  7. [False hero] — takes credit for the hero’s actions or tries to marry the princess.


Criticism

Propp's approach has been criticized for removing all verbal considerations from the analysis, even though the folktale's form is almost always oral, and also all considerations of tone, mood, character, and, anything that differentiates one fairy tale from another. One of the most prominent critics of Propp is the famous French Structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who used Propp's monograph on the morphology of the Folktale to demonstrate the superiority of the Structuralist approach, and the shortcomings of the Formalist approach. (see Levi-Strauss, Claude. "Structure and Form: Reflection on a Work by Vladimir Propp"). Defenders of Propp believe that that such criticisms are largely redundant, as Propp's approach was not intended to unearth meaning in the fairy tales he examined (as may be the case with Structuralist or Psychoanalytic analysis), nor to find the elements that differentiate one tale from another, but to unearth the elemental building blocks that formed the basis of their narrative structure.

References

  1. Propp, Vladimir. "Introduction." Theory and History of Folklore. Ed. Anatoly Liberman. University of Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. pg ix
  2. Propp, Vladimir. "Introduction." Theory and History of Folklore. Ed. Anatoly Liberman. University of Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. pg ix
  3. Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folk Tale, p 25, ISBN 0-292-78376-0
  4. Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folk Tale, p 74, ISBN 0-292-78376-0
  5. Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folk Tale, p 79-80, ISBN 0-292-78376-0


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