Todorov, Tzvetan

Assigned: Todorov, Tzvetan. “Structural Analysis of Narrative” (1918-25). Also read the editors’ introduction (1916-18).

“Structural Analysis of Narrative” (1969)

1. On 1918-19 (“The theme I propose to deal…”), what “two possible attitudes towards literature” (1918) does Tzvetan Todorov initially describe? Which of these two attitudes, according to him, best applies to “structural analysis”? Furthermore, what two “critical positions” (1918) does Todorov also describe, and which one better characterizes structural analysis? In this regard, how does he contrast the Marxist and psychoanalytic approaches with that of formalist New Critics such as Cleanth Brooks (Leitch 1179-95) or, to some extent, René Wellek and Austin Warren? (1919)

2. On 1919 (“Structural analysis differs from both…”), how, according to Todorov, does structural analysis differ from the “external” Marxist and psychoanalytic approaches but also from the specifically formalist style of internal criticism? Since structural analysis does not aim to explain individual literary texts, what accounts for its interest in those texts, and what is the desired outcome of the structural analysis of a given literary text?

3. On 1919-20 (“It is easily seen that such…”), Todorov points out that the kind of analysis he calls for might well be termed scientific, and confesses that many literary critics might find that affinity dubious or even offensive. Henry James, in his view, is just such a critic. What two main objections does James raise in his essay “The Art of Fiction” (see Leitch 719-36) against critics who would boldly deal with fiction in what he considers an overly prescriptive, scientific-seeming manner? In turn, what counter-arguments does Todorov advance against James’ objections?

4. On 1920-21 (“There is another very popular…”), how does Todorov deal with the objection that claiming literary analysis can be scientific is wrong because literary interpretation is “always subjective” (1920)? In what sense, according to Todorov, are social scientists and even “hard scientists” necessarily to some extent subjective in the way they go about their work? How can one best deal with this necessary subjectivity, rather than demanding absolute purity of motive and method?

5. On 1921-23 (“It is now time to stop…”), by way of an example of structural analysis, Todorov offers a commentary on the significance of plot in Giovanni Boccaccio’s medieval collection of tales, the Decameron. What “grammar” does Todorov develop for the four representative stories of illicit love that he refers to? In what sense is he building a kind of linguistic structure with “parts of speech,” syntax and so forth? (1922-23)

6. On 1923 (“We might also ask: is there a way…”), Todorov raises and answers his own question as to how a structuralist critic can get back to the individual story in Boccaccio from the grammatical outline that has been constructed. What description does he provide of the three ways he says this can be done: “study of narrative syntax, study of theme, study of rhetoric”?

7. On 1923-24 (“At this point we may ask…”), with regard to the purpose of structural analysis, why, according to Todorov, is it inadvisable to ask, “Has this analysis taught us anything about the stories in question?” (1923) How does he describe what he is trying to accomplish? What two varieties of plot does Todorov suggest he has learned something about from the tales of the Decameron: what is their basic structure, and what overall significance does he draw from each completed plot?

8. On 1924-25 (“I would like to return now…”), Todorov returns to addressing the question of “the object of structural analysis of literature” (1924). In what sense is literature in its particularity “only a mediator, a language, which poetics uses for dealing with itself” (1924)? However, why, according to Todorov, is literature nonetheless important to structural analysis or, to use another name for it, “poetics”? (1925) In the end, how does Todorov define the “principal goal” of poetics in its capacity as a scientific area of study?

9. General question: some observers have no doubt found Todorov’s and other such critics’ scientific methods and terms off-putting, as if it were an affront to humanistic inquiry to bring science into the whole affair. That view is understandable, and it bespeaks a by no means groundless anxiety about the perceived relevance of literature to the wider and more immediately practical modern world. Even so, how might Todorov and like-minded critics defend the scientific approach they take to literature—one that often resolutely refuses to be drawn into generating discourse about the content of individual works of art? Find a few places in our excerpts from “Structural Analysis of Narrative” where Todorov seems to you to be defending his way of dealing with literary texts against such objections, and assess the quality of his defense. Finally, how do you see the value of structural analysis of the sort Todorov performs—insofar as college students are nearly always asked to deal with the content of individual literary texts, how might structural analysis and other similarly “theoretical” forms of criticism still be of use?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake