Morphology of the Folk Tale
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Morphology of the Folk Tale

V. Propp, Laurence Scott

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Morphology of the Folk Tale

V. Propp, Laurence Scott

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This seminal work by the renowned Russian folklorist presents his groundbreaking structural analysis of classic fairytales and their genres.

One of the most influential works of 20th century literary criticism, Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folk Tale is essential reading for anyone interested in examining the structural characteristics of fairytales. Since it first appeared in English in 1958, this groundbreaking study has had a major impact on the work of folklorists, linguists, anthropologists, and literary critics.

"Propp's work is seminal…[and], now that it is available in a new edition, should be even more valuable to folklorists who are directing their attention to the form of the folktale, especially those structural characteristics which are common to many entries coming from different cultures."— Choice

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The Functions of Dramatis Personae

In this chapter we shall enumerate the functions of the dramatis personae in the order dictated by the tale itself.
For each function there is given: (1) a brief summary of its essence, (2) an abbreviated definition in one word, and (3) its conventional sign. (The introduction of signs will later permit a schematic comparison of the structure of various tales.) Then follow examples. For the most part, the examples far from exhaust our material. They are given only as samples. They are distributed into certain groups. These groups are in relation to the definition as species to genus. The basic task is the extraction of genera. An examination of species cannot be included in the problems of general morphology. Species can be further subdivided into varieties, and here we have the beginning of systemization. The arrangement given below does not pursue such goals. The citation of examples should only illustrate and show the presence of the function as a certain generic unit. As was already mentioned, all functions fit into one consecutive story. The series of functions given below represents the morphological foundation of fairy tales in general.1
A tale usually begins with some sort of initial situation. The members of a family are enumerated, or the future hero (e.g., a soldier) is simply introduced by mention of his name or indication of his status. Although this situation is not a function, it nevertheless is an important morphological element. The species of tale beginnings can be examined only at the end of the present work. We shall designate this element as the initial situation, giving it the sign a.
After the initial situation there follow functions:
I. ONE OF THE MEMBERS OF A FAMILY ABSENTS HIMSELF FROM HOME. (Definition: absentation. Designation: β.)
1. The person absenting himself can be a member of the older generation (β1). Parents leave for work (113). “The prince had to go on a distant journey, leaving his wife to the care of strangers” (265). “Once, he (a merchant) went away to foreign lands” (197). Usual forms of absentation: going to work, to the forest, to trade, to war, “on business.”
2. An intensified form of absentation is represented by the death of parents (β2).
3. Sometimes members of the younger generation absent themselves (β3). They go visiting (101), fishing (108), for a walk (137), out to gather berries (244).
II. AN INTERDICTION IS ADDRESSED TO THE HERO. (Definition: interdiction. Designation: γ.)
1. (γ1). “You dare not look into this closet” (159). “Take care of your little brother, do not venture forth from the courtyard” (113). “If Bába Jagá comes, don’t you say anything, be silent” (106). “Often did the prince try to persuade her and command her not to leave the lofty tower,” etc. (265). Interdiction not to go out is sometimes strengthened or replaced by putting children in a stronghold (201). Sometimes, on the contrary, an interdiction is evidenced in a weakened form, as a request or bit of advice: a mother tries to persuade her son not to go out fishing; “you’re still little,” etc. (108). The tale generally mentions an absentation at first, and then an interdiction. The sequence of events, of course, actually runs in the reverse. Interdictions can also be made without being connected with an absentation: “don’t pick the apples” (230); “don’t pick up the golden feather” (169); “don’t open the chest” (219); “don’t kiss your sister” (219).
2. An inverted form of interdiction is represented by an order or a suggestion, (γ2) “Bring breakfast out into the field” (133). “Take your brother with you to the woods” (244).
Here for the sake of better understanding, a digression may be made. Further on the tale presents the sudden arrival of calamity (but not without a certain type of preparation). In connection with this, the initial situation gives a description of particular, sometimes emphasized, prosperity. A tsar has a wonderful garden with golden apples; the old folk fondly love their Ivášečka, and so on. A particular form is agrarian prosperity: a peasant and his sons have a wonderful hay-making. One often encounters the description of sowing with excellent germination. This prosperity naturally serves as a contrasting background for the misfortune to follow. The spectre of this misfortune already hovers invisibly above the happy family. From this situation stem the interdictions not to go out into the street, and others. The very absentation of elders prepares for the misfortune, creating an opportune moment for it. Children, after the departure or death of their parents, are left on their own. A command often plays the role of an interdiction. If children are urged to go out into the field or into the forest, the fulfillment of this command has the same consequences as does violation of an interdiction not to go into the forest or out into the field.
III. THE INTERDICTION IS VIOLATED (Definition: violation. Designation: δ.)
The forms of violation correspond to the forms of interdiction. Functions II and III form a paired element. The second half can sometimes exist without the first (the tsar’s daughters go into the garden [β3]; they are late in returning home). Here the interdiction of tardiness is omitted. A fulfilled order corresponds, as demonstrated, to a violated interdiction.
At this point a new personage, who can be termed the villain, enters the tale. His role is to disturb the peace of a happy family, to cause some form of misfortune, damage, or harm. The villain(s) may be a dragon, a devil, bandits, a witch, or a stepmother, etc. (The question of how new personages, in general, appear in the course of action has been relegated to a special chapter.) Thus, a villain has entered the scene. He has come on foot, sneaked up, or flown down, etc., and begins to act.
