Vladimir Propp


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Russian Formalism

Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908) French social anthropologist

Roland Barthes (1915—1980) French writer and critic

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Russianliterary scholar and founding father of narratology. Born in St Petersburg, he attended St Petersburg University, studying philosophy. After graduation in 1918, he taught Russian and German at secondary schools for a number of years before attaining a position at his alma mater. In 1928 Propp published Morfológija skázki, which applied the principle of Russian Formalism to the study the narrative structure of Slavic folktales. The impact of this work was quite modest to begin with; indeed, it was not until 1960 when Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote an approving, but nonetheless searching critique of the 1958 English translation The Morphology of the Folktale did it become well known. Following that, however, its impact was nothing short of seismic: it reshaped the study of narrative almost completely. Roland Barthes translated Lévi-Strauss's insights into a useable form for literary criticism in his 1966 essay, ‘Introduction à l'analyse structurale des récits’, translated as ‘Introduction to Structural Analysis of Narratives’ (1977). Probably the best known and most effective use of Propp's thought is in the study of genre fiction—Umberto Eco's essay on the narrative structure of James Bond is perhaps the archetype. Propp set aside the content of the text, as it were, namely the actual sentences that comprise the text, and focused exclusively on the abstract form of the text, paying particular attention to the events (or functions) and character types in the tale. By sorting out those events and characters which are crucial to the tale and those which are superfluous, Propp exposed the syntagm or that which is universal to the tale. He argued that there are 31 basic functions and 7 character types and that all folktales are created using an amalgam of these standard ingredients.

Further Reading:

S. Rimmon-Kenan Narrative Fiction (1983).

Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies.

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