“Morphology of the Folk-Tale” By Vladimir Propp Summary Grade A

on September 22, 2016 in Essays, Masters Degree

Within his exploration of the common elements present in the genre of folk-tales, Vladimir Propp sets himself to the task of scientifically identifying that genre’s common constituent parts in the hopes of establishing a morphology, or a “description of the tale according to its component parts and the relationship of these components to each other and to the whole” (Propp 72). Over the course of his clinical deconstruction of the framework of the folk-tale, Propp seeks first to define what constitutes a folk tale before dexterously identifying the “recurring constants” (72), defining those constants, and finally explaining how they are interrelated across the entire spectrum of the genre.
Propp’s first challenge is to create “an accurate description of the tale” (72) to which he can apply his system of analysis uniformly. After framing this description with a series of examples, Propp presents the idea that though “The names of the dramatis personae change”, ultimately “neither their actions nor functions” (72) do. It is in this notion that Propp grounds his assertion that the relationships and actions of the dramatis personae are identical regardless of what story is being told, and that it is only the superficial elements of character and plot that change from tale to tale. Propp admits that the universal presence of these constructs is vital to the viability of his argument and that in order for him to create a compelling and cross-textual structure he must first “determine to what extent these functions actually represent recurrent constants of the tale” (73).
Propp finds that these constants are indeed recurrent and, using examples such as “Baba Jaga, Morozko, the bear, the forest spirit, and the mare’s head” (73), finds that “it is possible to establish that characters of a tale, however varied they may be, often perform the same actions” (73). At this point Propp sees fit to divorce the labels of the actor and the action from the function these elements serve within the story. By striping the “who” and “how”, which he acknowledges as residing in the “province of accessory study” (73), he is able to reveal the identical skeletal framework that exists beneath these surface qualifiers. Propp notes that this transfer of characteristics had been long noted in the study of mythic stories by academics working in historical fields, but was adopted much later into the study of folk-tales. Because of the shared skeleton, however limitless the variation of coverings which can be applied to it may be, Propp highlights the apparent contradiction between the seemingly infinite variability of the tale and relative narrow scope of the functions used to construct it. Propp explains this paradox by deciphering, “the two fold quality of a tale: its amazing multiformity, picturesqueness, and color, and or the other hand, its no less striking uniformity, its repetition” (73).
Having successfully established the uniform recurrence of functions for the purpose of his study of the folk-tale, Propp proceeds to define what those functions are. In doing so he makes two important distinctions: first that “definition should in no case depend on the personage who carries out the function” and second that “an action cannot be defined apart from its place in the course of narration” (73). In effect a character’s aesthetic qualities cannot be utilized in the study of that characters function and actions with similar aesthetic values are not necessarily representations of similar functions. By way of example Propp offers a difference in function between two marriages, that of Ivan to a tsar’s daughter and another of a father and a widow (73). The aesthetic similarities, that of both actions involving a marriage, does not equate to a similarity of function.
Before going into a detailed description of the functions of the dramatis personae in a tale, Propp, in a short aside, preempts the argument that a tale’s freedom lies in its sequence of events and intimates that, like short story as a genre, the folk-tale operates under its “own laws” and that its “sequence is restricted by the very narrow limits which can be exactly formulated” (74). It is this line of thought that leads him to the assertion that “All fairy tales are of one type in regard to their structure” (74).
Lastly, Propp undertakes the task of carefully detailing the different functions that are recurrent within the fairy-tale genre. Breaking these function into six unique categories (absentation, interdiction, violation, reconnaissance, delivery, and trickery) and providing examples of instances of these function in use within the tales mentioned at the outset of his essay, Propp demonstrates how these functions cross the textual boundaries and establish a common structure amongst them (74-75). It is with these designations that he hopes to arm readers for a structural analysis of any text within the genre he has so painstakingly explored.

Works Cited
Propp, Vladimir. “Morphology of the Folk-tale.” Literary Theory: An Anthology 2nd ed. Edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Blackwell, 2004, pp. 72-75.

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