Fabula and syuzhet  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Fabula and Sujet (also sjuzhet, syuzhet, sjužet, or suzet) are terms originating in Russian Formalism and employed in narratology that describe narrative construction. Sujet is an employment of narrative and fabula is the order of retelling events. They were first used in this sense by Vladimir Propp and Shklovsky.

The fabula of a text is the raw order in which events occurred, while sujet is defined as the way in which these events are depicted and reshaped in their emplotment. Since Aristotle (350 BCE, 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 flash-forwards.


Critical reviews of sujet and fabula

Critiques of sujet and fabula fall under the headings of poststructuralism, symbolic interaction, language studies, and Native story writers. What is interesting is how Native writers and Poststructuralists are reclaiming story from narrative hegemony.


Jonathan Culler's (1981: 170-172) critique of sujet and fabula is that they constitute a so-called double move. The first move is to set sujet (narrative) in hierarchical domination over fabula (story). Story becomes relegated in the first move to a mere chronology of event. In the second move, narrative self-deconstructs its initial duality, in order to double back to efface the order of event (Culler, 1981: 171).

Jacques Derrida (1979) is also critical of the logocentric hierarchic ordering of sujet 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 sujet (emplotment) 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”, (of itself), each story in the story) is part of the other, makes the other part (of itself), 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).

Symbolic Interactionism

Jerome Bruner also raises issues about sujet and fabula. Bruner summarizes sujet 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 (sujets) in not only Russian Formalism, but also French Structuralists (Barthes, Todorov, and others). The European formalists posit narrative grammars (i.e. Todorov's simple transformations of mode, intention, result, manner, aspect & status, as well as complex transformations of appearance, knowledge, supposition, description, subjectification, & 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.

Language studies

Mikhail Bakhtin is also not convinced that sujet and fabula 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 dialogical, 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 sujet, 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. Parr-Davis (see web resources) poses several critiques of Whorf's theory that it was just the linguistic patterns of speech that changed how time and space were being narrated (or emplotted via sujet).

Native writers on Story

Finally, an increasing number of Native-indigenous authors are positing a more vibrant role of story, beyond fabula, and in resistance to Euro-American Formalist and Structuralist narrative. For example Leslie Marmon Silko (1981) says "White ethnologists reported that the oral tradition among Native American groups has died out" (p. 28). Narrative sujet/fabula tends to turn native story into museum artifacts, as archetype narratives devoid of "harsh realities of hunger, poverty and injustice" (p. 280), and that Native story traditions were "erroneously altered by the European intrusion - principally by the practice of taking the children away from the tellers who had in all past generations told the children an entire culture, an entire identity of a people" (p. 6). The idea here is that story competencies are taught in the tribe, and the story memory, passed from generation to generation is disrupted by pulling children out of the home, forbidding their language, etc. Thomas King (2005) in The Truth About Stories, argues that narrative compromises story. The fabula of story, the social fabric of story loses its voice. King argues that story shapes identity differently from narrative. In particular the Indian identity concocted in American-European ethnology, folklore, anthropology, history, and literature --- is being challenged by Native writers. James Cox (2006) looks at narrative (in the tradition of Euro-American enterprise of sujet/fabula) as "tools of domination: (p. 24), and a "colonial incursion" (p. 25).

Possible lines of inquiry

Antenarrative - The antenarrative is defined as the double move of a bet (ante) or a before (ante) of story on its way to narrative (Boje, 2001). One way to approach sujet and fabula is to assume that the story stuff of fabula is antecedent to sujet plottedness of narrative. This would be consistent with Paul Ricoeur's (1983) Time and Narrative, in which first memesis is a pre-story to second memesis of emplotment, which is antecedent to the third memesis of making sense of plottedness. This is the basis for a hermeneutics of narrative.

A second line of inquiry would look at sujet and fabula as antenarratives that can defragment or otherwise unweave narrative emplotment (sujet), rendering them into story stuff (fabula). In other words, instead of assuming a conception of time that is spatial (Shotter, 1993), as a spatial-past, spatial-present, and spatial-future, there would be other kinds of Bakhtin (1981) chronotopes (space-time relativities).

In antenarrative analysis the distinction between fabula and sujet become irrelevant for several reasons. Both fabula and sujet do not take into account the social conditions which are the basis of the sujet reconstruction. The storyteller as a matter of fact is barely present as a sociological figure in the way Benjamin describes it (Benjamin, 1969). Even if we take the sujet as part of a social practice (although the emphasis of narratologists is absolutely not on that) sujet deals with cognitive patterns that are taken for granted in a certain culture as Bakhtin as shown for the novel (Bakhtin, 1981), while antenarrative aims at showing the precariousness of those patterns and the uniqueness of human experience. Sujet is a pattern of plotting, which although historicized does not take into account the cracks of narratives and the opening to doubt.

See also



  • Aristotle. (350 BCE).
  • Bakhtin, M. (1973). Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics (C. Emerson, Ed. & Trans.). Manchester, England: Manchester University Press.
  • Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin (ed. Holquist, M.). Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Benjamin, W. (1969). The Storyteller: Observations on the Works of Nikolai Leskov, in Illuminations (Ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn). New York: Schoken Books.
  • Boje, D. M. (2001). Narrative Methods for Organizaitonal and Communication Research. London: Sage.
  • Boje, David M. (2008). Storytelling Organizations. London: Sage. Chapter 2 develops the Sjuzhet and Fabula monologic aspects of Russian Formalism.
  • Bruner, Jerome. (1986). Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge, MASS.: Harvard University Press.
  • Cox, James. (2006). Muting White Noise: The Subversion of Popular Culture Narratives of Conquest in Sherman Alexie's Fiction. University of Oklahoma Press.
  • Culler, Jonathan. (1981). The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • Derrida, Jacques. (1979). ‘Living On – Border Lines’ in Deconstruction and Criticism (NY: Seabury Press, edited by Harold Bloom et. al, 1979).
  • King, Thomas. (2003). The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative. Toronto: House of Ananasi.
  • Mos, Leendert. (2003). Jerome Bruner: Language, Culture, Self. Canadian Psychology (Feb), on line review of David Bakhurst & Sturart Shanker (Eds.( Jerome Bruner: Language, Culture, Self. London: Sage Publications, 2001. Accessed at Bruner
  • Propp, Vladimir. (1928/1968). Morphology of the Folk Tale. English trans. Laurence Scott. TX: University of Texas Press (first published in Moscow in 1928; English, 1968).
  • Shklovsky, Viktor. (1917/1965). Art as Technique in L T Lemon and M Reis, eds., (1965) Russian Formalist Criticism. University of Nebraska Press.
  • Shotter, John (1993). Conversational Realities. London: Sage.
  • Silko, Leslie Marmon. (1981). Storyteller. NY: Arcade Publishing
  • Whorf, Benjamin Lee (1956). Language, Thought and Reality - Selected Writings.

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