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Structural Analysis of Narrative

Author(s): Tzvetan Todorov and Arnold Weinstein

Source: NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Autumn, 1969), pp. 70-76
Published by: Duke University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1345003 .
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Analysisof Narrative


The themeI propose to deal withis so vast thatthe few pages which followwill
inevitablytake the form of a resume. My title,moreover,contains the word
"structural,"a word more misleading than enlighteningtoday. To avoid mis-
understandingsas much as possible, I shall proceed in the followingfashion.
First,I shall give an abstractdescriptionof what I conceive to be the structural
approach to literature.This approach will thenbe illustratedby a concreteprob-
lem,thatof narrative,and morespecifically, thatof plot. The exampleswill all be
taken fromthe Decameron of Boccaccio. Finally,I shall attemptto make several
generalconclusionsabout thenatureof narrativeand theprinciplesof its analysis.
Firstof all, one can contrasttwo possible attitudestowardliterature:a theoreti-
cal attitudeand a descriptiveattitude.The nature of structuralanalysis will be
essentiallytheoreticaland non-descriptive;in other words, the aim of such a
study will never be the descriptionof a concretework. The work will be con-
sideredas the manifestationof an abstractstructure,merelyone of its possible
realizations;an understandingof thatstructurewill be the real goal of structural
analysis.Thus, the term"structure"has, in this case, a logical ratherthan spatial
Anotheroppositionwill enable us to focusmoresharplyon the criticalposition
which concernsus. If we contrastthe internalapproach to a literarywork with
the externalone, structuralanalysis would representan internalapproach. This
oppositionis well known to literarycritics,and Wellek and Warren have used
it as the basis for theirTheory of Literature.It is necessary,however,to recall
it here, because, in labeling all structuralanalysis "theoretical,"I clearly come
close to what is generallytermedan "external" approach (in impreciseusage,
"theoretical"and "external,"on the one hand, and "descriptive"and "internal,"
on the other,are synonyms).For example,when Marxistsor psychoanalystsdeal
witha work of literature,theyare not interestedin a knowledgeof the work it-
self,but in the understandingof an abstractstructure,social or psychic,which
manifestsitself throughthat work. This attitudeis thereforeboth theoretical
and external.On the otherhand, a New Critic (imaginary)whose approach is
obviously internal,will have no goal otherthan an understandingof the work
itself;theresultof his efforts will be a paraphraseof thework,whichis supposed
to revealthemeaningbetterthantheworkitself.
Structuralanalysisdiffersfromboth of theseattitudes.Here we can be satisfied
neitherby a pure descriptionof the work nor by its interpretation in termsthat
are psychologicalor sociologicalor, indeed,philosophical.In otherwords, struc-
turalanalysiscoincides(in its basic tenets)withtheory,withpoeticsof literature.
Its object is the literarydiscourse rather than works of literature,literature
that is virtual ratherthan real. Such analysis seeks no longer to articulatea

* Translatedby ArnoldWeinstein.

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paraphrase,a rationalresume of the concretework, but to propose a theoryof