IV. THE VILLAIN MAKES AN ATTEMPT AT RECONNAISSANCE. (Definition: reconnaissance. Designation: ε.)
1. The reconnaissance has the aim of finding out the location of children, or sometimes of precious objects, etc. (ε1). A bear says: “Who will tell me what has become of the tsar’s children? Where did they disappear to?” (201); a clerk: “Where do you get these precious stones?” (197); a priest at confession: “How were you able to get well so quickly?” (258); †† a princess: “Tell me, Iván the merchant’s son, where is your wisdom?” (209);††† “What does the bitch live on?” Jágišna thinks. She sends One-Eye, Two-Eye and Three-Eye on reconnaissance (101).
2. An inverted form of reconnaissance is evidenced when the intended victim questions the villain2). “Where is your death, Koščéj?” (156). “What a swift steed you have! Could one get another one somewhere that could outrun yours?” (160).
3. In separate instances one encounters forms of reconnaissance by means of other personages3).
V. THE VILLAIN RECEIVES INFORMATION ABOUT HIS VICTIM. (Definition: delivery. Designation: ζ.)
1. The villain directly receives an answer to his question. (ζ1) The chisel answers the bear: “Take me out into the courtyard and throw me to the ground; where I stick, there’s the hive.” To the clerk’s question about the precious stones, the merchant’s wife replies: “Oh, the hen lays them for us,” etc. Once again we are confronted with paired functions. They often occur in the form of a dialogue. Here, incidentally, also belongs the dialogue between the stepmother and the mirror. Although the stepmother does not directly ask about her stepdaughter, the mirror answers her: “There is no doubt of your beauty; but you have a stepdaughter, living with knights in the deep forest, and she is even more beautiful.” As in other similar instances, the second half of the paired function can exist without the first. In these cases the delivery takes the form of a careless act: A mother calls her son home in a loud voice and thereby betrays his presence to a witch (108). An old man has received a marvelous bag; he gives the godmother a treat from the bag and thereby gives away the secret of his talisman to her (187).
2-3. An inverted or other form of information-gathering evokes a corresponding answer. (ζ23) Koščéj reveals the secret of his death (156), the secret of the swift steed (159), and so forth.
The villain, first of all, assumes a disguise. A dragon turns into a golden goat (162), or a handsome youth (204); a witch pretends to be a “sweet old lady” (265) and imitates a mother’s voice (108); a priest dresses himself in a goat’s hide (258); a thief pretends to be a beggarwoman (189). Then follows the function itself.
1. The villain uses persuasion (η1). A witch tries to have a ring accepted (114); a godmother suggests the taking of a steam bath (187); a witch suggests the removal of clothes (264) and bathing in a pond (265); a beggar seeks alms (189).
2. The villain proceeds to act by the direct application of magical means (η2). The stepmother gives a sleeping potion to her stepson. She sticks a magic pin into his clothing (232).
3. The villain employs other means of deception or coercion (η3). Evil sisters place knives and spikes around a window through which Finist is supposed to fly (234). A dragon rearranges the wood shavings that are to show a young girl the way to her brothers (133).
1. The hero agrees to all of the villain’s persuasions (i.e., takes the ring, goes to steambathe, to swim, etc.). One notes that interdictions are always broken and, conversely, deceitful proposals are always accepted and fulfilled (θ1).
2–3. The hero mechanically reacts to the employment of magical or other means (i.e., falls asleep, wounds himself, etc.). It can be observed that this function can also exist separately. No one lulls the hero to sleep: he suddenly falls asleep by himself in order, of course, to facilitate the villain’s task (θ23).
A special form of deceitful proposal and its corresponding acceptance is represented by the deceitful agreement. (“Give away that which you do not know you have in your house.”) Assent in these instances is compelled, the villain taking advantage of some difficult situation in which his victim is caught: a scattered flock, extreme poverty, etc. Sometimes the difficult situation is deliberately caused by the villain. (The bear seizes the tsar by the beard [201]). This element may be defined as preliminary misfortune. (Designation: λ, differentiating between this and other forms of deception.)
This function is exceptionally important, since by means of it the actual movement of the tale is created. Absentation, the violation of an interdiction, delivery, the success of a deceit, all prepare the way for this function, create its possibility of occurrence, or simply facilitate its happening. Therefore, the first seven functions may be regarded as the preparatory part of the tale, whereas the complication is begun by an act of villainy. The forms of villainy are exceedingly varied.
1. The villain abducts a person (A1). A dragon kidnaps the tsar’s daughter (131), a peasant’s daughter (133); a witch kidnaps a boy (108); older brothers abduct the bride of a younger brother (168).
2. The villain seizes or takes away a magical agent (A2). The “uncomely chap” seizes a magic coffer (189); †† a princess seizes a magic shirt (208); the finger-sized peasant makes off with a magic steed (138).
2a. The forcible seizure of a magical helper creates a special subclass of this form (A11). A stepmother orders the killing of a miraculous cow (100, 101). A clerk orders the slaying of a magic duck or chicken (196, 197).†††
3. The villain pillages or spoils the crops (A3). A mare eats up a haystack (105). A bear steals the oats (143). A crane steals the peas (186).
4. The villain seizes the daylight (A4). This occurs only once (135).
5. The villain plunders in other forms (A5). The object of seizure fluctuates to an enormous degree, and there is no need to register all of its forms. The o...

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Citation styles for Morphology of the Folk Tale
APA 6 Citation
Propp, V. (2010). Morphology of the Folk Tale ([edition unavailable]). University of Texas Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2010)
Chicago Citation
Propp, V. (2010) 2010. Morphology of the Folk Tale. [Edition unavailable]. University of Texas Press.
Harvard Citation
Propp, V. (2010) Morphology of the Folk Tale. [edition unavailable]. University of Texas Press. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Propp, V. Morphology of the Folk Tale. [edition unavailable]. University of Texas Press, 2010. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.