2.l. Fabula and Siuzhet  in Formalist Narratology


We have already seen some Aristotelian concepts that remain to this day central in the analysis of narrative.  Besides, Aristotle anticipated in more or less intuitive ways many other analytical distinctions which will be explicitly developed only later: the notion of a basic sequence of narrative functions, the comparative analysis of time between the action and the story, the reader's construction of narrative, etc. 

            Boris Tomashevski updated Aristotelian theory, providing in the last section of his Theory of literature  what is perhaps the clearest and most systematic contribution to narrative theory made by the Russian formalists.[1]  The central concepts used by the formalists in narrative analysis, fabula and siuzhet,  were developed by other theorists prior to Tomashevski.  Viktor Shklovski drew an opposition between fabula and siuzhet  that is less dynamic than Tomashevski's:

The idea of plot  [siuzhet ] is too often confused with the description of events‹with what I propose provisionally to call the story  [fabula ].  The story is, in fact, only material for plot formulation.  The plot of Evgeny Onegin  is, therefore, not the romance of the hero with Tatyana, but the fashioning of the subject of this story as produced by the introduction of interrupting digressions.[2]

The distinction is close enough to the one drawn by formalists in the English-speaking world.  A. C. Bradley draws a difference between the subject matter and the form of a work.[3]  For Bradley, as for Shklovski, the finished work is nothing but form: subject matter exists not as such, but as a series of formal relationships.  And Henry James is careful to distinguish the subject he deals with (shapeless in itself) from the finished product, the novel, which is a subject matter told in a special way, seen from a special point of view.[4]  Shklovski's conception, however, seems to be moving beyond those of James or Bradley because it is more specifically narratological and, as such, more analytical.  This first definition opposes fabula and siuzhet  as a series of events to a finished form.  The finished narrative is not only a sum of events: there are narrative techniques, the use of point of view and of the narrator, which change those events into something different.  And the verbal element of the work, the narrative surface, becomes one with the events.  In a work by Shakespeare the doings of the characters and the language they speak are one: as a late follower of the Romantic tradition, Shklovski believes that all the elements of the literary work form an organic whole.  So, in this first definition, fabula  is an abstract (or actual?) series of events, while siuzhet  is the work itself considered as form: a complex verbal structure in which the fabula  has experienced a sea change.  We could argue that Shklovski distinguishes only two of our levels of analysis, action  and text.  Siuzhet   seems to be inescapably concrete here, inseparable from the verbal texture of the work, and in no way an abstract structure.  However, in a later work Shklovkski seems to conceive of both fabula and siuzhet  as abstract series of events, and to distinguish a) the fabula, b) the siuzhet,   c) the work as a whole.  He draws

a distinction between the "events in the work" and "the siuzhet"  in the work.  Siuzhet  is not the event that takes place in the short story or novel.  Siuzhet  is a construction which, having resource to events, characters, and settings, compressing time or transposing it, creates as a result a certain perceptible phenomenon, which is experienced the way the author wishes us to experience it.[5]

We may observe here that none of the elements Shklovski mentions as setting apart fabula and siuzhet  is of a verbal nature: they all involve a reorganization of elements which is conceivable in words or in images.  In fact, the Russian formalists applied this analytical opposition to the criticism of cinema as well as of fiction.  Iuri Tynianov praised films with an involved siuzhet  structure as opposed to the primitive, fabulaic narrative of popular  action films.  Complication, he argued, should lie not in the events of the fabula line, but in the artistic construction of the film, in the montage  Soviet avant-garde filmmakers like Eisenstein and Pudovkin were giving so much importance to.  A film, just like a literary work of art, needs more than a story: it needs "special conditions of style, language, junctions and movements of the material."[6]

            Shklovki's accounts of the opposition fabula / siuzhet  are often impressionistic and not very clear.  Apart from the question of the verbal or nonverbal nature of the siuzhet,  there is a more important one, having to do with the exact status of these terms as a whole.  Do they refer to a theory of composition, or to a theory of reception?  Shklovski is ambiguous here; in any case, his definitions seem to point to the former.  "Fabula" is something which should concern the author, since it is his material, or at most the critic who uses it as a regulative concept the better to define the deviant construction of the siuzhet.  Like Bradley or James, Shklovksi seems to conceive of form as wholly intrinsic to the work.  Fabula is completely extraliterary: the work itself is all siuzhet,  all form and organization.  Once the work is finished, the concept of fabula is unimportant, and fulfils no role in the theory, since all the art lies in the siuzhet.  

