Propp’s world, fairy tales, gossip and soapies

A previous piece I wrote on “As the World Turns’ (ATWT) – one of the longest running soapies ever (The incredible Mr. Hughes, birth to middle-age) got me thinking about Propp.

Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp studied the structure of Russian fairy tales (Parts 1 and 2). Propp – a Formalist – sought a generic model, one that can encompass all possible fairy tales.

In his major work Morphology of the Folktale, Propp came up with 31 functions of narrative structure.
While he acknowledged that there are many types of fairy tales, with endless permutations around who the characters are, Propp argued that there are reoccurring themes involving what the characters do.

Propp’s model starts with a family member (the hero) leaving home, next there is a warning to & command for the hero as to paths to adopt, or avoid. As the story progresses, the warning & Command are ignored (allowing the villain an easy gateway). The villain, then, tries to learn more about the hero, this can be done by invitation or deceit,

The victim, (maybe a reluctant or naive hero), and the villain, are having a dialog, aimed for each of the protagonists to get information about the opponent so as to unsettle the balance of power. The villain tries to get something that belongs to the hero through deceit, maybe disguise; usually he also tries to gain victim’s trust. The victime believes the lie and helps the villain unwittingly

… and so on. At the end of the journey

  • The hero is recognised (historical artefact: a mark, brand, or thing given to him/her);
  • The false hero or villain is exposed;
  • The hero is given a new appearance (is made whole, handsome, new garments etc);
  • Villain is punished;
  • Hero’s reward (usually marries and ascends the throne0).

… and lives happily ever after!  Check the complete list

Modernised, Propp’s model applies snugly to soapies. In fact, one can find a host of formalistic studies of soapies*, including a study of everyday talk and the conversational patterns of soap operas.  It explores soapies’ general ‘more talk than action’ attitude and concentrates on the language used. Another article (`Taking our personal lives seriously: intimacy, continuity and memory in the television drama serial’, ) argues that, far from causing a deterioration in drama narratives, serials have added to non-intellectual narrative type that “better utilizes the generic aesthetics of television and the fundamental dynamics of its audience’s viewing habits.”

Finally, Henriette Riegel (Soap Operas and Gossip, 1996) looks at soapies as a vehicle for gossip. She identifies three levels of gossip emanating from soap operas, firstly – when soap opera characters gossip about other characters (commenting on the narrative from within, as a Greek chorus would, RNN), then – gossip about soapies and their characters (and actors) by viewers (serving as a bonding, uniting element,) and – finally – gossip about soapies in the media (serves to from an outside commentary of events, characters and actors in the series.)

Propp’s deep understanding of the way narratives ‘behave’ in popular forms of storytelling (such as fairy tales) can help us understand the seemingly rigid form of narratives used in soap operas (and other non-intellectual, popular forms of storytelling.) An interested application of Propp’s model in a digital world is called Digital Propp, a Proppian Fairy Tale Generator. Go see. —–


(*) Google “research on soap operas” +”.pdf”