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Vladimir Propp

Vladimir Propp
Vladimir Propp in 1928.
Born 17 April 1895
St. Petersburg, Russian Empire
Died August 22, 1970(1970-08-22) (aged 75)
Leningrad, USSR
Occupation Folklorist, scholar
Nationality Russian, Soviet
Subject Russian folk tales, folklore

Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp (Russian: Владимир Яковлевич Пропп; 29 April [O.S. 17 April] 1895 – 22 August 1970) was a Soviet folklorist and scholar who analyzed the basic plot components of Russian folk tales to identify their simplest irreducible narrative elements.


  • Biography 1
  • Works in Russian language 2
  • Translations into English and other languages 3
  • Narrative structure 4
    • Functions 4.1
    • Characters 4.2
  • Criticism 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


Vladimir Propp was born on April 17, 1895 in St. Petersburg to a German family. He attended St. Petersburg University (1913–1918) majoring in Russian and German philology.[1] Upon graduation he taught Russian and German at a secondary school and then became a college teacher of German.

His Morphology of the Folktale was published in Russian in 1928. Although it represented a breakthrough in both folkloristics and morphology and influenced Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes, it was generally unnoticed in the West until it was translated in 1958. His character types are used in media education and can be applied to almost any story, be it in literature, theatre, film, television series, games, etc.

In 1932, Propp became a member of Leningrad University (formerly St. Petersburg University) faculty. After 1938, he chaired the Department of Folklore until it became part of the Department of Russian Literature. Propp remained a faculty member until his death in 1970.[1]

Works in Russian language

His main books are:

  • Morphology of the tale, Leningrad 1928
  • Historical Roots of the wonder tale , Leningrad 1946
  • Russian Epic Song , Leningrad 1955 - 1958
  • Popular Lyric Songs , Leningrad 1961
  • Russian Agrarian Feasts, Leningrad 1963

He also published some articles, the most important are:

  • The Magical Tree on the tomb
  • Wonderful Childbirth
  • Ritual Laughter in folklore
  • Oedipus in the light of folklore

First printed in specialized reviews, they were republished in Folklore and Reality, Leningrad 1976

Two books were published post mortem:

  • Problems of comedy and laughter , Leningrad 1983
  • The Russian Folktale , Leningrad 1984

The first book remained unfinished, the second one is the edition of the course he gave in Leningrad university.

Translations into English and other languages

  • Morphology of the Tale was translated into English in 1958 and 1968. It was translated into Italian and Polish (1966), French and Romanian(1970), Spanish (1971), German (1975).
  • Historical Roots of the Wonder Tale was translated into Italian (1949 and 1972), Spanish (1974), French, Romanian and Japanese (1983).
  • Oedipus in the light of folklore was translated into Italian in 1975.
  • Russian Agrarian Feasts was translated into French (1987)

Narrative structure

Vladimir Propp broke up paradigmatic" (cf. Sebag 1963:75), borrowing from the notion of paradigms in the study of language.

Respectively equivalent to syntagmatic and paradigmatic are the terms "diachronic" and "synchronic." Diachronic is the analysis that gives the reader a sense of "going through" the highs and lows of a story, much like the pattern of a sine wave.[2] The second term, synchronic, is where the story is taken in all at one time, like in the pattern of a circle. Most literary analyses are synchronic, offering a greater sense of unity among the components of a story. Although both structural analyses convey partial information about the story, each angle of analysis delivers a different set of information.[3]


After the initial situation is depicted, the tale takes the following sequence of 31 functions:[4]

