Vladimir Propp

From New World Encyclopedia

Vladimir Propp
Vladimir Propp (1928 year).jpg
Vladimir Propp in 1928
Born: April 29, 1895
St. Petersburg, Russian Empire
Died: August 22 1970 (aged 75)
Leningrad, Russian SFSR, USSR
Occupation(s): Folklorist, scholar
Nationality: Russian, Soviet
Subject(s): Folklore of Russia, folklore

Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp (Russian: Владимир Яковлевич Пропп; April 29, [O.S. April 17] 1895 – August 22, 1970) was a Soviet folklorist and scholar who analyzed the basic structural elements of Russian folk tales to identify their simplest irreducible structural units. Propp's work broke folktales down into a series of functions undertaken by actants. He identified 31 separate functions undertaken by actants fulfilling seven different roles. His syntagmatic approach was a form of semiotic literary analysis but differed from that of Claude Levi-Strauss, who disregarded the syntagmatic approach in favor of a paradigmatic one.


Vladimir Propp was born on April 29, 1895 in Saint Petersburg to an assimilated Russian family of German descent. His parents, Yakov Philippovich Propp and Anna-Elizaveta Fridrikhovna Propp (née Beisel), were Volga German wealthy peasants from Saratov Governorate. He attended Saint 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 morphology is used in media education and has been applied to other types of narrative in literature, theatre, film, television series, games, etc., although Propp applied it specifically to the fairy tale.

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]

Morphology of the Folktale

According to Propp, based on his analysis of 100 folktales from the corpus of Alexander Fyodorovich Afanasyev, there were 31 basic structural elements (or 'functions') that typically occurred within Russian fairy tales. He identified these 31 functions as typical of all fairy tales, or wonder tales (skazka) in Russian folklore. These functions occurred in a specific, ascending order (1-31, although not inclusive of all functions within any tale) within each story. Propp's Morphology of the Folktale (orig. Russian pub. 1928; English trans. 1958) provides an example of the formal and systematic approach. In successive chapters, Propp analyzes the characters, plot events, and other elements of traditional folktales (primarily from Russia and Eastern Europe). For each of these key components he provides a letter designation (with superscripts to designate specific subtypes). He proceeds to analyze individual tales by transposing them into this notation and then to generalize about their structure.

As an example, analysis of a simple, single-move tale of class H-I, of the type: kidnapping of a person. 131. A tsar, three daughters (α). The daughters go walking (β³), overstay in the garden (δ¹). A dragon kidnaps them (A¹). A call for aid (B¹). Quest of three heroes (C↑). Three battles with the dragon (H¹–I¹), rescue of the maidens (K4). Return (↓), reward (w°).[2]

He then gives the complete structure of this story in one line of notation, the analysis complete and ready to be compared systematically with other tales:


Semiotic criticism

This type of structural analysis of folklore is referred to as "syntagmatic". A syntagma is an elementary constituent segment within a text. Propp was one of a number of early to mid-twentieth century proponents of a semiotic approach to the study of literature. Notable early semiotic critics included Propp, Algirdas Julius Greimas, and Viktor Shklovsky.[3] These critics were concerned with a formal analysis of narrative forms which would resemble a literary mathematics, or an attempt at creating a literary syntax, as much as possible. They proposed various formal notations for narrative components and transformations, attempting a descriptive taxonomy of existing stories along these lines.

In semiotic literary criticism, a syntagm (or syntagma) is a building block of a text into which meaning is encoded by the writer and decoded by the reader, recalling past experience and placing the message in its appropriate cultural context. Individual syntagms can be arranged together to form more complex syntagms: groups of sounds (and the letters to represent them) form words, groups of words form sentences, sentences form narratives, and so on. A list of syntagms of the same type is called a paradigm.

Syntagmatic structure is often contrasted with paradigmatic structure. In semiotics, "syntagmatic analysis" is analysis of syntax or surface structure (syntagmatic structure), rather than paradigms as in paradigmatic analysis. Both forms of analysis are often achieved through commutation tests, analysis by substituting words of the same type or class to calibrate shifts in connotation.[4][5] Paradigmatic analysis is the analysis of paradigms embedded in the text rather than of the surface structure (syntax) of the text which is termed syntagmatic analysis. Surface structure refers to how the elements of the story, or plot, interact with each other.

