Tag Archives: literary criticism

Review: “Plots” by Robert L. Belknap

30 Jul

Plots by Robert L Belknap cover


Robert L. Belknap. Introduction by Robin Feuer Miller

Columbia University Press, May 2016.

200 pages

Available in Hardcover and E-book.

Amazon | Goodreads

I thank Columbia University Press and Netgalley for providing an electronic review copy of this book.

My Review

You may never look at a story the same way again after reading Robert Belknap’s incisively clear and illuminating book, titled simply, Plots. In her very helpful Introduction, Robin Feuer Miller calls Belknap’s achievement “a magnum opus that is particular, profound, original, and short.” I absolutely agree. The first part of the book presents the fundamental dynamic that authors use to create plots: the active arrangement (and re-arrangement) of incidents in the story world to make a narrative for the reader. Belknap’s explanation of the varieties of ways incidents can be linked is indeed particular and profound.  The second part of the book analyzes two test cases, Shakespeare’s King Lear and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. As a Slavic languages expert and scholar of Dostoevsky, Belknap is especially at home writing about the distinctive tools Dostoevsky uses in his novels, but he has insights to offer on numerous authors and genres, which I will mention.

Let’s begin, as Belknap does, with his definition of plot and one very fundamental distinction, which will pry open the toolbox used by storytellers in many different genres. Belknap states his definition of “plot” in several related ways:

“Plots arrange literary experience.” (title of Chapter 1)

“Plots are ways of relating incidents to one another.”

“Plots are purposeful arrangements of experience.”

All of these are true, and each adds a little nuance. I like the third one because of that word “purposeful.” Belknap is particularly astute at uncovering an author’s probable purpose in choosing to arrange incidents one way rather than another.

Now for that key distinction: fabula versus siuzhet. These are Russian words drawn from Russian formalism, an approach to story structure put forward by Vladimir Propp in his 1928 book Morphology of the Folktale and also by Viktor Shklovsky. But we don’t need to go back to these sources to figure out this pair of concepts; just read Belknap’s title for Chapter 3:

The Fabula Arranges the Events in the World the Characters Inhabit; the Siuzhet Arranges the Events in the World the Reader Encounters in the Text

In other words, the fabula is the “true” arrangement of incidents in the story world as they “happened” to the characters. The siuzhet arranges these incidents to present to  readers in the readers’ world. In short fairy tales, these two arrangements usually track each other quite closely. But longer stories often employ big discrepancies between them. Flashbacks or other devices for telling events out of chronological order are familiar ways in which the siuzhet can diverge from the fabula to create the readers’ experience.  The murder mystery Memento (written and directed by Christopher Nolan) is an extreme example since the film systematically separates the narrative order from the “real” order in the world of the main character (played by Guy Pearce). Dr Steve Aprahamian made a graph relating the two different timelines.


By Dr Steve Aprahamian (Picture of a chart created in Microsoft Excel) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Belknap points out that both the fabula and the siuzhet are arrangements of incidents fabricated in the creation of a work of fiction and, furthermore, they are closely interdependent. How do we as readers discover the fabula, the true order of events? Only by the narration, in whatever order the author chooses to reveal its incidents. Conversely, there can be no narration unless we presume an underlying chronology of events in the fictional world. The narration is only “out of order” with respect to it.

Manipulating incidents in narration then becomes the whole work of storytelling, something that modern narrative technique sometimes takes to new heights of bizarreness in the effort to find original ways of splitting and dissecting that bond between fabula and siuzhet. The fabula is inherently mimetic, a representation of our four-dimensional world (three dimensions of space, one dimension of time), whereas the siuzhet is rhetorical, one-dimensional or linear in the sense that, in the telling, incidents are fed to the reader one at a time (unless she flips back and forth!)–“shaped to make the reader share and participate in the action of the text.”  Belknap notes that detective stories achieve suspense when the fabula outpaces the siuzhet, leaving the reader in ignorance about “who-done-it” until the end when the siuzhet catches up, so to speak, in a revelatory scene. Dramatic irony occurs, he says, “when the siuzhet outpaces the fabula and characters living within the fabula act in ignorance of some fact in their world that the audience already knows.” These are the times that you want to shout at the characters to tell them what is really going on!  Shakespeare used dramatic irony very effectively in his plays. We wish we could tell Romeo that Juliet is not really dead, as she appears, and thereby stop his hasty suicide.  We wish we could disabuse Othello of Iago’s cruel deception and save Desdemona.

