Being more of a philologist and one who has a more traditional approach to literature, modern literary theory is something that I dislike but yet having a knowledge of it does benefit so that one can have an engaging conversation or debate with them. Here is one particular theory I had to discuss and write an article summary for class.
Tzvetan Todorov in his essay “Structural Analysis of Narrative” sought to describe and expound the structural approach to analyzing literature by looking at Boccaccio’s The Decameron as well of some other structural issues such as concrete problems of narrative and plot. He began by contrasting two different approaches to literature; namely the theoretical approach and the descriptive approach in order to arrive at what structural analysis seeks to do. Todorov defined the nature of structural analysis as, “essentially theoretical and non-descriptive; in other words, the aim of such a study will never be the description of a concrete work. The work will be considered as the manifestation of an abstract structure, merely one of its possible realizations; an understanding of that structure will be the real goal of structural analysis” (2024). In other words, structural analysis seeks to understand the structure behind the actual work, such as the structure of the genre to which that work belongs, rather than discuss the structure of the individual work.
Todorov contrasts this with Marxist and psychoanalytic thought in saying that they seek to understand the abstract structure whether social or psychic of the work rather than try to learn all that there is to know about the particular work of literature as the New Critics do (2024). Structuralists tend to look at theory or poetics of literature, the “literary discourse”, instead of the social or psychic side of the literature (2024). Todorov does state that description should not be completely thrown out the window since it aids in understanding theory; after all, “the best stepping stone toward theory is that of precise, empirical knowledge” (2025). Todorov comments that structural analysis owes much of its methods to modern science since the literature must be studied in relation to everything else (2025).
Todorov then looks at a passage from Henry James’ essay “The Art of Fiction” to defend structural analysis. James made two objections; there is no such thing of a pure dialogue in a real text and that the terms of description are not necessary since a novel is considered a living thing. Todorov states that, “The first objection loses all its weight as soon as we put ourselves in the perspective of structural analysis; although it does aim at an understanding of concepts like “description” or “action,” there is no need to find them in a pure state. It seems rather natural that abstract concepts cannot be analyzed directly, at the level of empirical reality” (2025-6). The second criticism is beat down with a look at what is considered dead and living; Todorov makes the point that since a work does not contain what other forms have in order to be living, then James’ attack is “dubious” (2026).
After making some other defensive remarks, Todorov dives into the structural analysis of plot. He makes a caveat: “Of course, that does not mean that literature, for me, is reduced to plot alone. I do think, how-ever, that plot is a notion that critics undervalue and, hence, often disregard” (2026). It is here that Todorov looks into Boccaccio’s Decameron for an examination of plot. He looked at four different plots within the Decameron and found they had several similarities; therefore he could come up with a chart to summarize the commonalities. He looks at the story of a monk and his abbot, a nun and an abbess, and two other stories of married women and their lovers. In each case, the lower ranked person commits adultery and before their superiors can condemn them, the superiors commit the same sin and therefore don’t punish the former characters. Todorov makes several explanations. First, the minimal scheme of the plot can be summarized by a clause. Secondly, two parts of speech such as proper nouns and their predicates exist in the plots and these have semantic value. Thirdly, actions “can have a positive or negative form”; therefore, a “category of status” is needed (2027-8). Fourthly, there is the element of modality or certain actions can be logically assumed before they even happen. Fifthly, point of view can be arrived from these statements. Sixth, there are relations between clauses which might lead to a study of entailment and presupposition. Seventh, these clauses are organized to form a new sequence. Sequence, Todorov states, is “perceived by the reader as a finished story” (2028). Eighth and finally, there are ways of going from the abstract structure to the original tale. The level of generality can be changed to make new clauses which make sequences in and of themselves. It is also possible to come to this arrival by studying the concrete patterns which incorporate the abstract; Todorov calls this a thematic study. His third answer to arriving back at the original story is by examining the verbal medium of the abstract patterns; this would be a rhetorical study.
At the end of his discussion of plot, Todorov sit atop it all and surmises the outcome or purpose of the study of plot, “What is the purpose of all this? Has this analysis taught us anything about the stories in question? But that would be a bad question. Our goal is not a knowledge of the Decameron (although such analysis will also serve that purpose), but rather an understanding of literature, or, in this specific instance, of plot” (2029). His summation of the plots of the Decameron was that it was a move from one equilibrium to another. In this series of tales Todorov noticed there are two kinds of stories which have differing plot structures and outcomes. There are plots wherein punishment is avoided and there are other plots wherein a conversion of some sort takes place. These plot types then make up the “universe of a book” or the playground of culture and nature and the social forms and individuals.
Finally, Todorov makes the distinction between literature and poetics and how they can be examined. The relation between literature and poetics is not that the former is subservient to the latter but rather that the literature is the language by which poetics deals with itself. Todorov concludes with a statement about methodology and literature by saying that discussions of methodology are the very core of poetics and not its byproduct. This would definitely help his case for defending structural analysis of literature.