Fabula and syuzhet
Fabula (Russian: фабула) and syuzhet (сюжет, also romanised as sjuzhet, sujet, sjužet, siuzhet or suzet) are terms originating in Russian formalism and employed in narratology that describe narrative construction. Syuzhet is an employment of narrative and fabula is the chronological order of the events contained in the story. They were first used in this sense by Vladimir Propp and Viktor Shklovsky.
The fabula is "the raw material of a story, and syuzhet, the way a story is organized." Since Aristotle (Poetics 1450b25) narrative plots are supposed to have a beginning, middle, and end. For example, the film Citizen Kane starts with the death of the main character, and then tells his life through flashbacks interspersed with a journalist's present-time investigation of Kane's life. This is often achieved in film and novels via flashbacks or flashforwards. Therefore, the fabula of the film is the actual story of Kane's life the way it happened in chronological order; while the syuzhet is the way the story is told throughout the movie, including flashbacks.
Jonathan Culler in The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction (1981) notes a certain contradiction in assigning priority to either fabula or syuzhet (170-172). The operative assumption amongst many literary critics is that fabula precedes the syuzhet, which provides one of many ways of rendering what took place in the story. Culler argues that one can also understand fabula as a production of the syuzhet, whereby certain events are created and ordered at the level of story in order to produce a meaningful narrative. Critics, he argues, subscribe to a view in which fabula precedes syuzhet when debating the significance of a character's actions, but adopt the opposite view (in which syuzhet precedes fabula) when they discuss the "appropriateness" of a narrative's ending (178).
Jacques Derrida (1979) is also critical of the logocentric hierarchic ordering of syuzhet 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 syuzhet (employment) 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”, each "story" in the story) is part of the other, makes the other part (of itself), each "story" 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).
Jerome Bruner also raises issues about fabula and syuzhet. Bruner summarizes syuzhet as the plot of narrative, and fabula as a timeless underlying theme (Bruner, 1986, pp. 7, 17-21). Bruner wants fabula to be a little more "loose fitting a constraint on story": "I think we would do well with as loose fitting a constraint as we can manage concerning what a story must 'be' to be a story" (p. 17).
The problem for Bruner is to explore the underlying narrative structures (syuzhets) in not only Russian formalism, but also French Structuralism (Roland Barthes, Tzvetan Todorov, and others). The European formalists posit narrative grammars (i.e. Todorov's simple transformations of mode, intention, result, manner, aspect and status, as well as complex transformations of appearance, knowledge, supposition, description, subjectification, and attitude). For Bruner, the story (fabula stuff) becomes the "virtual text" (p. 32) to the narrative grammars. "Nevertheless, Shotter suggests that Bruner failed to engage these 'particularities of otherness' in favour of abstractive explanation of meaning-making processes rather than in a description of dialogical performances" (Mos, 2003: 2). In other words, there is a need to consider how narrative pursues grammars and abstract meaning frames, whereas story can be dialogic and in the web of the social.
Mikhail Bakhtin is also not convinced that fabula and syuzhet is a complete explanation of the relationship of narrative and story. Like Derrida, Bakhtin is suspicious of the hegemonic relation that narrative has over story.
For Bakhtin (1973: 12) “narrative genres are always enclosed in a solid and unshakable monological framework.” Story, for Bakhtin, is decidedly more dialogue-based, for example in the “polyphonic manner of the story” (Bakhtin, 1973: 60).
Benjamin Whorf (1956: 256), following up an observation by Franz Boas, contended that the Hopi Indians do not experience themselves, or life as narrative grammar, or pattern. Rather than past-present-future, as segregated narrative syuzhet, the Hopi experience is one of "eventing." Shotter (1993: 109) refers to Whorf's "eventing" and to the Hopi's differences with Euro-American space and time.
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