the structureand operationof the literarydiscourse,to present a spectrumof
literarypossibilities,in such a mannerthatthe existingworks of literatureappear
as particularinstancesthathave been realized.
It must immediatelybe added that, in practice,structuralanalysis will also
referto real works: the best stepping-stonetoward theoryis that of precise,
empiricalknowledge.But such analysis will discover in each work what it has
in commonwith others (study of genres,of periods,for example), or even with
all otherworks (theoryof literature);it would be unable to state the individual
specificityof each work. In practice,it is always a question of going continually
back and forth,fromabstractliterarypropertiesto individual works and vice
versa.Poeticsand descriptionare in facttwo complementary activities.
On the other hand, to affirmthe internalnature of this approach does not
mean a denial of the relationbetween literatureand otherhomogeneous series,
such as philosophyor social life. It is rathera question of establishinga hier-
archy:literaturemustbe understoodin its specificity, as literature,beforewe seek
to determineitsrelationwithanythingelse.
It is easily seen that such a conceptionof literaryanalysis owes much to the
modernnotionof science. It can be said that structuralanalysis of literatureis a
kind of propaedeutic for a future science of literature.This term "science,"
used withregardto literature,usually raises a multitudeof protests.It will there-
foreperhapsbe fittingto tryto answer some of those protestsrightnow.
Let us firstof all rereadthatpage fromHenry James'sfamous essay on "The
Artof Fiction,"whichalreadycontainsseveral criticisms:"Nothing,forinstance,
is more possible than that he [the novelist] be of a turnof mind forwhich this
odd, literaloppositionof descriptionand dialogue, incidentand description,has
littlemeaningand light.People oftentalk of these thingsas if theyhad a kind of
internecinedistinctness,instead of meltinginto each otherat everybreath,and
being intimatelyassociated parts of one general effortof expression.I cannot
imagine compositionexistingin a series of blocks, nor conceive, in any novel
worthdiscussingat all, of a passage of descriptionthatis notin its intentionnarra-
tive,a passage of dialogue thatis not in its intentiondescriptive,a touch of truth
of any sortthatdoes not partakeof the natureof incident,or an incidentthatde-
rives its interestfromany othersource than the general and only source of the
successof a workof art-that ofbeingillustrative.A novel is a livingthing,all one
and continuous,like any otherorganism,and in proportionas it lives will it be
found,I think,that in each of the parts thereis somethingof each of the other
parts.The criticwho overtheclose textureof a finishedworkshall pretendto trace
a geographyof itemswill marksome frontiersas artificial, I fear,as any thathave
been knownto history."
In this excerpt,the criticwho uses such termsas "description,""narration,"
"dialogue," is accused by Henry Jamesof committingtwo sins. First,therewill
never be found,in a real text,a pure dialogue, a pure description,and so on.
Secondly,theveryuse of thesetermsis unnecessary,even harmful,sincethenovel
is "a livingthing,all one and continuous."

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The firstobjectionloses all its weightas soon as we put ourselves in the per-
spectiveof structuralanalysis; althoughit does aim at an understandingof con-
ceptslike "description"or "action," thereis no need to findthemin a pure state.
It seems rathernaturalthat abstractconceptscannotbe analyzed directly,at the
level of empiricalreality.In physics,for example,we speak of a propertysuch
as temperaturealthoughwe are unable to isolate it by itselfand are forcedto
observe it in bodies possessing many other qualities also, like resistance and
volume. Temperatureis a theoreticalconcept,and it does not need to exist in a
purestate; suchis also truefordescription.
The second objectionis stillmorecurious.Let us considerthe alreadydubious
comparisonbetweena work and a livingthing.We all know that any part of our
body will containblood, nerves,muscles-all at the same time; we nonetheless
do not requirethe biologistto abandon these misleadingabstractions,designated
by the words: blood, nerves,muscles. The fact that we findthem togetherdoes
not preventus fromdistinguishingthem. If the firstargumentof Jameshad a
positive aspect (it indicated that our objective should be composed of abstract
categoriesand not concreteworks), the second representsan absolute refusalto
recognizetheexistenceof abstractcategories,of whateveris notvisible.
There is anothervery popular argumentagainst the introductionof scientific
principlesin literaryanalysis. We are told in this instancethat science must be
objective,whereastheinterpretation of literatureis always subjective.In myopin-
ion thiscrudeoppositionis untenable.The critic'swork can have varyingdegrees
of subjectivity;everything depends on theperspectivehe has chosen. This degree
will be much lower if he tries to ascertain the propertiesof the work rather
than seekingits significancefora givenperiodor milieu.The degreeof subjectiv-
itywill vary,moreover,when he is examiningdifferent strataof the same work.
There will be veryfew discussionsconcerningthe metricalor phonic scheme of
a poem; slightlymore concerningthe natureof its images; stillmorewith regard
to themorecomplexsemanticpatterns.
On the otherhand thereis no social science (or science whatsoever)which is
totallyfreeof subjectivity.The very choice of one group of theoreticalconcepts
instead of anotherpresupposesa subjectivedecision; but if we do not make this
choice, we achieve nothingat all. The economist,the anthropologist,and the
linguistmust be subjectivealso; the only differenceis that they are aware of it
and theytryto limitthissubjectivity,to make allowance forit withinthe theory.
One can hardlyattemptto repudiatethe subjectivityof the social sciences at a
timewhen even the naturalsciencesare affectedby it.
It is now time to stop these theoreticalspeculationsand to give an example
of the structuralapproach to literature.This example will serve as illustration
ratherthan proof: the theorieswhich I have just exposed will not be necessarily
contestedifthereare some imperfections in the concreteanalysisbased on them.
The abstractliteraryconceptI would like to discuss is that of plot. Of course,
thatdoes notmean thatliterature, forme,is reducedto plot alone. I do think,how-
ever,thatplot is a notionthatcriticsundervalueand, hence,oftendisregard.The
ordinaryreader,however,reads a book above all as the narrationof a plot; but