Belknap argues that, although much narrative theory has gravitated toward its uses in characterization, narrative manipulation of plot (siuzhet) can be just as fundamental for achieving the goals of a novel, including characterization. He will return to this theme in his analysis of Crime and Punishment and the character of Raskolnikov.

Before he gets there, he offers many more examples of how all this works in practice. He asserts that there are only a small set of ways that one incident can be related to another: chronologically, spatially, causally, associatively, or narratively. These apply somewhat differently in the siuzhet and in the fabula. Belknap carefully explains the many possible variations and their ramifications. I will give just a few highlights.

He notes that Homer’s device of beginning in medias res, in the middle of things, is simply a matter of starting the siuzhet in the middle of the fabula. And then somewhere during the siuzhet, someone will narrate the incidents that came before. In the Odyssey, the epic opens ten years after the Trojan War and Odysseus has already suffered much in his long homecoming voyage; his wife Penelope is besieged by suitors at home and their son Telemachus has grown up. When Odysseus escapes from Calypso, he is shipwrecked and seeks shelter with the Phaiakians, being led to their king by the beautiful princess Nausicaa. Accepting their hospitality, Odysseus eventually reveals who he is and recounts his adventures up to that point. This retrospective narrative, manipulating the chronology of telling, actually serves to reduce the dramatic tension as he describes his encounter with the dangerous Cyclops, Polyphemos, for example. We know he will escape from the one-eyed giant because he is there telling the story!  Why would Homer want to reduce the tension? I think it is because this incident functions as a warrior’s tale, to illustrate a key aspect of Odysseus’ character–his cleverness. The real dramatic climax is ahead, when at last Odysseus returns home and he must face the large band of suitors who have taken over his house.  With his own skill and the help of his son Telemachus, he defeats them, but as readers we won’t know the outcome of this bloody fight until it is shown to us, when the fabula and the siuzhet chronologies have merged again.

Belknap notes that many incidents in Sherlock Holmes stories are organized spatially, contrasting inside (221B Baker Street) with outside (where crimes take place) or subdividing the outside locations into London crimes versus those in the countryside (such as the moors of the Baskervilles). Lewis Carroll’s Alice visits a place that is both chronologically and spatially disconnected from England; Belknap says that she enters “a separate looking-glass time system, and the rabbit hole leaves her not under land but in Wonderland.” The Arabian Nights present a complex set of relations. There is a causal connection in the fabula between Scheherazade’s telling of her stories and her nights spent with the Caliph; her stories, however, are often related narratively to each other, as one story leads to another, often in several layers of embedding.

Allegories like The Pilgrim’s Progress are good examples of associative relations, where two plots are put in some correspondence with each other. But associative relations or parallelism doesn’t have to involve allegory. Tolstoy often relates plots within his novels by means of parallels or anti-parallels, as in Anna Karenina, where Anna’s dysfunctional marriage to Karenin and her affair with Vronsky are both contrasted with Kitty and Levin’s happy marriage. Shakespeare liked to structure his comedies such as A Midsummer Nights Dream or Much Ado About Nothing with parallel couples whose differences create many of the desired effects and moments of recognition. King Lear is Belknap’s chief example of Shakespeare’s effective use of parallels to advance his themes. The virtuous and deceitful daughters of Lear are set off against the good and bad sons of Gloucester. Their paths intersect at various points in the drama, but the careful contrast of incident shows us much of what we need to know about each one’s character.  In this way, Shakespeare breaks away from Aristotle’s “unity of action” and strict determinacy of causation, freeing up his plot to interrupt, embed, and comment on itself.

