Russian Fairy Tales (RUSS 047/LITR 047R) -- Spring 2008 -- Swarthmore College

Lecture notes for March 19, 2008

Sibelan Forrester

Vladimir Propp and Formal Analysis

Hand out outline for the 10-page paper – any questions?

Camille’s presentation is on line at:

Vladimir Propp, method based on his 1928 Morphology of the Folktale (Морфология сказки). The intro traces the history of the problem, where fairy tale studies stood as of the late 1920s. Chapter “The Method and Material” (shades of “the Formal Method,” practiced by Russian Formalists – these are the same guys from whom Roman Jakobson came) summarizes his “observations”:

  1. "Functions of characters serve as stable, constant elements in a tale, independent of how and by whom they are fulfilled. They constitute the fundamental components of a tale."
  2. "The number of functions known to the fairy tale is limited.” (21)
  3. "The sequence of functions is always identical. [why the alphabetical symbols are so suitable]” (22) - note that because the Russian alphabet resembles the Greek alphabet there are places where it doesn't match with the Latin/Phoenician alphabet, needs an extra element etc.
  4. "All fairy tales are of one type in regard to their structure.” (23)

Chapter III lists “The Functions of Dramatis Personae” with LOTS of examples – the note at the chapter’s end suggests skimming the whole thing (pp. 25-65) to get the overall idea before going back over it in detail.

There are a few chapters (IV-VIII) with refinements or additional stuff; then Ch IX: “The Tale as a Whole,” looking at the way stories are combined (“moves” inserted within one another – remember Ong’s point that the epic is structured like nesting boxes?). The rest is all Appendices – including “Further Techniques of Analysis,” pp. 128-134; “Schemes and Analysis,” and the very brief “List of Abbreviations” which I asked you to read (pp. 149-155) – it’s really all you need, though other parts are fun because they bring in tales you’ve read by now.

Walk through the analysis of “The Magic Swan-Geese,” pp. 96-98, and write up the scheme of all the functions of the tale he gives on p. 99.

So what does this method get you, as a reader or analyst of fairy tales? What’s the point? Formalist analysis is partly designed to teach literary analysis, or folklore analysis, and the questions it raises aim to get at, uncover or underline, the places in a text or tale where there's something interesting, attention-grabbing. (See again the very cool online article on Russian formalists at Some critics of Formalism have referred to this aspect of it as a "cookbook" - but using those terms, what does a cookbook get you?

Return to the class syllabus

Proceed to the lecture notes for Friday, March 21, 2008.