Vladimir Propp

Posted by jerry on February 12th, 2007 — Posted in

Jerry Everard’s Introduction to Vladimir Propp…

Vladimir Propp extended the Russian Formalist approach to narratology (the study of narrative structure). Where, in the Formalist approach, sentence structures had been broken down into analysable elements – morphemes – Propp used this method by analogy to analyse folk tales. By breaking down a large number of Russian folk tales into their smallest narrative units – narratemes – Propp was able to arrive at a typology of narrative structures. By analysing types of characters and kinds of action, Propp was able to arrive at the conclusion that there were thirty-one generic narratemes in the Russian folk tale. While not all are present, he found that all the tales he analysed displayed the functions in unvarying sequence.

Try applying these to Star Wars or episodes of X-Files or Star Trek – It can be interesting to see how powerful are the narrative structures of folk mythology, and how they are continually reinserted into contemporary popular culture. The functions he described were as follows:

After the initial situation is depicted, the tale takes the following sequence:

  1. A member of a family leaves home (the hero is introduced);
  2. An interdiction is addressed to the hero (‘don’t go there’, ‘go to this place’);
  3. The interdiction is violated (villain enters the tale);
  4. The villain makes an attempt at reconnaissance (either villain tries to find the children/jewels etc; or intended victim questions the villain);
  5. The villain gains information about the victim;
  6. The villain attempts to deceive the victim to take possession of victim or victim’s belongings (trickery; villain disguised, tries to win confidence of victim);
  7. Victim taken in by deception, unwittingly helping the enemy;
  8. Villain causes harm/injury to family member (by abduction, theft of magical agent, spoiling crops, plunders in other forms, causes a disappearance, expels someone, casts spell on someone, substitutes child etc, comits murder, imprisons/detains someone, threatens forced marriage, provides nightly torments); Alternatively, a member of family lacks something or desires something (magical potion etc);
  9. Misfortune or lack is made known, (hero is dispatched, hears call for help etc/ alternative is that victimised hero is sent away, freed from imprisonment);
  10. Seeker agrees to, or decides upon counter-action;
  11. Hero leaves home;
  12. Hero is tested, interrogated, attacked etc, preparing the way for his/her receiving magical agent or helper (donor);
  13. Hero reacts to actions of future donor (withstands/fails the test, frees captive, reconciles disputants, performs service, uses adversary’s powers against them);
  14. Hero acquires use of a magical agent (directly transferred, located, purchased, prepared, spontaneously appears, eaten/drunk, help offered by other characters);
  15. Hero is transferred, delivered or led to whereabouts of an object of the search;
  16. Hero and villain join in direct combat;
  17. Hero is branded (wounded/marked, receives ring or scarf);
  18. Villain is defeated (killed in combat, defeated in contest, killed while asleep, banished);
  19. Initial misfortune or lack is resolved (object of search distributed, spell broken, slain person revivied, captive freed);
  20. Hero returns;
  21. Hero is pursued (pursuer tries to kill, eat, undermine the hero);
  22. Hero is rescued from pursuit (obstacles delay pursuer, hero hides or is hidden, hero transforms unrecognisably, hero saved from attempt on his/her life);
  23. Hero unrecognised, arrives home or in another country;
  24. False hero presents unfounded claims;
  25. Difficult task proposed to the hero (trial by ordeal, riddles, test of strength/endurance, other tasks);
  26. Task is resolved;
  27. Hero is recognised (by mark, brand, or thing given to him/her);
  28. False hero or villain is exposed;
  29. Hero is given a new appearance (is made whole, handsome, new garments etc);
  30. Villain is punished;
  31. Hero marries and ascends the throne (is rewarded/promoted).

For further information, look for:
Vladimir Propp Morphology of the Folktale
University of Texas Press:Austin and London (1968)

or Jerry Everard’s intro to Russian Formalism

(c) Jerry Everard 1995
Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape


Comment by Paul Katembo


I would like to know if it is possible to buy the Book about:
Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale.

Posted on September 10, 2007 at 9:25 pm

Comment by jerry

Paul – you could try Amazon.com. Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale is currently available.


Posted on September 10, 2007 at 10:17 pm

Comment by marliza yeni


Your writing about Propp’s narrative structure is really helpful. A question, is it possible to apply this theory to other literary works, such as novel or short story? I have tried some, and some of the results are that the narratemes are there, but the order is different. Can I simply say that I have applied structuralism analysis, and the result is that the literary work I analized is not a folktale (since Propp says that the order may not be changed)?


Posted on December 3, 2007 at 3:48 pm

Comment by jerry


Propp’s analysis of a few hundred Russian folk tales showed remarkable consistency in the sequence of narratemes, but you could certainly apply his work to other forms – that’s why I suggested looking at, say, Star Wars or Lord of the Rings – I think his work applies well – but yes of course novelists and short story writers play with narrative sequence so it won’t be as rigid as an oral art-form, like the folk tale.

I think what Propp usefully contributes is a methodology for unpacking any narrative – and just as he was being descriptive in his analysis of the Russian tales, so too, you could use his techniques in a descriptive analysis of a novel or short story. It might even be useful to compare/contrast the structures by showing, say, how a modern novel differs in narrative structure from the folk tale 🙂

Hope that helps


Posted on December 6, 2007 at 6:45 am

Comment by fatima-simo


Posted on April 10, 2008 at 2:18 am

Comment by ValodaR

I would like to inform you about recent publication on Vladimir Propp and birth of structuralism at the Literary Encyclopedia:

Posted on May 31, 2008 at 7:25 am

Comment by Thaisa

hey, hello!
i’m a cinema student and i’ve been currently studied some topics about propp. just after reading your text i could really understand that stuff.
thank you! =)

Posted on June 6, 2008 at 2:13 pm

Comment by Alan Taylor

Readers might find this link useful in delineating the Proppian model in “Up, Close and Personal” (1996). We shouldn`t be too surprised to see it surface in contemporary media as most of the screenwriters/directors are now graduates of courses that cover this.

Posted on July 19, 2008 at 2:55 am

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