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Arethusa 35.2 (2002) 237-254

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Structures of Progression in the Plot of the Iliad

Bruce Heiden


Almost everybody knows a story plot when they see one in a movie or a tale. But it is hard even for experts to articulate what story plot is, what it does, and how readers or audiences follow one. Since the 1970s, theorists of narrative have expanded our sense of how plot functions, but many actual plots still elude satisfactory analysis. Somewhere in the experience of every story lies a plot that the fans of that story have somehow seen and engaged with. If it could be retrieved into awareness, the whole story experience and its significance might come into a clearer light.

For most stories and their readers, an intuitively satisfactory answer to the question "what is the plot?" would probably supply, at minimum, a sketch of the main characters of the story, the main events that happen to them, and some explanation of how these events progress toward a conclusion. Secondary characters and secondary events might also need to be identified when they play roles in causing the main events. The characters and events considered primary would probably be those that the story is "about," i.e., those that make it worth telling. For a story is not a disinterested record of events, whether historical or fictional, but an act of telling that has some purpose as discourse. 1 The plot has some relationship, albeit often an implicit one, to this purpose, which may also be implicit. 2 [End Page 237]

When conceived of as a sketch like this, a story plot sounds like an entity that exists somewhere all at once, perhaps as a conception in the mind of the teller that he conveys via the story to the mind of the reader/audience. But minds are not containers and memories are not objects; it might be more accurate to describe "plot" as a cognitive process performed in the comprehension and appreciation of a story (Brooks 1984.37). Yet even this formulation may offer little real improvement if it is taken to imply a process in which a defined sequence of steps leads to a definite conclusion from which the whole plot can then be seen at once in retrospect. A reader—or even an author—would rarely construct and retain a single mental schema of all the relationships pertaining to the story's interest (Gerrig 1993.6). More likely, one's perception of a story's plot might remain quite vague and inchoate unless crystallized by the question "what is the plot?" But the plot is not therefore a mere illusion called into being by the question. Readers must be able to establish the relationships that support the story's interest as the need arises, and the story must provide the material with which to do it.

One partially satisfactory analysis of a story's plot, therefore, would be a schema or set of schemas that render visible, simultaneously and continuously, narrative relationships that, in the actual act of telling, listening, or reading, might have been apprehended discontinuously, or in a different order, or, in some cases, might have remained implicit altogether. They might also have been apprehended non-verbally, in images, concepts, or emotions. In short, the relationships will be more clear and stable in the schemas than they would ever appear during an actual reading experience. But readers of the story should recognize in these schemas relationships they deem important to "what the story is about" and that they feel the story really does suggest. An acceptable plot schema may reveal the already obvious or the allusively remote, but not the fanciful, arbitrary, or trivial.

An analysis of the plot of the Iliad that attempted comprehensiveness might (at the current state of research on story plot) include a section on the causal relationships of events narrated in the epic (or more loosely their relationships of progression), another on the causal relationships of background events (e.g., the "Plan of Zeus"), semantic domain analyses of the rational and...


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