I will describe one final example of Belknap’s powerful argument that a reader’s experience of a story depends on the author’s inspired control of plot devices. The book is Crime and Punishment and the author, Dostoevsky, is one that Belknap devoted his life to understanding, having written two books on The Brothers Karamazov. Yet with all his knowledge of this author and the society he moved in, he argues for laser focus on the guiding principles of the literary work before him. I love this impassioned statement, which he makes before he dives into his reading of the novel.

A great book is a fearsome thing, and always tempts a reader to talk about something else. I need to know all I can about an author’s health, psyche, readings, interaction with society, and so forth, but my profession demands that I see order in the text, knowing that I may fail, just as doctors seek to prolong lives knowing their patients are mortal….

A literary text can look messy but have an order that is not structural but algorithmic.

One of the algorithms or reproducible rules he finds at work in Dostoevsky is the brilliant incorporation of other genres to suit his novelistic purposes. He is not alone in this, as the European novel developed over time as a response to other fiction and nonfiction genres: epic, picaresque, memoir, biography, collections of letters. The remarkable thing is the skill with which Dostoevsky uses the plotting technique of picaresque–one thing after another in a string of adventures–to draw the reader into Raskolnikov’s world and his mind.

The grinding paradox of “Crime and Punishment”–that we care about the well-being of a calculating, self-absorbed hatchet-murderer–rests in part on the picaresque way the narrative obsessively focuses our attention on him as he rushes from crisis to crisis.

With this insight, Belknap painstakingly shows the steps that Dostoevsky takes to engage the reader in the action of the story. This is the sort of thing that any competent storyteller does, right? But a brilliant storyteller like Dostoevsky takes the reader where he might least like to go.

As Raskolnikov stands in the room with the two bleeding corpses, holding his breath as he listens at the door, inches from his potential discoverers, who may leave or summon the police, we readers hold our breath, exert our will upon him not to give up and confess, and then suddenly realize that we are accessories after the fact,…

This complicity in the crime alternates with the reader’s horror and revulsion at it…. Dostoevsky’s siuzhet manipulates his readers into the fabula of the novel by almost never letting them outside the mind of Raskolnikov. We have mentioned that this intensity of narrative concentration on a single figure implicates the readers in his predicament much as readers willed the escape of picaresque scamps in earlier novels.

Belknap says this first part of the book is like a self-contained novella called “Crime” with a very long sequel called “Punishment.” But our involvement in this long sequel–the protracted journey of guilt and confession–very much depends on the narrative strength of the opening novella. He observes that Dostoevsky’s narration technique becomes embedded, almost disappears, as part of the plot, whereas other strands of the European novel, notably the English novel, made narration function more like a character, with varying degrees of contact with the reader (Austen’s narrator was often indirect in commenting, Thackeray’s could speak directly to the reader, and Dickens used both techniques).

To conclude, I want to mention one aspect of plot that is very relevant to reviewers and book bloggers, to anyone who writes about fiction: the need to write plot summaries. Belknap says that some theorists identify summaries with the plot itself–the synopsis is the plot, and only the full story is therefore the story. However, he notes that writing plot summaries is an art demanding many complex decisions, much like translation; in fact, he deems it another form of translation, and he calls for more research into plot summaries themselves.  His book will surely be a classic for critics and writers to mull over, argue about, and study for clues to the mysteries of plotting a story. I have had so much to say about it, because it packs so many insights into a small, beautifully written text, which I highly recommend! It should be of great interest to anyone who loves literature and is looking for those “a-ha” moments when the art of writing comes into clearer focus.

If you are a book blogger, do you like writing plot summaries?  Do you leave that aspect to the synopsis?

What aspects of plot do you think are crucial to put into a summary?  What do you choose to leave out, and how do you decide?


For those interested in more history of the distinction in literary theory between fabula and siuzhet, the Wikipedia article (“Fabula and syuzhet”) is very helpful and a good place to start. Vladimir Propp’s book, Morphology of the Folktale is a fascinating document, cataloguing a large array of story structures by giving a grammar of stories, the types of characters that tend to recur, and the “functions” used to create the action of the story. In 1979, I published (with two colleagues) a psychology experiment testing out readers’ subjective arrangement of incidents in simple fairy tales with the structures predicted by some story grammars (Pollard-Gott, L.; McCloskey, M.; and Todres, A. K. Subjective Story Structure, Discourse Processes, 2(4): 251-281, 1979). I found that readers grouped events generally in line with popular story grammars but there were some interesting differences.



