gallery of russian thinkers...

selected by Dmitry Olshansky

'The study of the fairy tale may be compared in many respects to that of organic formation in nature. Both the naturalist and the folklorist deal with species and varieties which are essentially the same.'

Vladimir Propp Morphology of the Folktale

Vladimir Propp
Vladimir Propp

VLADIMIR PROPP (29. 04. 1895, St Petersburg — 22. 08. 1970, Leningrad) — Russian philologist and structuralist who analysed the basic plot components of Russian folk tales to identify their simplest irreducible narrative elements. Like his followers Barthes, Greimas and Levi-Strauss he tried to approach the same task looking for simplest narrative elements in contemporary everyday narratives 'from newspaper chronicle to mass novel' (Barthes. Mythologies, 1957) or in the semantic of literary texts (Greimas. Semantique structurale: Recherche de methode, 1966) or analysing the tales of primitive people (Levi-Strauss. Anthropologie structurale, 1958) and their elementary structure of kinship (Levi-Strauss. Les Structures elementaires de la parente, 1949).

Propp's world famous monograph Morphology of the Folk Tale (1928) has had an influence upon European structural thought: both upon literary studies and anthropology and semiology. Umberto Eco considers that 'Saussure + Levi-Strauss + Hjelmslev + Propp created the united method that is structuralism' (La structura assente. Introduzione alla ricerca semiologica, p. 348). Propp is known to be a father of structuralism.

Propp applied Formalist method to the research of narrative structure. According to the Formalists, structures of a sentence in narrative can be broken down into analysable elements, i.e. 'morphemes' and Propp used this method by analogy to analyse folk tales. His system includes the modal notions of 'prohibition' and 'lack', which generate the 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 contents of the message and organizes it by establishing a certain type of relationship between the constituent linguistic objects' (Semantique structurale, p. 133).

Propp ignores verbal aspects of folk tale, such as tone, rhythm, time and mood of narration; investigating tales he works with the texts rather than with voices, that is why his works were more prolific for semiology and anthropology than for phonetics. 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' (The Semiotics of the Text, p. xxiv).

Also, Propp is not interested in changeable secondary details, and he does not analyze one separate tale as it is, but looks for the dynamics of a plot in several versions of one the same tale, in the metalanguage of narrative ('functions' in Propp or 'actants' in his disciple Greimas), that are common to all the tales of one group. To search for the general structure of the myth he takes several versions of one the same tale and traces changes and development in those versions. Propp tries to arrive at a typology of narrative structures. By analysing 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 analysed 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' (Morphology of the Folktale, p. 152).

His disciple Levi-Strauss borrows Propp's idea in his method of reconstruction of mythological 'rows', i.e. couple of connected elements that repeats in all version of on tale. According to Levi-Strauss, to understand a culture, the anthropologist should look for such an elementary grammar of mythological thinking. And this method was borrowed by wide circle of structural thinkers such as Althusser, Barthes, Bourdieu, Dumezil, Genette, Metz, Serres, and beyond.

Dostoevsky said that all Russian writers have started from Gogol's 'Coat'; and we should conclude that all European structuralists have started from Propp's Morphology of the Folktale. And even today — as a father of structuralism — he is the subject matter of discussions of post-structural philosophers and critics such as Todorov and Kristeva.


Propp V.Y. Morphology of the Folktale. Leningrad, 1928; English: The Hague: Mouton, 1958; Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968;

Propp V.Y. Russian Heroic Epos. Moscow, 1958;

Propp V.Y. Theory of Literature. Moscow, 1965;


© Dmitry A. Olshansky, M.A. in Philosophy (St. Petersburg)



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