  1. ABSENTATION: A member of a family leaves the security of the home environment. This may be the hero or some other member of the family that the hero will later need to rescue. This division of the cohesive family injects initial tension into the storyline. The hero may also be introduced here, often being shown as an ordinary person.
  2. INTERDICTION: An interdiction is addressed to the hero ('don't go there', 'don't do this'). The hero is warned against some action (given an 'interdiction').
  3. VIOLATION of INTERDICTION. The interdiction is violated (villain enters the tale). This generally proves to be a bad move and the villain enters the story, although not necessarily confronting the hero. Perhaps they are just a lurking presence or perhaps they attack the family whilst the hero is away.
  4. RECONNAISSANCE: The villain makes an attempt at reconnaissance (either villain tries to find the children/jewels etc.; or intended victim questions the villain). The villain (often in disguise) makes an active attempt at seeking information, for example searching for something valuable or trying to actively capture someone. They may speak with a member of the family who innocently divulges information. They may also seek to meet the hero, perhaps knowing already the hero is special in some way.
  5. DELIVERY: The villain gains information about the victim. The villain's seeking now pays off and he or she now acquires some form of information, often about the hero or victim. Other information can be gained, for example about a map or treasure location.
  6. TRICKERY: The villain attempts to deceive the victim to take possession of victim or victim's belongings (trickery; villain disguised, tries to win confidence of victim). The villain now presses further, often using the information gained in seeking to deceive the hero or victim in some way, perhaps appearing in disguise. This may include capture of the victim, getting the hero to give the villain something or persuading them that the villain is actually a friend and thereby gaining collaboration.
  7. COMPLICITY: Victim taken in by deception, unwittingly helping the enemy. The trickery of the villain now works and the hero or victim naively acts in a way that helps the villain. This may range from providing the villain with something (perhaps a map or magical weapon) to actively working against good people (perhaps the villain has persuaded the hero that these other people are actually bad).
  8. VILLAINY or LACK: Villain causes harm/injury to family member (by abduction, theft of magical agent, spoiling crops, plunders in other forms, causes a disappearance, expels someone, casts spell on someone, substitutes child etc., commits murder, imprisons/detains someone, threatens forced marriage, provides nightly torments); Alternatively, a member of family lacks something or desires something (magical potion etc.). There are two options for this function, either or both of which may appear in the story. In the first option, the villain causes some kind of harm, for example carrying away a victim or the desired magical object (which must be then be retrieved). In the second option, a sense of lack is identified, for example in the hero's family or within a community, whereby something is identified as lost or something becomes desirable for some reason, for example a magical object that will save people in some way.
  9. MEDIATION: Misfortune or lack is made known, (hero is dispatched, hears call for help etc./ alternative is that victimized hero is sent away, freed from imprisonment). The hero now discovers the act of villainy or lack, perhaps finding their family or community devastated or caught up in a state of anguish and woe.
  10. BEGINNING COUNTER-ACTION: Seeker agrees to, or decides upon counter-action. The hero now decides to act in a way that will resolve the lack, for example finding a needed magical item, rescuing those who are captured or otherwise defeating the villain. This is a defining moment for the hero as this is the decision that sets the course of future actions and by which a previously ordinary person takes on the mantle of heroism.
  11. DEPARTURE: Hero leaves home;
  12. FIRST FUNCTION OF THE DONOR: Hero is tested, interrogated, attacked etc., preparing the way for his/her receiving of a magical agent or helper (donor);
  13. HERO'S REACTION: Hero reacts to actions of future donor (withstands/fails the test, frees captive, reconciles disputants, performs service, uses adversary's powers against him);
  14. RECEIPT OF A MAGICAL AGENT: Hero acquires use of a magical agent (directly transferred, located, purchased, prepared, spontaneously appears, eaten/drunk, help offered by other characters);
  15. GUIDANCE: Hero is transferred, delivered or led to whereabouts of an object of the search;
  16. STRUGGLE: Hero and villain join in direct combat;
  17. BRANDING: Hero is branded (wounded/marked, receives ring or scarf);
  18. VICTORY: Villain is defeated (killed in combat, defeated in contest, killed while asleep, banished);
  19. LIQUIDATION: Initial misfortune or lack is resolved (object of search distributed, spell broken, slain person revived, captive freed);
  20. RETURN: Hero returns;
  21. PURSUIT: Hero is pursued (pursuer tries to kill, eat, undermine the hero);
  22. RESCUE: Hero is rescued from pursuit (obstacles delay pursuer, hero hides or is hidden, hero transforms unrecognisably, hero saved from attempt on his/her life);
  23. UNRECOGNIZED ARRIVAL: Hero unrecognized, arrives home or in another country;
  24. UNFOUNDED CLAIMS: False hero presents unfounded claims;
  25. DIFFICULT TASK: Difficult task proposed to the hero (trial by ordeal, riddles, test of strength/endurance, other tasks);
  26. SOLUTION: Task is resolved;
  27. RECOGNITION: Hero is recognized (by mark, brand, or thing given to him/her);
  28. EXPOSURE: False hero or villain is exposed;
  29. TRANSFIGURATION: Hero is given a new appearance (is made whole, handsome, new garments etc.);
  30. PUNISHMENT: Villain is punished;
  31. WEDDING: Hero marries and ascends the throne (is rewarded/promoted).