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this naive reader is uninterestedin theoreticalproblems.My aim is to suggest

a certainnumberof useful categoriesfor examiningand describingplots. These
categories can thus implementthe meager vocabulary at our command with
regardto the analysis of narrative;it consistsof such termsas action,character,
The literaryexamples that I shall use are taken from the Decameron of
Boccaccio. I do not intend,however,to give an analysis of the Decameron: these
storieswill be used only to display an abstractliterarystructure,that is, plot. I
shall beginby statingtheplotsof severalof thetales.
A monk introducesa young girl into his cell and makes love to her. The
abbot detectsthis misbehaviorand plans to punish him severely.But the monk
learns of the abbot's discoveryand lays a trap for him by leaving his cell. The
abbot goes in and succumbsto thecharmsof thegirl,while themonktrieshis turn
at watching.At the end when the abbot intendsto punish him,the monk points
out that he has just committedthe same sin. Result: the monk is not punished
Isabetta,a young nun, is withher lover in her cell. Upon discoveringthis,the
other nuns become jealous and go to wake up the abbess and have Isabetta
punished.But the abbess was in bed with an abbot; because she has to come out
quickly,she puts the under-shortsof the abbot on her head instead of her coif.
Isabetta is led intothechurch;as the abbess begins to lectureher,Isabetta notices
the garmenton her head. She brings this evidence to everyone's attentionand
thusescapes punishment(IX,2).
Peronnellareceivesher lover while her husband, a poor mason, is absent. But
one day he comes home early. Peronnella hides the lover in a cask; when the
husband comes in, she tells him that somebodywanted to buy the cask and that
this somebodyis now in the process of examiningit. The husband believes her
and is delightedwiththe sale. The loverpays and leaves withthe cask (VII,2).
A marriedwoman meets her lover everynightin the family'scountryhouse,
where she is usually alone. But one night the husband returnsfromtown; the
lover has not come yet; he arrives a little later and knocks at the door. The
wife asserts that this is a ghost who comes to annoy her everynight and must
be exorcised.The husband pronouncesthe formulawhich the wife has impro-
vised; theloverfiguresout the situationand leaves, pleased withthe ingenuityof
his mistress(VII,1).
It is easy to recognize that these four plots (and there are many others like
themin the Decameron) have somethingin common.In orderto express that,I
shall use a schematicformulationwhich retains only the common elementsof
theseplots.The sign-> will indicatea relationof entailmentbetweentwo actions.

X violates a law -> Y mustpunishX -> X triesto avoid being punished->

f Y violatesa law
'> --> Y does notpunishX
Y believesthatX is notviolatingthelaw

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This schematicrepresentationrequiresseveral explanations.

