2.2. Schemes and schemata


An action is not merely linear in its development: it is four-dimensional: it can be conceived of (but in so doing we are already making use of abstraction) as a multiplicity of simultaneous action lines.  An action line is, in principle, a set of events associated with a given character.  Thus, in Middlemarch  there is an action line involving Dorothea and Casaubon, others involving Lydgate or Bulstrode.  Action lines may merge into a single one when characters interact, or become independent again; they can be mere perspectival viewpoints on a common action or, alternately, become quite autonomous subplots, depending on the kinds of interactions taking place between characters.  Action lines may be episodic or run all along a given narrative.  They may exist at the same narrative level or be a part of subordinate fictional worlds or secondary narratives.  They may exist only virtually, at action level, or be used as an organizing principle at the level of the story, for instance with alternate chapters following the doings of different characters. 

            Action lines are minor units we identify within the more encompassing unit of the whole action.  They can be considered to be organizing schemata we use to analyze, order and interpret the action.  There are other kinds of schemata involved in action processing. When we speak of an action we have to reduce it to more manageable proportions.  We substitute an action scheme for the action.  The action scheme is a sign of the action, and its constitutive parts are selected from the action in view of the specific aims of the critic.  Although our conception of actions, action lines  and action schemes is mediated and influenced by language, they are not linguistic entities.  Action schemes can, however, be represented linguistically in a text which will be a paraphrase of the action  (cf. Segre 1985, 177). The term "plot" usually refers to an unspecified scheme of the action or the narrative.

            The construction of action lines or action schemes, as well as the very conception and identity of the action, presupposes certain principles of order.  Actions may be massive and non-linguistic, but they are not brute facts.  They are semiotic entities; only, they are determined at that semiotic level at which we make sense of the world.  Many of their aspects are not conceptual if we understand a concept to be a conscious entity.  Actions belong with the intuitive schemata which organize conceptual content according to phenomenologists.[1]  The schemata of the actions in narrative texts are to a great extent the same we use in making sense of real life and actions.  The ability to organize events into a story in the real world is a particular instance of the more general ability to organize our concepts by means of frames of reference, according to a variety of formal, semantic or pragmatic criteria.   This is also at the root of our ability to produce a scheme of the story.  In the understanding of a story we draw upon our situational and generic knowledge of diverse action schemes, which function then as projective macrostructures  of the text which is being processed: the text is understood within a set of generic expectations, a kind of context in advance based on our cultural competence.[2]  Propp's account of the morphology of the Russian folk tale can be read as an analysis of one such frame of reference for the action of a particular genre.  If the expectations concerning the projective macrostructures  are fulfilled, the macrostructure is not corrected, and it becomes one of the organizing macrostructures of the text‹but of course the reader may have recourse to the wrong frame, or the author may mislead him into doing so for the sake of reversing his expectations.  Schemata function at all levels of the textual structure: just as there are action macrostructures and frames of reference, there are macrostructures and frames at the levels of the narrative and discourse. 






[1]          In this they resemble Goffman's (1974) and Minski's (1975) "frames," or Teun A. Van Dijk's "pragmatic macrostructures" (1980).  The structured whole of which these are a part can be related to Searle's "Network" (1983) or, in a more specific context, to Culler's "literary competence" (1975).

[2]          Cf. Van Dijk 1980; versions of the notion of projective macrostructure in literary theory are found in Ingarden (1973, 103) or Hirsch's notion of the "intrinsic genre" (1967, 78-100).