Occasionally, some of these functions are inverted, as when the hero receives something whilst still at home, the function of a donor occurring early. More often, a function is negated twice, so that it must be repeated three times in Western cultures.[5]


He also concluded that all the characters could be resolved into 7 broad character functions in the 100 tales he analyzed:

  1. The villain — struggles against the hero.
  2. The dispatcher — character who makes the lack known and sends the hero off.
  3. The (magical) helper — helps the hero in their quest.
  4. The princess or prize and her father — the hero deserves her throughout the story but is unable to marry her because of an unfair evil, usually because of the villain. The hero's journey is often ended when he marries the princess, thereby beating the villain.
  5. The donor — prepares the hero or gives the hero some magical object.
  6. The hero or victim/seeker hero — reacts to the donor, weds the princess.
  7. The false hero — takes credit for the hero’s actions or tries to marry the princess.[6]

These roles could sometimes be distributed among various characters, as the hero kills the villain dragon, and the dragon's sisters take on the villainous role of chasing him. Conversely, one character could engage in acts as more than one role, as a father could send his son on the quest and give him a sword, acting as both dispatcher and donor.[7]


Propp's approach has been criticized for removing all verbal considerations from the analysis, even though the folktale's form is almost always oral, and also all considerations of tone, mood, character, and anything that differentiates one fairy tale from another. One of the most prominent critics of Propp is the French structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who used Propp's monograph on the morphology of the Folktale to demonstrate the superiority of the structuralist approach, and the shortcomings of the formalist approach.[8] Propp responded to this criticism in a sharply-worded rebuttal: he wrote that Lévi-Strauss showed no interest in empirical investigation.[9]

See also


  1. ^ a b Propp, Vladimir. "Introduction." Theory and History of Folklore. Ed. Anatoly Liberman. University of Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. pg ix
  2. ^ See, for example, Jockers, Matthew L. "A Novel Method for Detecting Plot "
  3. ^ Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World video lecture, University of Michigan
  4. ^ Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folk Tale, p 25, ISBN 0-292-78376-0
  5. ^ Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folk Tale, p 74, ISBN 0-292-78376-0
  6. ^ Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folk Tale, p 79-80, ISBN 0-292-78376-0
  7. ^ Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folk Tale, p 81, ISBN 0-292-78376-0
  8. ^ Levi-Strauss, Claude. "Structure and Form: Reflection on a Work by Vladimir Propp".
  9. ^ Vladimir Propp, Theory and History of Folklore (Theory and History of Literature #5) by Vladimir Propp, Ariadna Y. Martin (Translator), Richard P. Martin (Translator), Anatoly Liberman

External links

  • The Functions of the Dramatis Personae
  • The 31 narrative units of Propp's formula - Jerry Everard
  • The Birth of Structuralism from the Analysis of Fairy-Tales – Dmitry Olshansky / Toronto Slavic Quarterly, No. 25
  • The Fairy Tale Generator: generate your own Inaccessible as of 12 Oct 2012, but available via Archived July 16, 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  • Criticism
  • Vladimir Propp (1895-1970) / The Literary Encyclopedia (2008)
  • Assessment of Propp (German)
  • A Folktale Outline Generator: based on Propp's Morphology
  • The Historical Roots of the Wonder Tale Propp's examination of the origin of specific folktale motifs in customs and beliefs, initiation rites. (Russian)
  • Linguistic Formalists by C. John Holcombe An interesting essay through the story of Russian Formalism.
  • Biography of Vladimir Propp at the Gallery of Russian Thinkers
  • An XML Markup language based on Propp at the University of Pittsburgh
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