Plots by Robert L Belknap cover

Book Description (From the Publisher)

Robert L. Belknap’s theory of plot illustrates the active and passive roles literature plays in creating its own dynamic reading experience. Literary narrative enchants us through its development of plot, but plot tells its own story about the making of narrative, revealing through its structures, preoccupations, and strategies of representation critical details about how and when a work came into being.

Through a rich reading of Shakespeare’s King Lear and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Belknap explores the spatial, chronological, and causal aspects of plot, its brilliant manipulation of reader frustration and involvement, and its critical cohesion of characters. He considers Shakespeare’s transformation of dramatic plot through parallelism, conflict, resolution, and recognition. He then follows with Dostoevsky’s development of the rhetorical and moral devices of nineteenth-century Russian fiction, along with its epistolary and detective genres, to embed the reader in the murder Raskolnikov commits. Dostoevsky’s reinvention of the psychological plot was profound, and Belknap effectively challenges the idea that the author abused causality to achieve his ideological conclusion. In a final chapter, Belknap argues that plots teach us novelistic rather than poetic justice. Operating according to their own logic, plots provide us with a compelling way to see and order our world.

About the Author

Robert L. Belknap (1929–2014) was professor of Slavic languages and a former dean of Columbia University. He authored two major studies of Dostoevsky’s masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov: The Structure of “The Brothers Karamazov” (1989) and Genesis of “The Brothers Karamazov”: The Aesthetics, Ideology, and Psychology of Making a Text (1990).

*Note*: I thank Columbia University Press and NetGalley for providing an advance electronic copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.  I did not receive any other compensation, and the views expressed in my review are my own opinions.


“Phantom Heart” and “Maat” by Annie Q Syed: Two Stories with a Deep Connection

26 Feb

A few nights ago I read Phantom Heart and Maat, two stories from the luminous writings of Annie Q Syed. They are both part of her short-story series Tuesday’s Torrent, and I happened to read these two together. At the time, they seemed very different kinds of stories–which they are. “Maat” springs from the rich, fertile soil of Egyptian myth and psychological archetype, with many possible nuances of symbolism and meaning. It tells the story of a 12-year-old girl, named Thais, who dreams about a tree and a woman named Maat. Her recurring dreams set in motion a longing to understand this powerful intimation of the great lineage of mothers. Hovering just beyond view in the lives of the girl, her mother, and the Bedouin prophetess she meets is the Egyptian Goddess Maat, or Ma’at, who was said to participate in the weighing of souls after death. By contrast, “Phantom Heart” feels like a very “modern” story, a medical case-study almost, from the annals of neuropsychology (its manifestations are described very well). A man begins to think that his wife, Petka, is not his wife, that she has been replaced by an impostor. His daughter, Litiya, must try to make sense of his father’s delusional dissociation and her mother’s pain. Even with this clinical impetus, rather than the mythic underpinnings brought to the foreground in “Maat,” “Phantom Heart” likewise feels full of nuance and possibilities of meaning just out of view.

The next morning, it became very clear to me that these stories, rather disparate in content and tone, are actually deeply united by the heart as the seat of memory. For Litiya’s father, in “Phantom Heart,” his disorder of the memory is also a disorder of the heart–it “weighs less” without access to the true memory of his wife united to his experience of her now. He is suffering from a phantom heart. Yet, remarkably, this missing part of his heart is still beating in his dreams. That revelation took my breath away, as it did for Litiya in the story. I am still working out all the implications for Petka’s identity, and her faith in her husband’s love, however fragmented in memory. Even the boats that set the scene for the story suggest an Egyptian connection to me. In this life, Litiya’s father takes two boats out, but refuses to take with him the wife he no longer recognizes. Yet reading the story gives me the strong presentiment that their boats will cross together again in the afterlife.

