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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Dmitry Olshansky

The Birth of Structuralism from the Analysis of Fairy-Tales

Vladimir Propp was a Russian philologist and structuralist who analyzed the basic plot components of Russian folktales in order to identify their simplest irreducible narrative elements. His research on fairy-tales achieved world recognition as the first application of structuralism to the humanities and created the foundation for new disciplines, such as narratology, semiology and structural anthropology. Umberto Eco considers that "Saussure + Lévi-Strauss + Hjelmslev + Propp had drawn up the method, which tried to be integral one, that is know as structuralism." (Eco, La structura assente. Introduzione alla ricerca semiologica, Milan: Bompiani, 1968. P. 348). Among others, Vladimir Propp was recognized as an inventor of structuralism, which has become a main method of the humanities in twentieth century. Vladimir Propp was recognized as one of the inventors of structuralism, which has become one of the major analytical techniques in the humanities in the twentieth century.

Successors such as Roland Barthes, A. J. Greimas and Claude Lévi-Strauss tried to spread this method and resolve similar tasks, looking for the narrative elements in all contemporary culture: "from newspaper chronicle to mass novel" (Barthes, Mythologies, 1957), to the semantics of any type of narrative text (Greimas, Sémantique structurale: Recherche de méthode, 1966) and analysis of primitive peoples and their elementary structures of kinship (Lévi-Strauss, Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté, 1949). Although Propp's investigations may appear rather limited (from Russian fairy-tales to agrarian holidays), his method became significant for a wide range of disciplines and occasioned a methodological turning point in the humanities.

Vladimir Propp was born on April 2, 1895 in St. Petersburg, where he lived all his life. From 1914 to 1918 he studied Russian and German philology at Petrograd (St Petersburg) State University, where he remained until 1969: as lecturer in the Department of Philology (from 1932); as professor (from 1938); and then head of department (from 1964). He died on August 22, 1970.

Propp is chiefly known as the author of four fundamental books, in both folklore studies and narratology. In his first and most famous book, Morphology of the Folktale (1928), he argues his most perceptive structuralist ideas and projects their development and application. Further volumes, The Historical Roots of Fairy-Tale (1946), Russian Heroic Epics (1958), and Russian Agrarian Feast-days (1963), continued the elaboration and application of structuralism. Although these books were devoted to divergent areas, Propp developed one and the same method over the 35 years.

Like Freud, who derives his method from chemical analysis of the elements, Propp sought the roots of morphology in biology. Lévi-Strauss also compared Propp's constant model for the fairy-tale with chemical formulae. He thus considered morphology to be a doctrine of forms, of relations between the parts and the whole: i.e. a doctrine about structure. (Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, p. 5). Accordingly, in his research Propp separated variable and constant elements in different fairy-tales, seeking a wonderful uniformity in the labyrinth of multiplicity. (Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, p. 14). In other words, he was less interested in the matter than in the structure of the narrative, trying to establish a stable scenario in the relation between parts and whole in a totality of tales.

The humanities agenda at the time contained what might be termed the "unconscious scenario." which Lévi-Strauss calls "elementary structure kinship." Lacan calls "phantasm," and Propp tags "constant models." Propp's method allows an avoidance of historical, psychological and cultural explanations of the text, so as to turn literary studies away from research into characters and their motives (as undertaken by A. Veselovsky) to a search for a structure that arranges the plot in all fairy-tales. Propp considered characters, as variable elements, unimportant for his research. According to the first principle of Propp's morphology, "the constant element of the fairy-tale is a function, independently of who realizes it" (Morphology of the Folktale, p. 25).

Propp applies Formalist methodology to the research of narrative structure. According to the Formalists, the structure of a sentence in narrative could be broken down into analyzable elements, i.e. "morphemes," and Propp used this method by analogy to analyze folktales. His system includes the modal notions of "prohibition" and "lack," which generate stories of transgression and quest respectively. In 1966, his disciple A.J. Greimas formulated Propp's idea as a principle of narrative studies: "A modal category takes charge of the content of the message and organizes it by establishing a certain type of relationship between the constituent linguistic objects" (Greimas, Sémantique structurale, p. 133).

In 1975 Greimas wrote: "Today, though its heuristic value is diminished somewhat and even though this stance is not very original, we are still tempted to follow Propp's example and, by virtue of the principle of proceeding from the known to the unknown, from the simpler to the more complex, move from oral literature to written literature, from folk tale to the literary tale, in our quest to confirm the partial theoretical models at hand and even to recalcitrant facts which would enable us to increase our knowledge about narrative and discursive organization." (Greimas, Maupassant: The Semiotics of the Text, p. xxiv).

