Before we dive in, I would recommend reading this post on Russian formalism first for the necessary critical context.
Vladimir Propp published Morphology of the Folktale in 1928; in this book, he tried to identify a so-called “grammar of narrative.” In botany, the word ‘morphology’ means the study of a plant’s structure. Propp attempted to find a similar deep structure underlying any number of stories. According to Susana Onega, Propp
draws a clear distinction between, on the one hand, the text itself, which is the manifest level and, on the other, the abstract level of function sequences and spheres of action of the characters. (Narratology: An Introduction)
In his study, Propp completely ignored the historical and social context of the tales he examined. He worked with a body of Russian folktales, which he believed all possessed the same structure of ‘narrative functions’ (possible actions). These functions are like buliding blocks and follow the chronological order of a linear sequence. According to Propp, similar events of two completely different stories can be grouped together into one function. For example:
A wizard gives the hero a magical potion that will disguise him and allow him to slip past the guards.
The acrobat gives the hero a talking eagle that can carry him anywhere he wants to go.
These are two similar actions and can be grouped together under the function “the hero requires a magical agent.” Thus, the two motifs are variables of the same function. In his study of Russian fairytales, Propp compiled a list of thirty-one possible functions. Despite the differences in shape and identity of the characters/landscapes/obstacles, the stories still have the same building blocks.
In this corpus of Russian fairytales, there wasn’t one story that contained all thirty-one functions. If you want to make a plot, you just select a couple of functions from the list and put them in chronological order (some functions can even be repeated). The list of functions is a bit like a cupboard full of ingredients with which you can make an individual dish. The sequence of the functions is fixed, because events ted to have a due order. As Peter Barry puts it in Beginning Theory: “a house cannot be burgled before it has been broken into.”
Propp doesn’t spend too much time on possible character types, because to him, they are mere vessels for actions, mechanisms to distribute the functions around the story. Nonetheless, he identifies seven character types, or, “spheres of action”:
1. The villain
2. The donor
3. The helper
4. The princess (or ‘sought-for-person’) and her father
5. The dispatcher
6. The hero (seeker or victim)
7. The false hero
This may seem very limiting, but becomes more versatile when we consider the fact that one character may fulfil more than one of these spheres, and one role can employ more than one character. With these seven spheres of action and the list of thirty-one functions, we can generate the plot of any Russian folktale in Propp’s corpus.
Even though this kind of analysis may lead to interesting results (like discovering the structural similarities between Cinderella and Jane Eyre, for example), Propp’s system completely ignores things like social and historical context, style, point of view… Anything specific to the individual work.
Still, Propp’s work was very influenctial in the later Structuralist movement, inspiring critics like Claude Lévi-Strauss and Claude Bremond. As Alan Dundes put it in his introduction to the 1978 English translation of Morphology: “Propp’s study is only a first step, albeit a giant one.” Propp’s work is also used in the field of cognitive psychology in research into the process of reading and the recognition of story structures by children.
In 2000, Moretti wrote a controversial article, saying that contemporary critics are too focused on close-reading individual canonical texts, relying on a narrow, distorted section of the field. According to him, literary studies should return to Propp’s methods of “distant-reading” in order to study world literature as a whole.