1. We firstnoticethatthe minimalschema of the plot can be shown naturally
by a clause. Between the categoriesof language and those of narrativethereis
a profoundanalogywhichmustbe explored.
2. Analysis of this narrativeclause leads us to discover the existenceof two
entitieswhich correspondto the "parts of speech." a) The agents, designated
here by X and Y, correspondto propernouns. They serve as subject or object of
the clause; moreover,they permitidentificationof their referencewithout its
being described.b) The predicate,which is always a verb here: violate, punish,
avoid. The verbs have a semantic characteristicin common: they denote an
action which modifiesthe precedingsituation.c) An analysis of other stories
would have shownus a thirdpartof narrativespeech,whichcorrespondsto qual-
ityand does not alterthe situationin whichit appears: the adjective.Thus in I,8:
at the beginningof the action Erminois stingy,whereas Guillaume is generous.
Guillaume findsa way to ridiculeErmino'sstinginess,and since then Erminois
"the most generousand pleasant of gentlemen."The qualities of the two charac-
tersare examplesof adjectives.
3. Actions (violate, punish) can have a positive or a negativeform; thus,we
shall also need the categoryof status,negationbeing one possible status.
4. The categoryof modalityis also relevanthere.When we say "X mustpunish
Y/" we denotetherebyan actionwhichhas not yet takenplace (in the imaginary
universeof the story)but which is nonethelesspresentin a virtualstate. Andre
Jollessuggestedthatentiregenrescould be characterizedby theirmood; legends
would be the genreof the imperative,to the extentthattheyofferus an example
to follow; the fairytale is, as is often said, the genre of the optative,of the
5. When we write "Y believes that X is not violatingthe law," we have an
example of a verb ("believe") which differsfromthe others.It is not a question
of a different action here but of a differentperceptionof the same action. We
could thereforespeak of a kind of "point of view" which refersnot only to the
relationbetweenreaderand narrator,but also to the characters.
6. There are also relationsbetween the clauses; in our example this is always
a causal relation;but a more extensivestudywould distinguishat least between
entailmentand presupposition (for example, the relation introducingmodal
punishment).Analysis of otherstoriesshows that thereare also purelytemporal
relations(succession)and purelyspatialones (parallelism).
7. An organized succession of clauses formsa new syntagmaticpattern,se-
quence. Sequence is perceivedby the readeras a finishedstory;it is the minimal
narrativein a completedform.This impressionof completionis caused by a modi-
fiedrepetitionof theinitialclause; thefirstand thelast clause will be identicalbut
they will eitherhave a differentmood or status, for instance,or they will be
seen fromdifferent points of view. In our example it is punishmentwhich is
repeated: changed in modality,then denied. In a sequence of temporalrela-
tions,repetitioncan be total.

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8. We mightalso ask: is therea way back? How does one get fromthe abstract,
schematicrepresentation to the individualtale? Here, thereare threeanswers:
a) The same kind of organizationcan be studiedat a more concretelevel: each
clause of our sequence could be rewrittenas an entiresequence itself.We would
not therebychange the natureof the analysis,but ratherthelevel of generality.
b) It is also possible to studythe concreteactionsthatincorporateour abstract
pattern.For instance,we may pointout the different laws thatbecome violatedin
thestoriesof theDecameronor thedifferent punishmentsthatare metedout. That
would be a thematicstudy.
c) Finally,we can examinetheverbalmediumwhichcomposesour abstractpat-
terns.The same actioncan be expressedby means of dialogue or description,fig-
urative or literaldiscourse; moreover,each action can be seen froma different
pointof view. Here we are dealingwitha rhetoricalstudy.
These three directionscorrespondto the threemajor categoriesof narrative
analysis: studyof narrativesyntax,studyof theme,studyof rhetoric.
At this point we may ask: what is the purpose of all this? Has this analysis
taughtus anythingabout thestoriesin question?But thatwould be a bad question.
Our goal is not a knowledgeof the Decameron (althoughsuch analysis will also
serve thatpurpose), but ratheran understandingof literatureor, in this specific
instance,of plot. The categoriesof plot mentionedhere will permita more exten-
sive and precisedescriptionof otherplots. The object of our studymustbe narra-
tivemood,or pointof view,or sequence,and not thisor thatstoryin and foritself.
Fromsuch categorieswe can move forwardand inquireabout the possibilityof
a typologyof plots. For themomentit is difficult to offera valid hypothesis;there-
foreI mustbe contentto summarizetheresultsof myresearchon the Decameron.
The minimalcompleteplot can be seen as the shiftfromone equilibriumto an-
other.This term"equilibrium,"which I am borrowingfromgeneticpsychology,
means the existenceof a stable but not staticrelationbetween the membersof a
society;it is a social law, a rule of the game,a particularsystemof exchange.The
two momentsof equilibrium,similarand different, are separatedby a period of
imbalance,which is composed of a process of degenerationand a process of im-
All of the storiesof the Decameron can be enteredinto thisverybroad schema.
Fromthatpoint,however,we can make a distinctionbetweentwo kinds of stories.
The firstcan be labeled "avoided punishment";the fourstoriesI mentionedat the
beginningare examples of it. Here we follow a completecycle: we begin with a
state of equilibriumwhichis brokenby a violationof the law. Punishmentwould
have restoredthe initialbalance; the factthatpunishmentis avoided establishesa
new equilibrium.
The othertypeof storyis illustratedby the tale about Ermino(I,8), which we
may label "conversion."This storybegins in the middleof a completecycle,with
a state of imbalancecreatedby a flawin one of the characters.The storyis basi-
callythedescriptionof an improvement process-until the flawis no longerthere.
The categorieswhichhelp us to describethesetypestellus muchabout theuni-

