restricted access Narratology and Thematics
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Narratology and Thematics

In the past sixty or so years, Russian, French, American, and other analysts of narrative have formulated an impressive array of technical concepts to classify the multifarious aspects of story, plot, characterization, narration, point of view, speech representation, and so on. Much of this work has concentrated on the abstraction of basic plot summaries. This paper will argue that all such attempts fail to account systematically for the inevitable shift from a sequence of actions to an underlying theme. The absence of an adequate conceptual bridge between narratology and thematics suggests that the former is an intrinsically limited discipline; paradoxically, some of its exponents are now choosing to limit it further by concentrating on "discourse" alone rather than "story" and by denying that narratives actually consist of sequences of causally related temporal actions.

One of the earliest narrative analyses of modern times (a qualification that saves going back to Aristotle) is Viktor Shklovsky's "constituent structure" analysis of the Sherlock Holmes stories, published in 1925. This essay does not seem to have been translated into English, but L. M. O'Toole excerpts Shklovsky's nine-point summary, which can be further reduced as follows: Holmes and Watson are sitting around; a client appears and narrates evidence; Watson interprets wrongly; they travel [End Page 535] to where the crime has been or is to be committed; Watson, an official police detective, or someone else, guesses wrongly while Holmes reasons silently; the denouement, often a foiled crime, occurs; Holmes analyzes and explains (O'Toole 143-176).

This analysis formalizes a pattern that the reader has probably unconsciously noted, but it is of little interest to the casual reader, who is probably content with the stories' differences rather than critical of their similarities. Shklovsky himself finds the stories monotonous and suggests that this is because Conan Doyle, writing them in rapid succession, simply forgot what material he had already used and thus repeats himself.

Shklovsky goes on to show that the pattern he has isolated can equally be applied to Poe's story "The Gold-Bug" with Legrand as the detective and Jupiter, his ignorant Negro servant, manifesting Watson's dumb incomprehension, but this further generalization of the narrative analysis only emphasizes how much is left out, namely that which is of most interest to most readers: the differences among the stories.

In his Morphology of the Folk Tale, published three years after Shklovsky's article, Vladimir Propp analyzes a corpus of Russian folk tales and comes up with thirty-one "functions," usually defined by a noun expressing an action, each of which is "an act of character, defined from the point of view of its significance for the course of the action" (21).

Unlike Shklovsky, who soon tired of the similarities of the Holmes stories, Propp allows that the aesthetic interest of any given tale may lie in its particular attributes rather than in its invariant structure. He defines attributes as "the totality of all the external qualities of the characters: their age, sex, status, external appearance, peculiarities of this appearance, and so forth. These attributes provide the tale with its brilliance, charm and beauty" (87).

If the attributes are what is of interest, the only defense of narratology would be that by itemizing similarities, it alerts us to differences, and this, I suggest, is far from evident.

A far more wide-ranging and almost universally applicable system of narrative analysis is to be found in an article by another Russian Formalist, Boris Tomashevsky. In "Thematics" (1925), an article that covers much of the ground of more recent narratology, Tomashevsky describes the theme of a work as

the idea that summarizes and unifies the verbal material. . . . The work as a whole may have a theme, and at the same time each part of a work may have its own theme. . . . After reducing a work to its thematic elements, we come to parts that are irreducible, the smallest particles of thematic material: "evening comes," "Raskolnikov kills the old woman," "the hero dies," "a letter is received," and so on. The theme of an irreducible part of a work is called a motif; each sentence, in fact, has...


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