This focus on the events of a story and the order in which they occur is in contrast to another form of analysis, the "paradigmatic" which is more typical of Lévi-Strauss' structuralist theory of mythology. Lévi-Strauss sought to uncover a narrative's underlying pattern, regardless of the linear, superficial syntagm, and his structure is usually rendered as a binary oppositional structure. For paradigmatic analysis, the syntagm, or the linear structural arrangement of narratives is irrelevant to their underlying meaning.

Narrative Structure

Vladimir Propp's syntagmatic analysis breaks down the literary text of the folktale according to the various functions performed by the characters, referred to by the generic term actants. Propp specifically studied a collection of Russian fairy tales, but his analysis has been found useful for the tales of other countries.[6] Having criticized Aarne-Thompson type analysis for ignoring what motifs did in stories, and because the motifs used were not clearly distinct,[7] he analyzed the tales for the function each character and action fulfilled. He concluded that a tale was composed of thirty-one elements ('functions') and seven characters or 'spheres of action' ('the princess and her father' are a single sphere). While the elements were not all required for all tales, when they appeared they did so in an invariant order – except that each individual element might be negated twice, so that it would appear three times, as when, in Brother and Sister, the brother resists drinking from enchanted streams twice, so that it is the third that enchants him.[8] Propp's 31 functions also fall within six 'stages' (preparation, complication, transference, struggle, return, recognition), but a stage may also be repeated, which can affect the perceived order of elements.


After the initial situation is depicted, any wonder tale will be composed of a selection of the following 31 functions, in a fixed, consecutive order:[9]

1. ABSENTATION: A member of the hero's community or family leaves the security of the home environment. This may be the hero themselves, or some other relation that the hero must later rescue. This division of the cohesive family injects initial tension into the storyline. This may serve as the hero's introduction, typically portraying them as an ordinary person.

2. INTERDICTION: A forbidding edict or command is passed upon the hero ('don't go there', 'don't do this'). The hero is warned against some action.

3. VIOLATION of INTERDICTION. The prior rule is violated. Therefore, the hero did not listen to the command or forbidding edict. Whether committed by the Hero by accident or temper, a third party or a foe, this generally leads to negative consequences. The villain enters the story via this event, although not necessarily confronting the hero. They may be a lurking and manipulative presence, or might act against the hero's family in his absence.

4. RECONNAISSANCE: The villain makes an effort to attain knowledge needed to fulfill their plot. Disguises are often invoked as the villain actively probes for information, perhaps for a valuable item or to abduct someone. They may speak with a family member who innocently divulges a crucial insight. The villain may also seek out the hero in their reconnaissance, perhaps to gauge their strengths in response to learning about their special nature.

5. DELIVERY: The villain succeeds at recon and gains a lead on their intended victim. A map is often involved in some level of the event.

6. TRICKERY: The villain attempts to deceive the victim to acquire something valuable. They press further, aiming to con the protagonists and earn their trust. Sometimes the villain makes little or no deception and instead ransoms one valuable thing for another.

7. COMPLICITY: The victim is fooled or forced to concede and unwittingly or unwillingly helps the villain, who is now free to access somewhere previously off-limits, like the privacy of the hero's home or a treasure vault, acting without restraint in their ploy.

8. VILLAINY or LACKING: The villain harms a family member, including but not limited to abduction, theft, spoiling crops, plundering, banishment or expulsion of one or more protagonists, murder, threatening a forced marriage, inflicting nightly torments and so on. Simultaneously or alternatively, a protagonist finds they desire or require something lacking from the home environment (potion, artifact, etc.). The villain may still be indirectly involved, perhaps fooling the family member into believing they need such an item.

9. MEDIATION: One or more of the negative factors covered above comes to the attention of the Hero, who uncovers the deceit/perceives the lacking/learns of the villainous acts that have transpired.

10. BEGINNING COUNTERACTION: The hero considers ways to resolve the issues, by seeking a needed magical item, rescuing those who are captured or otherwise thwarting the villain. This is a defining moment for the hero, one that shapes their further actions and marks the point when they begin to fit their noble mantle.

11. DEPARTURE: The hero leaves the home environment, this time with a sense of purpose. The hero's adventure begins here.

12. FIRST FUNCTION OF THE DONOR: The hero encounters a magical agent or helper (donor) on their path, and is tested in some manner through interrogation, combat, puzzles or more.

13. HERO'S REACTION: The hero responds to the actions of their future donor; perhaps withstanding the rigors of a test and/or failing in some manner, freeing a captive, reconciles disputing parties or otherwise performing good services. This may also be the first time the hero comes to understand the villain's skills and powers, and uses them for good.

14. RECEIPT OF A MAGICAL AGENT: The hero acquires use of a magical agent as a consequence of their good actions. This may be a directly acquired item, something located after navigating a tough environment, a good purchased or bartered with a hard-earned resource or fashioned from parts and ingredients prepared by the hero, spontaneously summoned from another world, a magical food that is consumed, or even the earned loyalty and aid of another.

15. GUIDANCE: The hero is transferred, delivered or somehow led to a vital location, perhaps related to one of the above functions such as the home of the donor or the location of the magical agent or its parts, or to the villain.

16. STRUGGLE: The hero and villain meet and engage in conflict directly, either in battle or some nature of contest.

17. BRANDING: The hero is marked in some manner, perhaps receiving a distinctive scar or granted a cosmetic item like a ring or scarf.

18. VICTORY: The villain is defeated by the hero – killed in combat, outperformed in a contest, struck when vulnerable, banished, and so on.

19. LIQUIDATION: The earlier misfortunes or issues of the story are resolved; objects of search are distributed, spells broken, captives freed.

20. RETURN: The hero travels back to their home.

21. PURSUIT: The hero is pursued by some threatening adversary, who perhaps seek to capture or eat them.

22. RESCUE: The hero is saved from a chase. Something may act as an obstacle to delay the pursuer, or the hero may find or be shown a way to hide, up to and including an unrecognizable transformation. The hero's life may be saved by another.

23. UNRECOGNIZED ARRIVAL: The hero arrives, whether in a location along their journey or in their destination, but is unrecognized or unacknowledged.

24. UNFOUNDED CLAIMS: A false hero presents unfounded claims or performs some other form of deceit. This may be the villain, one of the villain's underlings or an unrelated party. It may even be some form of future donor for the hero, once they've faced their actions.

25. DIFFICULT TASK: A trial is proposed to the hero – riddles, test of strength or endurance, acrobatics and other ordeals.

26. SOLUTION: The hero accomplishes a difficult task.

27. RECOGNITION: The hero is given due recognition – usually by means of their prior branding.

28. EXPOSURE: The false hero and/or villain is exposed to all and sundry.

29. TRANSFIGURATION: The hero gains a new appearance. This may reflect aging and/or the benefits of labor and health, or it may constitute a magical remembering after a limb or digit was lost (as a part of the branding or from failing a trial). Nonetheless, it serves to improve their looks.

30. PUNISHMENT: The villain suffers the consequences of their actions, perhaps at the hands of the hero, the avenged victims, or as a direct result of their own ploy.

31. WEDDING: The hero marries and is rewarded or promoted by the family or community, typically ascending to a throne.

Some of these functions may be inverted, such as the hero receives an artifact of power while still at home, thus fulfilling the donor function early. Typically such functions are negated twice, so that it must be repeated three times in Western cultures.[10]


He also concluded that all the characters in tales could be resolved into seven abstract character functions:

  1. The villain or aggressor — an evil character that creates struggles for the hero.
  2. The dispatcher — any character who illustrates the need for the hero's quest and sends the hero off. This often overlaps with the princess's father.
  3. The helper or auxiliary — a typically magical entity that comes to help the hero in their quest.
  4. The princess or prize, and often her father — the hero deserves her throughout the story but is unable to marry her as a consequence of some evil or injustice, perhaps the work of the villain. The hero's journey is often ended when he marries the princess, which constitutes the villain's defeat.
  5. The donor — a character that prepares the hero or gives the hero some magical object, sometimes after testing them.
  6. The hero — the character who reacts to the dispatcher and donor characters, thwarts the villain, resolves any lacking or wronghoods and weds the princess.
  7. The false hero — a Miles Gloriosus (braggart solder in Latin)figure who takes credit for the hero's actions or tries to marry the princess.[11]

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.[12]

Example of a Function

Function 12 is the role of the donor who gives the hero magical assistance, often after testing him.[13] Father Frost, a fairy tale character made of ice, acts as a donor in the Russian fairy tale "Father Frost". He tests the heroine, a veiled young girl sitting in the snow, before bestowing riches upon her. In The Golden Bird, the talking fox tests the hero by warning him against entering an inn and, after he succeeds, helps him find the object of his quest. In The Boy Who Drew Cats, the priest advised the hero to stay in small places at night, which protects him from an evil spirit. In Cinderella, the fairy godmother gives Cinderella the dresses she needs to attend the ball, as their mothers' spirits do in Bawang Putih Bawang Merah and The Wonderful Birch. In The Fox Sister, a Buddhist monk gives the brothers magical bottles to protect against the fox spirit. The roles can be more complicated.[14] In The Red Ettin, the role is split into the mother who offers the hero the whole of a journey cake with her curse or half with her blessing. When he takes the half, a fairy who gives him advice; in Mr Simigdáli, the sun, the moon, and the stars all give the heroine a magical gift. Characters who are not always the donor can act like the donor.[15] In Kallo and the Goblins, the villain goblins also give the heroine gifts, because they are tricked; in Schippeitaro, the evil cats betray their secret to the hero, giving him the means to defeat them. Other fairy tales, such as The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was, do not feature the donor.


Analogies have been drawn between Propp's work and the analysis of myths into the hero's journey.[16] Propp's approach works better for the analysis of folktales and myths, but his style of analysis was followed by other semiotic and structuralist critics like Algirdas Julius Greimas and Roland Barthes.


Propp's approach has been criticized for its excessive formalism (a major critique of the Soviets). One of the most prominent critics of Propp was structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who, in dialogue with Propp, argued for the superiority of the paradigmatic over syntagmatic approach.[17] Propp responded to this criticism in a sharply-worded rebuttal, arguing that Lévi-Strauss showed no interest in empirical investigation.[18]

Works in Russian

His main texts are:

  • Morphology of the Folktale, 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 of which 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 posthumously:

  • 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.


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


  1. 1.0 1.1 Vladimir Propp, "Introduction," in Theory and History of Folklore, ed. Anatoly Liberman. Trans. Ariadna Y. Martin and Richard P. Martin (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984, ISBN 978-0816611829), ix.
  2. Propp, 1971, 128.
  3. Vitaly Kiryushchenko, "Peirce's Semiotics and the Russian Formalism: Points of Convergence," 2012. Retrieved May 8, 2023.
  4. Daniel Chandler, "Semiotics for Beginners: Paradigmatic Analysis," Retrieved May 4, 2023.
  5. Daniel Chandler, "Semiotics for Beginners: Syntagmatic Analysis," Retrieved May 4, 2023.
  6. Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1968).
  7. Propp, 8–9.
  8. Propp, 74.
  9. Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folk Tale, 2nd. revised ed. (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1971, ISBN 0292783760), 25.
  10. Propp, 1971, 74.
  11. Propp, 1971, 79-80.
  12. Propp, 1971, 81.
  13. Propp, 39.
  14. Propp, 81–82.
  15. Propp, 80–81.
  16. Christopher Vogler, The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 2nd ed. (Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 1998, ISBN 0941188701), 30.
  17. Alan Dundes, "Binary Opposition in Myth: The Propp/Levi-Strauss Debate in Retrospect," Western Folklore 56(1) (Winter 1997).
  18. Vladimir Propp, Theory and History of Folklore (Theory and History of Literature #5) trans. Ariadna Y. Martin, Richard P. Martin and Anatoly Liberman (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984, ISBN 978-0816611805).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Chandler, Daniel. "Semiotics for Beginners: Syntagmatic Analysis," Retrieved May 4, 2023.
  • Chandler, Daniel. "Semiotics for Beginners: Paradigmatic Analysis," Retrieved May 4, 2023.
  • Dundes, Alan. "Binary Opposition in Myth: The Propp/Levi-Strauss Debate in Retrospect," Western Folklore 56(1) (Winter 1997).
  • Propp, Vladimir. Morphology of the Folktale. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1968.
  • Propp, Vladimir. Morphology of the Folk Tale, 2nd. revised ed. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1971. ISBN 0292783760
  • Propp, Vladimir. Theory and History of Folklore (Theory and History of Literature #5) translated by Ariadna Y. Martin, Richard P. Martin and Anatoly Liberman. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. ISBN 978-0816611805
  • Vogler, Christopher. The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 2nd ed. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 1998. ISBN 0941188701

External links

All links retrieved May 4, 2023.


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