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Thematics by Boris Tomashevsky Essay

Tomashevsky is a Formalist. (From Wikipedia: In literary theory, formalism refers to critical approaches that analyze, interpret, or evaluate the inherent features of a text. The formalist approach reduces the importance of a text’s historical, biographical, and cultural context.)

Introduction to Tomashevsky’s Approach The introduction to “Thematics” by Tomashevsky states that Tomashevsky’s essay is a proposal of how to analyze a narrative. A narrative must have a theme and enlist the readers’ emotions. Tomashevsky makes a distinction between Plot and Story. Tomashevsky deals with many aspects of narrative, including motif and how to distinguish between those which are and aren’t necessary to the action. He explores the parts of narratives and their purpose. “The motif- the elementary unit from which all else is constructed”

Thematics – Summary

1. Selection of Themes The theme is necessary for the coherence of a work and unites the separate elements of the whole. The theme and its development are important, as different themes have different effects on readers. The theme must interest the readers, who have either professional or personal pleasure motives in reading a text. The more timeless the subject matter, the longer a text will remain current- but the theme must be illustrated by specific material. A text may remain current in spite of being set in a historical context; it will however incur different interest levels determined by the prevailing conditions of the time period it is read. To hold the readers’ attention, the theme must evoke emotion. Thus the theme of the text is defined in part by those emotions. These emotions are not an arbitrary reaction by the reader but a deliberate manipulation by the author to keep the interest of the reader.

2. Story and Plot Sub-themes in a piece may either coexist throughout the text (in descriptive texts) or change according to changes in plot (in stories). A story must incorporate causality, or it is simply a chronology. We can reduce the work to irreducible, basic, necessary components, to define MOTIFS (≈ events) within the story. The way in which motifs relate defines the relationships between sub-themes. Thus a story is the aggregate of mutually related motifs reported in the work. These motifs, in the order they appear in the work, are PLOT, but their chronology can be inferred, giving the STORY. Thus the artistry of the writer is in the plot- in the way he arranges the motifs to affect the reader. Motifs are either necessary to the causal-chronology of the story- bound motifs- or are not- free motifs. Again, we often find that most of the artistry is in fact in the free motifs. Literary tradition often affects the choice of motifs.

There are different types of motifs (they may be classified by their function). There is the introductory motif, one that gives the setting of the story, usually including the motivation of the main character. There are motifs which change the situation- the situation being the way in which characters relate to one another at specific points in the story. These are dynamic motifs. Motifs which do not change the situation are static motifs. The motifs which are most crucial to the story are usually dynamic (describing action and causality); however those motifs which are most crucial to the plot may often be static (descriptive motifs, literary devices).

Every story may be seen as a relation of the struggles between characters. Sometimes the tranquility introduced in the beginning of the story is suddenly destroyes by a dynamic motif; this is the exciting force. The intrigue is the manner in which the struggle in a story plays out. The intrigue includes the resolution of struggles and the formation of new struggles. A change in struggle status is peripety. The resolution of all struggles leads to a boring static state, thus the story must end there. The more strongly characters oppose one another, and the more characters prepare for a change in situation, the stronger the tension. The point of highest tension in a story, achieved right before the ending, is called the climax.

The presentation of characters and situations is called exposition. Immediate exposition is when the story opens with an introduction. Delyaed exposition is when we have to infer about the nature of the situation and the characters throughout the story. Transposed exposition is when the author strays from the plot to give us a background details necessary to further the plot. Delayed exposition may continue until the end of the plot, and only then the reader discovers things that happened in retrospect that are very significant to the story. This is a regressive ending. This ending requires the dropping of hints throughout the narrative. Coherent comprehensive accounts of important motifs in a story are also transposable (may be told retroactively). These accounts may foreshadow other events in the story.

Plot shifts according to the kind of narrator a narrative utilizes. In an objective tale the narrator is a completely silent voice. Otherwise, the narrator may be a person who heard the story from someone else or a minor or major character in the story. A narrator may be omniscient or have limited knowledge of situations. Mixes of these are possible. A character may be a covert narrator. Different genres use different narrating styles to different ends; different stories arrange the motifs within differently also to achieve various goals.

Temporality in a story may be either given or deduced from the relativity of events or the description thereof. The setting of a story may be static or dynamic.

3. Motivation For a story to be coherent there must be a motivation for the incorporation of each motif. The motivation may compositional- to forward the plot: to foreshadow a major event, to describe a character that will play a part in the story, to distract the reader from the real situation (detective novels). The motivation may be to make the situation appear realistic or lifelike. When this is the motivation, authors may evoke unrealistic laws and build an internal form of “realism” upon these laws. Another motivation is artistic- certain devices are introduced because they are necessary to that art genre, or to create an effect on the reader (defamiliarization for instance).

4. The Hero Character building is also done via motifs. Characterization may be done directly or indirectly. The scope of the elements that make up a character is mask. The character that achieves the most attention is the protagonist. He may or may not be crucial to the plot; however he is the result of the creation of the plot. The collection of motifs that describe the protagonist serve to create a “stock character”.

5. The Vitality of Plot Devices Plot devices are conventional or free. Conventional devices are those required by the era and genre; free devices (I suppose, I couldn’t find it in the text) are those which transcend genre and era.


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