2.13. Motifs and Macrostructures


The chapter devoted to the study of narrative and drama is called "Thematics."  Tomashevksi apparently means that poetry is more intrinsically formal than these genres where the importance of theme is prominent.  Still, his analysis does not deal in the main with the themes of literature themselves, but with their formal structuration in the work.  Tomashevski begins section two, "Story and Plot," with a definition of the theme (siuzhet, or unified semantic content) of a work as a unity composed of small thematic elements standing in one of two specific relations to each other:

We may distinguish two major kinds of arrangements of these thematic elements; (1) that in which causal-temporal relationships exist between the thematic elements, and (2) that in which the thematic elements are contemporaneous, or in which there is some shift of theme without internal exposition of the causal connections.  The former are stories  (tales, novels, epics); the latter have no "story," they are "descriptive." ("Thematics" 66)

The difference established here is not really one between narrative and nonnarrative works, since the criterion of division is causality rather than temporality.  The narrative of a travel book (for instance, Sterne's Sentimental Journey)   is organized by purely temporal elements, with a minimum of causality, of plot development and resolution.  This opposition, as indeed most of the narratological oppositions we establish, is to be seen as an idealization of a continuum: the relative importance of causal relationships vis a vis temporal ones may be highly variable. 

            Tomashevski gives a description of thematic material as ideally unified, and describes what we might call the microstructure of the work as generated by an analysis or subdivision of complex into simple thematic units.   Let us note that here we could easily inverse the perspective, and describe the reader's activity as one of integration of atomic thematic units into larger wholes: actions, scenes, episodes.  But Tomashevski presents a somewhat more abstract, formalist perspective, and he often does not relate the structure of the work to the activity of the reader (though we have already noted an important exception, and there are others). 

            The simplest thematic unit, the motif, is defined by Tomashevski at sentence level.  This is evidently a matter of choice from our point of view, though Tomashevski is more categorical.  An ambiguity lies in the status of those sentences.  Are they actual sentences of the text, or "constructed" sentences, which metalinguistically describe the basic core of events in a work?   Tomashevski would seem to stand here close to the notion of motif developed by Veselovski. 

            Veselovski first related organically the notions of motif and theme (siuzhet) , by defining theme as a complex unit of which motifs are the atomic elements:

"A theme is a series of motifs.  A motif develops into a theme."   "Themes vary: certain motifs make their way into themes, or else themes combine with one another." "By theme I ean a subject in which various situations, that is motifs, move in and out."  "By the term 'motif' I mean the simplest narrative unit."  "The feature of a motif is its figurative, monomial schematism; such are those elements incapable of further decomposition which belong to lower mythology and to the tale."[1]

Propp notes that in Veselovski's view the motif is the primary, given thing, while the siuzhet  or theme comes afterwards, as "a creative, unifying act" (Propp 12).  But Veselovski's primary concern was not structural.  This definition of motif was a notion of a necessarily metalinguistic nature, since its aim in Veselovski's work was to allow the comparison of different versions of folktales.   Propp's notion of function, developed from Veselovski, was also of a metalinguistic nature: the series of functions described by Propp are not actual sentences in the folktale, but structural units which underlie a sentence or group of sentences.   However, we observe that in Tomashevski we also have "Raskolnikov kills the old woman", which though abstract enough with respect to Crime and Punishment  is no longer devised for the purpose of comparison between different themes: it belongs to one specific work.  A motif is related above all to other motifs in the same work, not to similar motifs in similar works.  Tomashevski explicitly separates the formalist and the comparatist notion of motif: the latter are truly atomic units, while "in comparative studies one must speak of motifs that have remained intact historically, that have preserved their unity in passing from work to work, rather than of 'irreducible' motifs" ("Thematics" 68). 


            Let us go back to the definition of fabula and siuzhet  seen on the basis of the concept of motif:

Mutually related motifs form the thematic bonds of the work.  From this point of view, the story is the aggregate of motifs in their logical, causal-chronological order; the plot is the aggregate of those same motifs but having the relevance and order which they had in the original work.  (Tomashevski, "Thematics"  68)

So, it is not events  but motifs  which are the atomic units of both fabula and siuzhet,  even if Tomashevski seems to be thinking of motifs mainly as events.  A problem appears now, since there are things relevant in the siuzhet  which are irrelevant in the fabula, but at the same time Tomashevski insists that the same  motifs make up the two.  Moreover, using Shklovksi's example, we might argue that Pushkin's digressions in Onegin  are made up of motifs all right, but that those motifs are not a part of the story or the fabula.  They are not narrative, but commentative, phatic or reflexive in nature.  It would seem that not all the motifs in a work are narrative in the sense of being a rearrangement of a fabula, as Tomashevski implies, but we shall leave this question aside for the moment. 




[1]          A. N. Veselelovski, Poètika siuzhetov.  Qtd. in Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale  12.