2.7. Kinds of Actions



Aristotle discards stories which do not keep this rule of unity as the worst. These stories he calls episodic : "I call a story 'episodic' in which the episodes or acts succed one another without probable or necessary sequence" (Poetics   54, IX.10).  Episodic stories tell episodic actions: the distinction unified / episodic seems to belong to our first level of analysis.  Episodic stories, like those of the picaresque or the Byzantine novel, are usually recognised to belong to an early stage of development of a genre as a major art form. Aristotle complains of episodic plots in primitive tragedies with an epic subject  in much the same way as Ben Jonson complains in his prologues of the looseness of the plots of Elizabethan history plays.  Let us note in passing the relevance of this further intermediary analytical category mentioned by Aristotle, the episode.  An episode is a partial sequence of actions whose peculiar unity is the bridge between the individual act or event and the whole of the action. 

            Any device which helps connect the episodes or events to one another is a plot-building device, a device which gives unity to the action and therefore to the story.  Quite apart from their being narrated or not, there are many such devices in ordinary action.  Expectations for instance, in real life or among fictional characters, connect the present with the future: when the outcome is reached, the expectation is compared with the actual result.  From an experiential as well as a narrative point of view, this is a bridge or link thrown between two points in time.  The nature of the link depends on the kind of expectation formed, but it is clear that the aims, objectives and future projects of the characters are deeply involved in this link-making: we see here how action itself involves a shifting backwards and forwards in time and a definition of character through memory and desire.  But expectation is only one aspect of plot-making.  Making plans is a stronger version of the same: the double meaning of the word "plotting" serves as a reminder of how we plan our lives and actions as a novelist plans his stories: we take into account other people's behaviour insofar as we can predict it, and material circumstances insofar as we know and control them.  Communal expectations, plans or plots only intensify the links between human time: most narratives are based on a project, aim,  deadline or the like which rules the behaviour of the characters and gives it coherence and direction.  An analysis of human intentionality is therefore necessary in order to examine the nature of the action.  Of course the narrative movement need not submit to specific human intentions: these may be fulfilled of frustrated, but the concept of "change" is closely linked to that of narrative. 

            Aristotle provides a classification of plots into simple  and complex:

An action which is one and continuous in the sense above defined, I call simple, when the change of fortune takes place without reversal of the situation and without recognition.

           A complex action is one in which the change is accompanied by a discovery or reversal, or both.  (Poetics  54, X.2)

We must be careful not to confuse this classification of Aristotle's with another one which he will use immediately, the one which divides plots into single  and double. Here the criterion of classification is similar to the one used in defining episodic plots: we are considering whether there is a single focus of interest in the action. But from the examples set by Aristotle, double plots are not to be confused with episodic plots. In episodic plots, one focus of interest follows the other and the connection between them is not necessary; in double plots, both actions are developed simultaneously.  For instance, in the Odyssey,   the adventures of Ulysses and Telemachus happen simultaneously in two different places, and will eventually be connected to each other; this is why Aristotle speaks in this case of a double plot. 

            Narrated actions often follow recognizable macrostructural patterns, giving rise to different modes or sub-genres.  The origin of these differences is manifold: from the innate psychological structures known as the archetypes of the collective unconscious, to specific school conventions or national traditions.  Or, more precisely, the differences arise from the latter acting on the former, from concrete cultural re-modeling of both previous cultural products and of archetypal material. 

            We can follow Frye in distinguishing four main types of actions: tragic, ironic, comic and romantic.[1]  The differences between these modes are not solely a matter of action: there are also, of course, verbal practices which differentiate the tragic from the comic or the romantic.  A reader identifies a tragic tone and expects certain patterns of development.  These expectations may be fulfilled or frustrated: they are invariably fulfilled in popular literature, while modern artistic narrative tends to mix modes and defy expectations.  This is of course not absolutely new: Horace already claimed that tragedy and comedy often achieved their best effects when approaching each other's territory.  And not all blurring of generic boundaries is always innovative or welcome ‹indeed, most often it results in confusion and produces a disagreeable impression of the artist's having bungled his story. If a reader posits a macrostructure in a text and his expectations are frustrated, the text is suddenly felt as lacking in structure, unity or intelligibility.  A frustration of expectations is in principle a loss, and the work must offer the receiver some extra bonus which makes up for this loss, some strength which somehow derives from this apparent (or real) weakness. 





[1]          See Frye's essay "Theory of Myths" in Anatomy of Criticism.  Here we adapt the main lines of his theory.