2.6. Unity of action


As the distinction between action and story (or plot) remains undeveloped in Aristotle's theory, he deals with many of the elements of action as belonging to the story.  For instance: "Stories are simple or complex, for the actions in real life, of which the stories are an imitation, obviously show a similar distinction" (Poetics 54, X.1).  Sometimes he even uses the terms interchangeably. So it may be convenient not to elaborate too much on this distinction; we will study actions combined with plots, as Aristotle himself does.  But we will keep it in mind, because at some points it does become significant. For instance, in chapter 18, when there is talk of the incidents of an action which lie outside the story, for instance, past incidents which have a bearing on it but do not appear on stage.  This is the case with the events surrounding the childhood of Oedipus in Oedipus Rex, which are known not through direct dramatization but through much later reports.  This is the usual technique recommended by classical theorists in order to compress a dilated action into the narrow limits of a story which does not break the unity of time.  However, Aristotle's main attention is devoted to the unity of action.

            The difference between happenings and events has a bearing on causal connectedness.  Causal connection is measured and evaluated by human intentionality.  A dense plot will rely to a great extent on a calculus of causes and effects, hypothetical lines of action and their probable results.  Causal connection presupposes temporal development, and is one of the more powerful constituting principles of narrative.  Though a temporal succesion of causally unconnected events may be narrated, the narrative structure becomes tighter, the reader's role more active and engaged if there is a play of causes and effects: the possibility of guessing possible outcomes and weighing one against the other is opened up, and the actual line of action is surrounded with multiple parallel threads of possible, hypothetical or abortive actions. 

            The ideal form of a causally connected narrative would be a perfectly closed structure of actions, where each event leads to other events which cannot be conceived to take place outside this causal chain.  The play of causality becomes denser as the confluence of events as the action develops gives rise to unexpected complications: everything looks both patterned and inevitable, and at the end the diverse circumstances and characteristics of the people in the action have been transformed from a random collection of unconnected data into a unified web of action: everything "falls into place" and the plot rounds off leaving the audience both bewildered at the dexterity and unexpectedness of the causal connections and at ease with the satisfaction of experiencing a sense of direction in human action.  Many traditional plays or films, and such novelistic genres as the detective story, approach this ideal of extreme causal patterning.

            Unity of action has always been a criterion to judge narrative, although the criteria to define such unity have evolved.  There is no single necessary or sufficient criterion to estimate the unity of an action. Unity is not only something inherent in an action; it is also a function of the receiver's perception.  Here as elsewhere we must postulate an ideal or average receiver.  The action must be perceived as a unified one.  Therefore the elements which make up this unity must be salient enough to be perceivable to the average intended receiver.  A lengthy or complicated action is more difficult to perceive as a unity, although the complications may create a pattern which compensates for the intrinsic perceptual difficulty, or sum-ups may be introduced periodically for the benefit of the audience.  A clear pattern underpinning the action could be defined as a macrostructure easily available to the perceiver.  Minor actions, sub-plots or individual events must stand in clear relationship to the main skeleton of the action if the perceptual effect is to be clear and forceful.  The complication of an action must therefore be estimated taking into account the perceptibility of the patterns the reader is provided with to find meaning and unity in the action.  What is traditionally understood as a "well-knit plot" ‹such as we find in detective or adventure novels‹ is only one of the varieties of this patterning.  A simple, overarching pattern, such as the quest myth, provides another type of unified action.  Moreover, the aesthetic unity of the work as a whole is not determined by the unity of the action.  Stylistic or rhetorical devices may create a unity of tone or mood which need not be less satisfactory than a unity of action.



            There was during the Renaissance and the Neo-classical age an important debate on the three Aristotelian unities of drama.  Aristotle was supposed to have established three rules which every play ought to follow: unity of action, of place and of time.  Aristotle does give some indications on these matters, but no absolute rules. He is much more tolerant than many of his later commentators, who were responsible for the strict formulation of the rules.

