Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Seven Basic Plots

I finished reading this book a while ago, but never got around to writing about it.

Well, I say "finished." More accurately, I gave up about a hundred pages from the end. Which may seem an odd thing to do, as the book is seven hundred pages long, so I was pretty near to completing it. But boy, this one gets seriously haywire as it goes on.

Christopher Booker was one of the founders of Private Eye back in 1961. The Seven Basic Plots is an examination of the recurring motifs and structures of storytelling, and an attempt to explain in psychological terms why human beings tell stories in the first place. He spent thirty years working on it. It's divided into three parts: a taxonomy of the seven basic plots that he identifies; an analysis of the ways in which twentieth century storytelling started deviating from those structures to an unprecedented degree; and an attempt to explain the underlying psychology.

Part 1 is largely persuasive. Part 2 is somewhat persuasive. Part 3 is a whole load of stuff about Jung. Actually, Jung provides the central structure for a lot of Booker's analysis, but the final part of the book is a serious attempt to sell us on the genius of Jung. This is the bit where I gave up.

The first part, however, is pretty good stuff, and well worth reading. Booker basically suggests that most traditionally-structured stories fall into one of seven basic patterns, which he labels as Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, Quest, Voyage & Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth.

That list calls for a couple of footnotes. Firstly, by "Comedy", he means the standard "confusion and mistaken identity is all sorted out in the end" plot as used in Shakespearean comedies and Greek plays. He's not suggesting that all humour follows this plot, nor that all stories with this plot are necessarily humorous. (As he points out, it's been widely lifted for straight romance stories.)

Secondly, Booker isn't suggesting that these are the only seven plots - merely that they're the seven major plots of traditional storytelling, and that the vast majority of stories are combinations or inversions of elements from these stories. He acknowledges that there are other stories which don't fit into any of these categories, such as origin myths, or the relatively recent genre of detective stories.

His basic point is to identify a common structure in each of these genres and to argue that they all express essentially the same ideas: that the hero triumphs by becoming a fully-realised person, in touch with his feminine side (or vice versa for heroines), and that in doing so he overcomes some threat and (symbolically or literally) succeeds to a kingdom, which usually involves him becoming an acknowledged alpha male, having a wife, and settling down to start the next generation in a symbol of life, rebirth and continuity. Basically, these stories are all morality tales in some way, as they illustrate characters succeeding by becoming Good People, or (in the case of tragedy) missing the mark and plunging to annihilation.

So far, so good. The second part of the book then has to account for the deviations which start to crop up in the twentieth century, as experimental narrative and dark inversions become increasingly popular. This is where Booker starts to get into trouble. Basically, as a good Jungian, Booker feels compelled to explain everything in terms of the ego. So if a story isn't following the prescribed pattern, it's because the writer is attempting to follow an ego-driven path, whereas the underlying patterns of storytelling are designed to express the hero transcending the ego and embracing the self. (Don't ask.)

Now, he has something of a point here. It's true that the last century or so has seen a massive increase in the number of stories expressing the desirability of individuality and distinctiveness from the herd - traits which previously tended to be treated negatively. Moreover, it's also true that a lot of writers have been trying to express these ideas by nailing them onto established story structures which, Booker persuasively argues, were originally designed to express the exact opposite.

But this still presents Booker with a problem, because what he really wants to say is that the traditional ideas expressed in storytelling pre-1900 embody archetypal ideas deeply embedded in human nature. The fact that humans have drifted away from expressing them over the last century, and have started expressing opposing concepts, is clearly an obstacle to that theory. Ineviably, Booker ends up having to argue that humans have become more ego-driven and alienated from the self, and has to try and shoehorn lots of stories into that theory.

To some extent that works. He can plausibly dismiss a lot of stories as "sentimental" variants that repeat the outward form while lacking any of the archetypal content. (The typical Hollywood action movie, for example, which always includes a token unification with a love interest at the end.) He's also able to get rid of a lot of stories by explaining them as dark inversions of the main plot. But on a closer reading, he often seems to be bashing stories into that category simply on the grounds that he disagrees with the ideas they express. And in order to play up the degree of sex and violence in 20th century literature, he has to vastly underplay it in classical myth. Oh, and his analysis doesn't seem to take any account of elements of storytelling other than the plot.

Inevitably, this leads to some stories being interpreted in ways that range from strained to jawdroppingly wrong. When Booker seriously argues that The Trial is a story about an egocentric protagonist trapped by his own inability to empathise with other people - rather than, say, a paranoid fantasy about a man at the mercy of an impenetrable external state - you have to wonder whether he's reading the same story.

Ultimately, Booker can only offer a partial explanation for twentieth century fiction, and while there's enough of interest in his analysis to suggest that he's in the right ballpark, he's clearly gone wrong somewhere along the line. For example, he gets into all sorts of trouble with sexual politics, as Jung's archetypal classification depends strongly on drawing a distinction between masculine and feminine values. Stories which position women in a classically masculine role confuse the hell out of Booker, who can only account for them as anomalies or as self-conscious point-making inversions of the classic plot. (Some of them are, of course, but not all of them.)

And then we get to the third part of the book, which is really an attempt to argue that the underlying structure of stories proves that Jung was right. Since this bit really depends on you buying into the argument outlined so far, frankly, it gets tiresome rather quickly.

Still, the book is worth reading. There's a good five hundred pages of interesting material in there, before it goes soaring off into its grand theory - at which point you can stop. He's got a good point about the common ideas expressed by traditional stories which dominated for centuries, and there's got to be some significance to that.