Russian Vladimir Propp (1895-1970) analyzed many of his country’s folk tales and identified common themes within them. He broke down the stories into morphemes (analyzable chunks) and identified 31 narratemes (narrative units) that comprised the structure of many of the stories.
Folk stories around the world form a web of connections and the same or similar stories can be found in many places. These old stories also have formed the basis of many more stories since and hence Propp’s morphology is useful not only in understanding Russian folk tales but pretty much any other stories.
Propp has been both lauded for his structural approach and criticized for his lack of sensitivity to subtle story elements such as mood and deeper context. Nevertheless, his analysis provides a useful tool in understanding stories ancient and modern and, after early influence on such luminaries as Claude L�vi-Strauss and Roland Barthes, has become a classic of folklore and structuralist analysis.
He identified that “Five categories of elements define not only the construction of a tale, but the tale as a whole.”:
1. Functions of dramatis personae (see below)
2. Conjuctive elements (ex machina, announcement of misfortune, chance disclosure – mother calls hero loudly, etc.)
3. Motivations (reasons and aims of personages)
4. Forms of appearance of dramatis personae (the flying arrival of dragon, chance meeting with donor)
5. Attributive elements or accessories (witch’s hut or her clay leg)
Whilst not all stories will contain all of Propp’s narratemes, it is surprising to find stories that contain none, and many modern books and movies fit nicely into his categories.
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