Columbia University Press, May 2016.
Available in Hardcover and E-book.
I thank Columbia University Press and Netgalley for providing an electronic review copy of this book.
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.
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.
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.