Thursday, June 13

Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp And The Narrative Structure Of Folk Tales

Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp And The Narrative Structure Of Russian Folk Tales
Today I'd like to talk about the underlying structure of stories; specifically, folk tales.

I've been meaning to write a blog post about this for some time, but Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp identifies--as Shawn Spencer of Psych fame would say: wait for it--31 plot points.

That's a lot of plot points!

Still, it's valuable information. So I'm going to take this in chunks. I'll start today with the first plot point and then pick the topic up again in a few days until I get through all 31.

Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp's Morphology Of The Folktale

0. Introduce the hero

This isn't one of Propp's steps but, as the author of Vladimir Propp's Morphology Of The Folktale writes:

A folktale usually begins with some sort of initial situation. The members of a family are enumerated, or else the future hero is introduced (i.e., a soldier) in some manner; either his name is revealed or his status is indicated. 
By the way, what follows draws heavily on the above article. All I'm doing here is laying out Propp's points with a bit of commentary.

 1. ABSENCE. One of the members of a family is absent from home.

This can come in many forms:

a. Absence. Someone, often a parent or hero him/herself leaves

Here are a few possibilities:
- The person absent is a parent or caregiver
- A ruler (prince, king, etc.)
- Merchant or business person who goes off on to ply his/her trade
- Hero goes to work
- Hero goes exploring (into the deep, dark, forest; into a bad part of the city; into a diary/journal that isn't his/hers)
-  Soldier goes to war
- Hero's parents leave (one way they may leave is through death)
- Children walk over to neighbors/go fishing/explore an old mine
- Children go for a walk in the forbidden forest (the bad side of town) to pick berries (to see a movie)

b. Interdiction. Hero is told not to do something

- "Take care of your brother, do not venture forth from the courtyard."
- If someone you don't recognize comes to the door, don't talk to them. (Or, more simply, 'Don't talk to strangers.')
- King/merchant/father: stay in the tower and do not leave.
- Do not pick the apples in the neighbor's yard/Do not get your ball if it lands in the neighbor's yard.
- Do not open the chest.
- Do not kiss the girl/boy.

However, rather than being told not to do something, the hero may be given a command:

- Bring your father/mother his/her lunch as he/she works in the fields.
- Take your brother/sister with you when you go fishing/to the amusement park/out to the movies with your friends.

c. The possibility of misfortune

The possibility of misfortune is what is nascent in (a) and (b), above. Combining the two we have:
- The merchant has a tree that produces golden apples but the moment he or his offspring injure another tree it will die. The merchant tells his son/daughter to stay out of the woods, fearing they will inadvertently injure a tree. One day when he is out of town ... You know the rest.

Generally, this seems to be the formula for this first of the 31 points: If you X then your prosperity will end, but you're not allowed to tell anyone why. For instance, the merchant with the tree that bears golden fruit would not tell his children why they couldn't go into the woods.

Well! That's the first of Propp's 31 points and we've just gotten started.

Photo credit: "Surfin in the Sun" by Zach Dischner under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. It's not everyday one runs into Propp's Morphology of the Folktale on a writing site. What a happy find!

    Hope you continue to look at Propp (and maybe even Stith-Thompson's Folklore Index)!

    Stories help us to find meaning, process trauma and joy, and communicate without physical violence. Thank you for bringing Propp into your discussion of narrative structures.
    Semper Pax, Dr. Z

    1. "Stories help us to find meaning, process trauma and joy, and communicate without physical violence."

      I couldn't agree more! Thank you for your comment and your kind words.

  2. Having read Propp's Morphology on and off over the last ten years, I am somewhat familiar with it. It is enjoyable to see another person's take on it. I enjoyed this post and feel you were right on it. I look forward to the next one.

    1. Thank you Loyd! I appreciate your kind words, especially from someone with your familiarity with the subject.


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