            Later conceptions of the opposition fabula / siuzhet  are more dynamic and relational.  Tomashevski's definition, at first sight, looks much like Shklovksi's.  However, from his definition we can see that in his conception the fabula is present in the work in an implicit way: it is "the aggregate of mutually related events reported in the work" (Tomashevski, "Thematics" 66).  It is not merely a phase in composition, a material previous to and external to the work.  The differential definition of plot (fabula is, as always, the more basic concept) also seems to stress the temporal distortion of the order  of events as the most immediate difference between the fabula and the siuzhet:

Plot is distinct from story.  Both include the same events, but in the plot the events are arranged and connected according to the orderly sequence in which they were presented in the work.  (Tomashevski, "Thematics" 67)

But here too we can see the difference when Tomashevski adds in a footnote that "the story [fabula] is 'the action itself', the plot [story] 'how the reader learns of the action'."  That is, the action is present in the work for everyone, not merely for the critic.  Its presence is first abstract and then concrete because it is reconstructed by the reader, it is concretized during the reading process.  Fabula in Tomashevski or Tynianov is an element of the reader's  experience of the work, not merely a material used by the author.  That is, for the first time these critics define the structure of a narrative work of art as a tension between fabula and siuzhet.  For Shklovski, structure meant siuzhet,  the existing arrangement between the elements of the work.  For Tomashevski and Tynianov, the structure of the work is more complex than that: it involves both the existing arrangement (siuzhet)  and its absent counterpart, fabula, which is used by the reader as a regulative principle in interpreting siuzhet.  For Tomashevski, the reader receives the siuzhet  and then reconstructs the fabula: that is, he de-constructs the construction of the work as a necessary step in the understanding.  There are in Tomashevski lingering traits of a vaguer conception of the relationship of fabula and siuzhet, for instance when he argues that "real incidents . . . may make a story.  A plot is wholly an artistic creation" ("Thematics" 68).  Here the two concepts seem to be relatively independent from each other, rather like E. M. Forster's own pair "story" and "plot."

            Tynianov's use of the concepts of fabual and siuzhet  is yet more complex and dynamic.  For him, both fabula and siuzhet  are constructed by the reader as the reading process goes along, in perpetual reference to each other.  None can exist without the other; both can progress only through their interaction in the reader's mind.[7]  It is significant that at the same time Tynianov proposes to define the fabula as the fully concretized fictional action and world, and not merely as an action scheme.  It is clear that if fabula is to be the product of the reader's normative construction, it is not enough to define it as the bare schematic skeleton of action.  It is indeed the main defect of Mieke Bal's theory of narrative that she only defines fabula taking into account its condensed version.  Both versions of fabula are necessary to account for the reader's activity: the expanded one (action) as the dialectical foil of the siuzhet  during the reading process; the schematic one (fabula, which we shall use in the sense of action-scheme) as an instrument used in varying degrees of explicit formulation by the reader (as a psychological macrostructure) and by the critic (as a heuristic, metalingual construct). 

            Let us look closer now at the concepts used by Tomashevski in his analysis of the fabula, although we should not forget that his work is also important in the systematization of analytical concepts at siuzhet  level. 





[1]          Boris Tomashevski, "Thematics." 

[2]          Viktor Shklovski, "Sterne's Tristram Shandy: Stylistic Commentary"  57.  Lemon and Reis, the earliest translators of Formalist texts into English, use (or misuse) the terms story  and plot  to translate fabula  and siuzhet, respectively.

[3]          A. C. Bradley, "Poetry for Poetry's Sake" 739.

[4]          Henry James, "The Art of the Novel."

[5]          Viktor Shklovski,  La cuerda del arco: sobre la disimilitud de lo símil  84.

[6]          Iuri Tynianov, "Plot and Story-Line in the Cinema" 20.

[7]          Tynianov 20.  Cf. Emil Volek's account in  Metaestructuralismo  152 ff.