Furthermore, Propp was not interested in changeable secondary details, and he does not analyze one separate tale as it is, but looks for dynamics of a plot in several version of one the same tale, in metalanguage of narrative ("functions" in Propp or "actants" in his disciple Greimas), that were common for all the tales of one group. To search for the general structure of the myth he takes several versions of one and the same tale and traces changes and development in those versions. Propp tries to arrive at a typology of narrative structures. By analyzing types of characters and kinds of action in a hundred traditional Russian folk tales, Propp was able to arrive at the conclusion that there were just thirty-one generic "narratemes." While not all are present in every tale, he found that all the tales he analyzed displayed the functions in unvarying sequence. He says: "Not every fairy tale containing a theft produces this construction. If this construction does not fellow, subsequent patterns, however similar, cannot be compared, for they are heteronymous [of different types]." (Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, p. 152).

In L'activité structuraliste Roland Barthes argues that structuralism neither reflects the world, nor follows in its traces, but builds it. Therefore there is no difference between the structural research of Propp and Georges Dumézil and literary composition, because both construct an object "with the help of arrangement of manifestations and combination of the elements." (Barthes, L'activité structuraliste, p. 215). Like Freud, Propp rejects an idea of neutrality of observation and independence from the object of research: structuralism creates his own object, in a "field research" (in anthropology) or "neurosis of transference" (in psychoanalysis) or "narrative analysis" (in Propp). As far as the development of analysis discovers new objects and new perspectives to research, it is possible to conclude that the object appears not as a cause, but as an effect of any research; that is why structuralism looks like combinatorial composition. The object of analysis should be constructed during the analysis itself, following anthropological, clinical, or literary experience; that is why Freud argued that "reconstruction" of history is always becomes a "construction" of reality.

Propp's morphology has effectively done away with the figure of the narrator, and his disciple Roland Barthes took up and pushed further this idea in his famous thesis on "the death of the author" -- “i.e. "death" as a psychological type and a historical personality, not as a textual function. Contrary to previous literary studies, which had seen the author as an external person whose life was to be investigated as a context of his writing, the "author," in this structuralist view, should be understood as a constructed part of the text itself. Both Propp and Barthes rejected earlier versions of psychologism; but in applying the same methodology, Barthes did not propose to ignore the author's function, but rather to use it as an element of narration. For Barthes, the text does not belong to the author, but rather the author belongs to the text; an author is dead as a person, but he is present in his text as its function, independently of who realizes it. In other words, an author disappears as a psychological type, but appears as a symbolic function: "the subject discovers himself in an act of removal, to which he undergoes his own personality." (Barthes, De la science à  la littérature, p. 18). As a result, writing belongs not to the individual author, but to the splintered subject of the unconscious.

Lévi-Strauss also focused on the roles of narratorial changes, borrowing Propp's idea in his method of the reconstruction of mythological "rows" -- “ i.e. couples of connected elements repeated in all versions of one tale. According to Lévi-Strauss, to understand a culture, the anthropologist should look for such an elementary grammar of mythological thinking. A wide circle of structural thinkers, figures such as Althusser, Barthes, Bourdieu, Dumézil, Genette, Metz, Serres, Todorov and others, thereafter developed this method.

At the same time, Lévi-Strauss himself distinguished Propp's method of formal research and his own anthropological structuralism. In his article "The Structure and the Form" (1960) he discussed the limits of formalism. Although Lévi-Strauss shares Propp's narrative analysis of text for many reasons, but at the same time he doubts the formalists' opposition between form and content, and he argued that such contradiction in analysis of fairy-tales was Propp's own illusion. Instead, the main difference between formalism and structuralism consists in the matter of the investigation and understanding of structure. "For structuralism there is no such difference between the form and the content: there is no such category of abstract, on the one hand, and a category of the concrete, on the other. The form and the content have one and the same nature and therefore they both undergo to the analysis" (Lévi-Strauss, La structure et la forme, p. 16). That content should have its own structure and form is just a result of "structuralization." For Lévi-Strauss, form is defined through its content, but there is no form of structure, i.e. structure is not something that could be reduced to a definite quantity of constant elements. According to Propp "the quantity of the functions is limited." (Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, p. 25). Such a combination of constant 31 functions and 7 heroes looks like archetypes, which are common for all the fair-tales. From this assertion Lévi-Strauss concluded that "formalism destroys its own object. Formalism drove Propp to a conclusion that there is only one and the same tale" (Lévi-Strauss, La structure et la forme, p. 17). Propp really said that "all the functions of the fairy-tale belong to one and the same narration" (Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, p. 26), which looks to be a reconstruction of the original narration. For Lévi-Strauss's aim was to deal with the real narration, not with archetypes (which looks to be quite abstract, like Jungian psychology), whereas Propp simply ignored those elements of narration which did not correspond to his model; eventually, however, he was forced to return to his initial classification in order to find more functions and refine further models.