If I were going to map out the underlying connection with words and arrows, then I shouldn’t be surprised that these two stories seem to inform each other–at least for me. The connections might go something like this:

(Phantom Heart) neuropsychology<–>psychology<—>dreams-<–>psyche<—>soul<—>psyche<–>archetype and myth<–>dreams<–>prophecy (Maat)

I was so excited by these connections, I wanted to learn more about Maat, so I pulled out the volume in the University of Chicago’s Mythologies series on Greek and Eyptian Mythologies.I found two very relevant articles by Philippe Derchaine, professor at the University of Cologne: “Egyptian Anthropology” (trans. by David White) and “Egyptian Rituals” (trans. by Gerald Honigsblum). What I got from these articles was how closely Maat is linked with memory, as the seat or sustainer of memory, and with creative imagination.
Another aspect of personality is the heart, which men as well as gods possess. According to the stela of Shabaka, which preserves a curious cosmogony, the heart is the seat of creative power–the imagination, in a sense–which becomes reality throught the mediation of language, as language transforms thought into word and thus into action. But the heart also functions as memory and in this way serves to characterize the person even in the hereafter, where hearts are weighed against Ma’at, the notion of social and cosmic order in which an equilibrium must be maintained. The heart thus occupies a central place in the conception of the judgment of the dead … But the heart does not play the role of conscience in this confrontations, as has sometimes been said, but simply plays the role of a witness, which assures us that its function was indeed that of being the seat of memory. (Philippe Derchain, “Egyptian Anthropology,” p. 221)
Not only in the judgment of the dead, but in this life, the offering of Ma’at was an essential part of Egyptian ritual and a duty of the king in his partnership to sustain the Gods, as they sustained Creation.
The culmination of the ritual was logically the offering of the symbol of Ma’at, the guarantor of both cosmic and social order in her capacity as guiding force of the universe. The ritual was usually performed deep inside the shrine as the final act of the celebrant in his progress toward the meeting with the god…. For if Ma’at were abstractly guaranteed by the gods whom she nourished, it was necessary for men, led by their king, to act daily in accordance with this order, each one himself and according to his rank, so that the gods could draw from this well-ordered reality the energy needed to sustain the process of creation. (Philippe Derchain, “Egyptian Rituals,” p. 231)
On p. 232 of this article there is an illustration of the offering of Ma’at on a relief from the temple of King Sethi I at Abydos. Photos of this tomb by Robert J Rothenflug show this detail very well

Derchain remarks in a footnote that “there are numerous examples of the offering of Ma’at since the New Empire” (p. 234). Here is another example: The photo below by Su Bayfield shows the king offering Ma’at and two vases to Osiris in a double scene at the Tomb of Seti II.


To me all of this information about the meaning and associations of Maat is very suggestive for dreams, identity, and the story of a life.  As with all of Annie Syed’s stories (all the ones I’ve read so far!), there is so much there, so much that could be developed even further. Yet they do stand alone as short, energetic frissons to shake up the mind, emotions, and senses out of their usual ruts. I love that about them. Webster’s defines frisson as a shudder that is disquieting but thrilling. Yes, indeed.

I am still meditating on one crucial aspect of  “Maat”–the connection to trees. Like many people, I have long felt a deep connection to trees, a friendship even. I was fascinated, therefore, to find that the friendship of young girls with trees figures in several important variants I had encountered in my research on the story of Cinderella. In “The Cat Cinderella” by Giambattista Basile (Il Pentamerone, 1634-36), the unscrupulous heroine, named Zezolla, kills her stepmother in order to install her seemingly friendly governess as her father’s new wife. The woman double-crosses Zezolla, however, and sends her to work in the kitchen in typical Cinderella fashion. Zezolla enlists help from a wish-fulfilling fairy housed in a date tree. In the Brothers’ Grimm’s “Aschenputtel” (1812), the much-abused Ash-girl, like Zezolla, found consolation from nature: She planted a hazel tree, watered it with her tears, and then caught a gold and silver dress thrown down by a white bird perched on one of its branches. She snuck off to the king’s festival and lost a shoe there. In each case, the tree stands in as a substitute for the girl’s natural mother or benevolent mother-figure. One other mother figure I’ll mention comes from “Yeh-Hsien,” the founding Ur-story of the Cinderella character from 9th-century China. Yeh-hsien (or Sheh Hsien) was a chief’s daughter, but she suffered under an evil stepmother who made her wear rags and do heavy housework. Worst of all, she killed the girl’s beloved pet fish, but Yeh-hsien buried the bones and learned that she could wish upon them. She obtained gold dresses from the bones’ magic, enabling her to attend a festival, where she lost one shoe. (The fact that tiny feet were prized in ancient China has continued to reverberate in the Cinderella tale ever since.) Both the trees and the buried bones are creative maternal symbols–bestowing gifts for the daughter and helping her realize her dreams. The deep roots of these stories also make me shudder: with the love of mothers and daughters, their connection in spirit beyond death, and the ways that help seems to arise when it looks impossible.

