Fabula and Sjuzhet

You can, if you prefer, talk about ‘story’ and ‘plot’; but I prefer the Russian Formalist critical terminology because (a) you score more with those words in Scrabble, and (b) I love the way you can spell sjuzhet various different ways without being wrong: siuzhet; sjuzet; siužet; sjužet and Dolores. You’ll see all of those in print in critical discussion. Well, maybe not the last one there.

What’s the difference? Well, ‘fabula’ means the story and ‘sjužet’ means the particular way that story gets narrated–the plot, in other words. Defoe‘s Robinson Crusoe and Michel Tournier‘s Friday both tell the same story (the story of Robinson Crusoe on the island); but from quite different perspectives and in quite different ways (they are narrated and plotted differently). Here’s Jeremy Hawthorn’s perspective:

We are concerned with an essentially very simple distinction surrounded by minefields of confusing vocabulary … the simple distinction is between a series of real or fictitious events connected by a certain logic or chronology and involving certain actors, and the narration of this series of events. Thus were one asked to give the story of Wuthering Heights a suitable response would be to start with the first arrival of the child Heathcliff at Wuthering Heights and then proceed to recount the events of the novel in chronological order until the death of Heathcliff. But the plot of Wuthering Heights is these events as they are actually presented in Emily Bronte’s novel. The same story can thus give rise to many different plots. [p.227]

Mieke Bal actually distintinguishes between three levels: story, plot and narration. Similarly, for Gérard Genette the ‘events in chronological order’ are the histoire, the ‘events ordered artistically’ the discours or the recit, and the text on the page is the ‘narration’.

As writers, we need to have the skill to work out which sjuzhet is the best way to articulate whatever fabula we’re interesting in communicating: what order the events need to be related, which point or points of view are going to do it justice, to what extent we trim or expand, where we linger and where we hurry past. But there are plenty of theorists who find th every distinction between ‘story’ and ‘plot’ to be problematic. The Wikipedia article on ‘sjuzhet’ has a good summary of a couple of those, from which I snip the following:

Jonathan Culler‘s (The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press 1981) 170-172) critique of Sjuzhet and Fabula is that they constitute a double move. The first move is to set Sjuzhet (narrative) in hierarchical domination over Fabula (story). Story becomes relegated in the first move to a mere chronology of event. In the second move, narrative self-deconstructs its initial duality, in order to double back to efface the order of event (Culler, 1981: 171).

Jacques Derrida (‘Living On – Border Lines’ in Deconstruction and Criticism (NY: Seabury Press, edited by Harold Bloom et. al, 1979)) is also critical of the logocentric hierarchic ordering of Sjuzhet and Fabula. He raises the question, “What if there are story ways of telling as well as narrative ways of telling? And if so, how is it that narrative in the American-European tradition has become privileged over story?” One answer is that narrative is both Sjuzhet (emplotment) and a subjection of Fabula (the stuff of story, represented through narrative). For example, Derrida views narrative as having a terrible secret, in its way of oppressing story:

… The question-of-narrative covers with a certain modesty a demand for narrative, a violent putting-to-the-question an instrument of torture working to wring out the narrative as if it were a terrible secret in ways that can go from the most archaic police methods to refinements for making (and even letting) one talk unsurpassed in neutrality and politeness, most respectfully medical, psychiatric, and even psychoanalytic. (Derrida, 1979: 94).

If story is more than Fabula, dominated by narrative, it could have its own manner of discourse, rather than being subordinate to narrative. Derrida plays with just such an idea as follows in setting story in relation to its homonym: ‘Each “story” (and each occurrence of the word “story,” (of itself), each story in the story) is part of the other, makes the other part (of itself), is at once larger and smaller than itself, includes itself without including (or comprehending) itself, identifies itself with itself even as it remains utterly different from its homonym.’ (Derrida, 1979: 99-100).

How separate, do you think, are the categories of fabula and sjuzhet? [AR]

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Filed under First Year, Second Year, Third Year

One response to “Fabula and Sjuzhet

  1. Pingback: Star Wars Retold « RHUL Creative Writers Weblog

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