            To begin with, he says that a story ought to be proportionate, not too long and not too short, so that the receiver may keep it in mind and perceive it as a whole.  Aristotle is concerned above all with the correct understanding of the whole, so this "rule" of the length of the story should be contemplated together with his observations on unity of story and on catharsis: "in the story, a certain length is necessary, and a length which can be easily embraced by the memory" (Poetics  53, VII.5).  The nature of the action must also be taken into account:

the limit as fixed by the nature of the drama itself is this: the greater the length, the more beautiful will the piece be by reason of its size, provided that the whole be perspicuous.  And to define the matter roughly, we may say that the proper magnitude is comprised within such limits, that the sequence of events, according to the law of probability or necessity, will admit of a change from bad fortune to good, or from good fortune to bad.  (Poetics 53, VII.7) 

As to the length of the action itself, Aristotle advises that it should not go much beyond one complete day.  It must be pointed out that this was the practice of the major Greek tragedians.  The same might be argued about the unity of place. There is no reference in the Poetics  to such a unity, apart from an observation of the fact that epic poetry has not the limitations set by the stage to the presentation of different places.  The works of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, however, usually are as strict in this respect as any Neoclassical critic might wish.

            These supposed unities, or rather, these observations of Aristotle are wholly coherent with his main requirement for the story of a tragedy, and also subservient to it. This requirement is our third unity, unity of action.  "Unity of story," Aristotle says, "does not, as some persons think, consist in the unity of the hero" (Poetics  53, VIII.1).  The actions of a man do not necessarily build up a single pattern, a unified action which makes a coherent whole with a sense. And the action must be a whole:

A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be.  An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it.  A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it.  A well constructed story, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles.  (Poetics  52, VII.3)

            This definition of beginning, middle and end derives from Plato's Phaedrus. It is not wholly truistic, since it modifies pure sequentiality in the sense of causality and accepted conventions of construction.  According to Wimsatt and Brooks, "the acceptance of the statement that a story must have a beginning would seem to be that the story must start more or less with where its antecedents may be taken for granted, that is, where they are generic rather than specifically relevant."[1] The distinction is especially relevant in Greek tragedy, which usually drew its stories from myths well known to the public. Aristotle draws this conclusion from the requirement of unity:

As therefore, in the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the object imitated is one, so the story, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed.  For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole.  (Poetics  53, VIII.4)

Aristotle sees the whole as more than the sum of its parts, if only in that it includes the relations among the parts.  Defined in this way, the unity of action has a much more general and comprehensive nature than will be allowed by later interpretations. We may notice that it is not too much to say that this is a structural definition of unity: its abstraction allows us to account for any kind of unity we may find in a story, and in this respect it is difficult to go beyond it.

            Aristotle compares the unity of the story to the unity of a living being. It is only a comparison, but it has its importance. As Humphrey House has pointed out,[2] the comparison of the unity of a literary work with that of a living organism refutes the charge that Aristotle is describing a formal, dead, mechanical kind of unity.  This is "unity" in a sense similar to that used in modern structuralist poetics.

            However, it has an obvious shortcoming: being a structural definition of the story, which is only one of the constituent elements of a tragedy, it fails to account for the whole of the tragedy.  Aristotle's theory of tragedy and indeed the whole of his Poetics  is story-centred,[3] and so it fails to account for many literary phenomena.  Later theorists will define as a whole and as a structure the work as a whole, and not merely the story.


            The concepts of episode and episodic narrative are also introduced by Aristotle.  If the different segments of a narrative are causally independent from each other, they may be called episodes.  Examples of episodic narrative are the minor epics mentioned by Aristotle, or picaresque novels at the start of the modern novelistic tradition.  Each episode may be considered as a small action in its own right, with its complication, crisis and resolution.  The hero's personality and life are the only connecting thread of such stories, and of course the bearing of the episodes on the hero's character and subsequent life may be more or less emphasized.  Such enchaining of stories is one of the most primitive ways of telling a long tale, before the complex and integrating plots of modern novels develop. 



[1]          W. K. Wimsatt and Cleanth Brooks, A Short History of Literary Criticism  30.

[2]          Humphrey House, Aristotle's  Poetics (1956).

[3]          Or rather plot-centred,  since the emphasis falls consistently not only on story structures, but also on causality, coherence and audience involvement.