In other words, structure in Propp's analysis comes before experience; it appears like a prior form, which constitutes the genre of fairy-tales. He believed in a "common structure," which could be expressed and formalised in a way similar to a chemical formula. While for Propp structure was something to be identified within texts, for his disciples structure becomes something illusory, even "absent" (as Umberto Eco posits) or an "empty cell" (as in Lévi Strauss's introduction to M. Mauss's Sociology and Anthropology), something that emerges a posteriori, after the experience, in a deferred action of analysis. That is why structure is, for these later theorists, not a totality of discourse, but rather a changeable effect of discourse. Lacan saw the analyst's aim in deconstruction of the totality of discourse, which he calls symptom, and in the discovery of the constant points of contact between the signifier and the real, which help (re)construct the matter of the patient's phantasm.

Unlike Saussure, Propp's attention was not focused on the meaning of the signifier and its relation to others, but on the function realized by the signifier within systems of narration. Propp investigated the rules of the constitution of discourse and offered a constant model in different plots. While Saussure elaborated the transmission between form and content, Propp sought the repetition of a constant function, i.e. the stagnant tie between signifier and signified. According to the second principle of Propp's morphology, "the order of the function is always one and the same" (Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, p. 25). In other words, Propp supposed the development of plot to be one and the same in different tales; therefore the appearance of meaning in narration lay beyond his examination. Propp evaded such questions as how meaning could arise in the narrative, how meaning could be produced, or who is the subject of the fairy-tale, i.e. the main question in psychoanalysis: who is speaking?

As the early Lacan, in his search for the phallic signifier arranging and supporting a patient's symptom (which is structured "in the development of speech," according to Lacan's definition [Seminar of 1957/58. P. 442]), Propp deals with an invariable and repeated model, which constitutes the plot of all fairy-tales. In his Seminar "L'identification" Lacan argues for the phallic function as an organizer of discourse, consisting in a morphological differentiation of language. [Seminar of 1961/62. P. 147]. That phallic signifier is really absent, and thus creates a place for further linguistic supplementation and the development of desire. Both theorists were looking for the "cause" of discourse, seeking a reconstruction of the code of psychical structure (Lacan) or genre structure (Propp).

In so far as the discourse of the unconscious belongs to the Other, Lacan criticized those techniques which focused on the self with its psychological type and which operated on principles of historical reductionism. Such criticism of the psychology of the self in early Lacan is very similar to Propp's doubt about the historical method in literary studies and the absence of interest in the position of the author. Lacan argues that speech belongs to the Other, therefore not to the author, but to his or her relation to the Other; that relation which constitutes the structure of the narration is in the focus both of Lacanian psychoanalysis and Propp's morphology.

However, while for Lacan the symptom uncovers the place of the subject in the field of the Other, and is one possible way to address enjoyment (jouissance), Propp does not explore narration as a message, nor does he research either the subjective or the Other's position in it. Trying to work with pure structure only, Propp does not pay necessary attention to the idea that the tale is the message and appears in the relation to the Other, as Lacan argues in his Seminar "Le désir et son interprétation" (1958/59) (Lecture of 12.11.1958). Therefore it is impossible to analyze structure of the tale without consideration about the Other.

While Lacan relied on an ex-centered mechanism of discourse, seeking the dynamics of subject-Other relations, Propp enunciated just one quite static form of that relationship, reduced to a finite number of patterns in narration. Unlike dialectic of absence of phallic signifier, which realize the "function of a gap." Propp thus remained firmly within the "logic of presence." attempting to objectify and calculate the code of structure. From Lacan's point of view, we can conclude about the structure in its dialectical development only, and our assumption comes from the clinical experience post factum. Therefore, susceptive structure could be result of the investigation, but not the point of departure.

Propp passed not only the desire of the subject, who articulates the narration, but also materiality of speech act, which is at the focus of psychoanalysis. His morphologic method seems to be quite scholastic, because it is based on the analysis of structure without subject and without act, which could not explained with the help of "constant models" and which does not follow the irreducible narrative elements, but repeats and deconstructs them. Propp's view withdraws time from the narration, although structure is always a presupposed form of time, and that is why Paul Ricoeur called it the "total dechronologization of narrative structure" (Ricoeur, Temps et récit. T.2. La configuration dans le récit de fiction. Paris: Seuil, 1985, P. 41).