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verse of a book. With Boccaccio, the two equilibriumssymbolize (for the most
part) cultureand nature,thesocial and theindividual;the storyusuallyconsistsin
illustrating the superiorityof thesecond termover thefirst.
We could also seek even greatergeneralizations.It is possible to contrasta spe-
cificplot typologywith a game typologyand to see them as two variants of a
commonstructure.So littlehas been done in this directionthat we do not even
knowwhatkindsof questionsto ask.1
I would like to returnnow to the beginningargumentand to look at the initial
question again: what is the object of structuralanalysis of literature(or, if you
wish, of poetics)? At firstglance,it is literatureor, as Jakobsonwould have said,
literariness.But let us look moreclosely.In our discussionof literaryphenomena,
we have had to introducea certainnumberof notions and to create an image of
literature;this image constitutesthe constantpreoccupationof all research on
poetics."Science is concernednot withthingsbut withthe systemof signs it can
substituteforthings,"wroteOrtega y Gasset. The virtualitieswhichmake up the
objectof poetics(as of all othersciences),theseabstractqualitiesof literatureexist
only in the discourse of poetics itself.From this perspective,literaturebecomes
onlya mediator,a language,whichpoeticsuses fordealingwithitself.
We mustnot,however,concludethatliteratureis secondaryforpoeticsor that
it is not,in a certainsense, the object of poetics.Science is characterizedprecisely
by this ambiguityconcerningits object, an ambiguitythatneed not be resolved,
but ratherused as the basis foranalysis.Poetics,like literature,consistsof an un-
interrupted movementback and forthbetweenthe two poles: thefirstis auto-ref-
erence,preoccupationwithitself;the second is what we usually call its object.
There is a practicalconclusionto be drawn fromthese speculations.In poetics
as elsewhere,discussionsof methodologyare not a minorarea of thelargerfield,a
kind of accidentalby-product:theyare ratherits very center,its principalgoal.
As Freud said, "The importantthingin a scientificwork is not the natureof the
factswithwhichit is concerned,but the rigor,the exactnessof the methodwhich
is priorto the establishmentof thesefacts,and theresearchof a synthesisas large
as possible."
1 A few bibliographicalsuggestions:I deal more at lengthwith the same problemsin the chapter
of the collective work Qu'est-ce que le structuralisme?(Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1968); and in my book
Grammairedu Decameron, to be published by Mouton, The Hague. Several studies using a similar per-
spective have been published in the periodical Communications(Paris, Editions du Seuil), Nos. 4, 8, 11
(articlesof Barthes,Bremond,Genette,etc.).

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