2.16. Horizontal Sections of the action


Tomashevksi's definition of narrative progress is interesting because it leads us to the interests and therefore to the characteristics of the actors.  Tomashevski, however, restricts his account to the description of a conflict of wills:

The development of a story may generally be understood as a progress from one situation to another, so that each situation is characterized by a conflict  of interest, by discord and struggle among the characters.  ("Thematics" 71)

This description sounds as if the characters' wills were not artificial constructs, but the true engines of the progression of the action.  It would be more adequate to describe the early situation and its evolution with respect to more character traits.  The characters have different intentions, but they also have different knowledge of the situation, different abilities and personal characteristics (name, age, social status, appearance, etc.).  All these elements make up what a character is (a paper being), and should find a place in a narrative description of the action.  In fact, if we define a situation as a particular structural relationship between character (setting, etc.) and other traits, an event could be described as the suppression or the appearance of one trait, or the transference of one trait from one character to another.  In this way, we could describe each character's narrative evolution concerning his aims, his status, or his point of view in the narrow sense‹what he knows.  It is important to note that there are as many potential points of view in the story as there are characters.  Point of view is a story-level category, and we shall study it later on, but we should not forget that in this more restricted sense point of view already exists at action level.  Later, in his analysis of the story ("Thematics" 73-74), Tomashevski introduces also the reader's point of view in the sense of what he knows about the action at any given point of the story.  This allows on the one hand a classification of possible narrative situations according to the relative knowledge of character and readers, comparable to the ones developed later by Pouillon, Todorov and Genette.  On the other hand, "the reader" is shown to be in a way one character among others; not a real person but a role defined by the text. 

            This classification of character traits (epistemic, essential, volitive, etc.) would also allow a closer analysis of the intrigue,  a concept defined by Tomashevski as "the gathering of the characters into groups and . . . the agreement of each group upon the tactics to be used against the other"  ("Thematics" 71). 

            The definition of narrative as "a journey from one situation to another" (70) is also a version of a triadic model which seems to be inevitable in narrative analysis, from Aristotle's beginning, middle and end to Lotman's definition of narrativity as the transgression of a semantic border.  Hegel's dialectic structure of thesis-antithesis-synthesis which lies at the basis of his grand narrative of the spirit's development could be a useful middle between these extremes.  In fact, Tomashevski explicitly posits a dialectical progress in the story:

In the simplest system of dialectics relevant to the construction of a story, the climax is like the antithesis (the thesis is the exciting force, the antithesis the climax, and the synthesis the ending). ("Thematics" 72)

            The ending of the action (which, according to Aristotle, follows something of necessity but is not followed of necessity by anything) is defined by Tomashevski with respect to the expectations of the reader.  During the development of the action, the reader is particularly active; he forms expectations as to the possible outcome of the present action, but "The later harmonious situation, which does not require further development, will neither evoke nor arouse the reader's anticipation" ("Thematics" 71).  This definition of the unified action with respect to the reader's activity can already be found in the neo-Classical dramatic theories of Corneille or Dryden.[1]

            Many of Tomashevski's concepts for plot analysis are immediately derived from Aristotle.  So, Tomashevski relates the degree of tension in the plot to "the proximity of a great change of fortune" ("Thematics" 72), an Aristotelian expression.  The concept of peripety   reminds us of Aristotle's peripeteia,  but in the Poetics  this referred to a momentuous "reversal of the situation" which was present only in complex plots; in Tomashevski a peripety is any alteration in the situation.  Other terms for elements of the action (climax, exposition, etc.) are introduced or developed by Tomashevki following the tradition of the German poetics now unjustly underestimated (e.g. Freytag, Spielhagen, Friedemann). 





[1]          Pierre Corneille, "Of the Three Unities"; John Dryden, "An Essay of Dramatic Poesy."