In actual fact, narration does not equal text, because it includes such important elements as time and voice, which themselves create structure out of narration and define its function. When investigating tales Propp works with symbolic order only, rather than with a transmission between the orders of the real, the symbolic and the imaginary, and their mutual effects. Propp seems to be carried away with reductionism, which is why his works were more productive for semiology than for psychoanalysis. In his search for form, he passed over the subjectivity of that form and considered structure to be derived exclusively from the text, basing his conclusions on common and major details only. In the progress of his studies Lacan withdrew from his earlier concepts of full and empty speech, because there are no variable or minor elements, and all aspects of speech take part in a structure of narration.

Although Propp kept to the Formalist heritage, with its belief in a pure and immovable text removed from subject, dynamics and time, his obvious merit lies in his creation and development of a method of morphology which became central for the humanities in the twentieth century and provided a point of departure for further post-structuralist research.

By Propp:

Propp V. Morphology of the Folktale. Leningrad, 1928; [English: The Hague: Mouton, 1958; Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968] [French: Morphologie du conte. Paris: Seuil, 1970]

Propp V. Theory and History of Folklore. University of Minnesota Press, 1984

Propp V. Russian Heroic Epos. Moscow, 1958

Propp V. Theory of Literature. Moscow,1965


Barthes R. L'activité structuraliste. / Essais critiques. Paris: Seuil, 1964. pp. 213-220

Barthes R. De la science à la littérature. / Le bruissement de la langue. Paris: Seuil, 1984. pp. 13-20

Bremond C. Logiques du récit. Paris: Seuil, 1973

Bremond C. Le message narratif. / Logique du récit. Paris: Ed. de Seuil, 1973

Bremond C. L'étude structurale du récit depuis V. Propp. / A Semiotic Landscape: Proceedings of the International Association for Semiotic Studies.

Carloni R., Di Fabio E. Analizzare le fiabe: leggere Calvino giocando con le carte di Propp, 2002

Dundes A. The Morphology of North American Indian Folktales. Helsinki: F.F. Communication, 1964

Foresti-Serrano C. Análisis morfológico de veinte cuentos de magia de la tradición oral chilena: Aplicación y discusión del método de Vladimir Propp. Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 1985

Gilet P. Vladimir Propp and the Universal Folktale: Recommissioning and Old Paradigm -- Story as Initiation. Berlin: Peter Lang Publishing, 1998

Grazzini S. Der strukturalistische Zirkel: Theoreen über Mythos und Märchen bei Propp, Lévi-Strauss, Meletinskij. Berlin: Deutsch Universitäts-Verlag, 1999

Greimas A.-J. Du Sens. Paris: Seuil, 1970

Greimas A.-J. Sémantique structurale: Recherche de méthode. Paris: Larousse, 1966

Greimas A.-J. Maupassant: La sémiotique du texte. Paris: Seuil, 1976 [English: Greimas A.-J. Maupassant: The Semiotics of the Text. Trans. Paul Perron. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamin, 1988]

Jason H. Bibliographien zu Slawisch-folkloristischem Schriftgut - ausgewahlt aus dem Vorlesungsrepertoire von Vladimir Propp. Nanzan University, 2005

Lacan J. Le Séminaire, Livre V: Les formations de l'inconscient (1957/58). Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1998.

Lacan J. Le Séminaire, Livre VI: Le désir et son interprétation (1958/59). Paris: A.L.I., 2002

Lacan J. Le Séminaire, Livre IX: L'identification (1961/62). Paris: A.L.I., 1990

Lévi-Strauss C. Anthropologie structurale, Paris: Plon, 1958

Lévi-Strauss C. L'analyse morphologique des contes russes. / International Journal of Slavic Poetics and Linguistics. vol. 3, La Haye, 1960, pp. 122 - 149

Lévi-Strauss C. La structure et la forme, réflexions sur un ouvrage de Vladimir Propp. / Cahiers de l'Institut de science économique appliquée. Série M, No. 7, 1960, pp. 1-36

Pop M. Aspectes actuels des recherches sur la structure des contes. Paris: Fabula, 1967

Ricoeur, P. Temps et récit. T.2. La configuration dans le récit de fiction. Paris: Seuil, 1985

Nathhorst B. Formal or structural studies of traditional tales: The usefulness of some methodological proposals advanced by Vladimir Propp, Alan Dundes, Claude Lévi-Strauss. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1969

Segal R. Structuralism and Myth: Levi-Strauss, Barthes, Dumezil, and Propp (Theory of Myth). Garland Press, 1996

Todorov T. Théorie de la littérature. Textes des formalistes russes. Paris: Ed. de Seuil, 1966

Warner E.A. Vladimir Propp, 1895-1970: The Study of Russian Folklore and Theory. Hull University Press, 1999

Ziel W. Bibliographien zu "Slawischfolkloristisches Schriftgut" aus dem Vorlesungsrepertoire von Vladimir Propp und zu "Slawische Folklore und Folklore vom Balkan." Peter Lang Publishing, 1995

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