As a mother goddess, Maat is rooted in these things, as she embodies order and guards Truth through memory. As Annie Syed says so beautifully in her story, “Maat was a direct descendant of those who drank the sap of the most ancient tree.” Thais’s beautiful (but disturbing to her) dream of a tree and a woman named Maat seems to spring from the same source as these fairytale and mythic elements, but blended into a new whole. Thais has many mother figures around her: her mother who is present, the mother who wisely waits; the Bedouin woman who sees the future; and Maat, the mother who comes in her dreams, rooted in the wholeness of a Tree. This is echoed in the words of the Bedouin seer to Thais, to sustain her for the time of mourning ahead: “All those who carry any part of the Truth are mothers. You will find your mother again, even if she doesn’t look like how you remember her now.” Yet, Thais wasn’t ready for this and had to “spend years forgetting only to later search to remember.” Maat would be her guardian during all that time, holding her memories, keeping her heart whole for her, even when it felt like a phantom of itself. Similarly, in “Phantom Heart,” there is the hope that Litiya’s father, who cannot recognize his wife and connect her to his memories, will find his wife again in the future, and find himself restored.As seer of the future, the Bedouin woman is also Maat. Derchaine discusses how Maat is related to a God, Sia,  knowledge: her knowledge of Truth relates both memory of the past to creative imagination, reaching toward the future:
If we now attempt to find a connection between these two functions of the heart–creative imagination and memory–I believe it will suffice to recall that the heart is the seat of the god Sia, whose name simply means “knowledge.” Knowledge of the past is obviously “memory,” while the creative imagination is necessarily related to the future. (“Egyptian Anthropology,” p. 221, with a footnote crediting G. Wirz’s thesis for his discussion of the function of memory)
The story of Thais’s dream in “Maat” seems to me to resemble a true account of a flash of mystical experience, the kind that sets one on a path of searching and remembering for the duration of one’s life. Linda Johnson describes her own experience along these lines in her books on yoga and meditation, and says her whole life has been an attempt to understand, if possible to reproduce and sustain, that unexpected appearance of the Divine in her life. Sometimes dreams, or prophetic dreams, are the portal–to insight, to memory, to creativity. Both of these stories I have discussed, perhaps with some speculative license, ring with authenticity and show how determinedly such a dream wants to be understood and mined for usable meaning. It begs to transform the dreamer.


Annie Q Syed, “Phantom Heart” (Tuesday’s Torrent, No. 1 in the series Da Vinci’s Dreams), Feb. 22, 2011. http://annieqsyed.com/2011/02/phantom-heart/

Annie Q Syed, “Maat” (Tuesday’s Torrent No. 12), Sept. 21, 2010. http://annieqsyed.com/2010/09/maat/

Philippe Derchain, “Egyptian Anthropology” (trans. by David White), pp. 219-224, in Yves Bonnefoy, Ed., Greek and Egyptian Mythologies, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Philippe Derchain, “Egyptian Rituals” (trans. by Gerald Honigsblum), pp. 230-235, in Yves Bonnefoy, Ed., Greek and Egyptian Mythologies, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

For Cinderella, see my chapter in The Fictional 100 and:

Alan Dundes (Ed.), Cinderella: A Folklore Casebook (New York: Garland, 1982).

Neil Philip, The Cinderella Story (London: Penguin, 1989). [Includes a version of “Yeh-Hsien,” trans. by Arthur Waley]

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