Are There Seven Basic Plots?

Washington Post Book World, May 8, 2005

Denis Dutton

www.denisdutton.com


The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, by Christopher Booker. New York: Continuum, 2005, viii & 728 pp. $34.98.

 

In the summer of 1975, moviegoers flocked to see the story of a predatory shark terrorizing a little Long Island resort. The film told how three brave men go to sea in a small boat and, after a bloody climax in which they kill the monster, return peace and security to their town — not unlike, Christopher Booker observes, a tale enjoyed by Saxons dressed in animal skins, huddled around a fire some 1,200 years earlier. Beowulf also features a town terrorized by a monster, Grendel, who lives in a nearby lake and tears his victims to pieces. Again, the hero Beowulf returns peace to his town during a bloody climax in which the monster is slain.

Such echoes have impelled Booker to chart what he regards as the seven plots on which all literature is built. Beowulf and Jaws follow the first and most basic of his plots, “Overcoming the Monster.” It is found in countless stories from The Epic of Gilgamesh and Little Red Riding Hood to James Bond films such as Dr. No. This tale of conflict typically recounts the hero’s ordeals, an escape from death, and ends with a community or the world itself saved from evil.

Booker’s second plot is “Rags to Riches.” He places in this category Cinderella, The Ugly Duckling, David Copperfield, and other stories that tell of modest, downtrodden characters whose special talents or beauty are at last revealed to the world for a happy ending.

Next in Booker’s taxonomy is the “Quest,” which features a hero, normally joined by sidekicks, traveling the world and fighting to overcome evil and secure a priceless treasure (or in the case of Odysseus, wife and hearth). The hero not only gains the treasure he seeks, but also the girl, and they end as King and Queen. Related to this is Booker’s fourth category, “Voyage and Return,” exemplified by Robinson Crusoe, Alice in Wonderland, and The Time Machine. The protagonist leaves normal experience to enter an alien world, returning after what often amounts to a thrilling escape.

In “Comedy,” Booker suggests, confusion reigns until at last the hero and heroine are united in love. “Tragedy” portrays human overreaching and its terrible consequences. The last of the plots of his initial list is “Rebirth,” which centers on characters such as Dickens’s Scrooge, Snow White, and Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov. To this useful system he unexpectedly adds at the end of his book two more plots: “Rebellion” to cover the likes of Nineteen Eighty-Four and “Mystery” for the recent invention of the detective novel.

Christopher Booker

Booker, a British columnist who was founding editor of Private Eye, possesses a remarkable ability to retell stories. His prose is a model of clarity, and his lively enthusiasm for fictions of every description is infectious. He covers Greek and Roman literature, fairy tales, European novels and plays, familiar Arabic and Japanese tales, Native American folk tales, and movies from the silent era on. He is an especially adept guide through the twists and characters of Wagner’s operas. His artfully entertaining summaries jogged many warm memories of half-forgotten novels and films.

I wish as much pleasure could be derived from the psychology on which he bases his hypothesis. Booker has been working on this project for 34 years, and his quaint psychological starting point sadly shows its age. He believes Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes and self-realization can explain story patterns. Alas, Jung serves him very poorly.

Malevolent characters, for example, are constantly described by Booker as selfish “Dark Figures,” who symbolize overweening egotism. (Booker is from a generation of critics who used to think that simply identifying a symbol in literature can explain anything you please.) In Jungian terms, the dark power of the ego is the source of all evil, along with another of Booker’s favorite Jungian ideas, the denial of the villain’s “inner feminine.”

Granted, egotism may explain the wickedness of someone like Edmund in King Lear. But Grendel? The shark in Jaws? Oedipus is arguably a more egotistical character than Iago, who in his devious cruelty is still far more evil. The malevolence of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park or the Cyclops in The Odyssey lies not in their egotism. These creatures just have a perfectly natural taste for mammalian flesh. They are frightening, dramatic threats, to be sure, but not symbols of human vice. Sometimes in fiction, as Freud might have said, a monster is just a monster.

In Booker’s account, denying your “inner feminine” is bad news, and all evildoers, including Lady Macbeth, are guilty of it. Not only do such Jungian clichés wear thin, they get in the way of adequate interpretation. Having seduced so many women and killed the father of one, Don Giovanni will “never develop his inner feminine” and act with the strength of a mature man, according to Booker. This ignores a most piquant feature of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto: The Don stubbornly (and manfully) stands up to the Commendatore’s ghost at the opera’s end and is pulled down to hell on account of it.

Booker’s discussion of what he calls “the Rule of Three” reveals his obsessive, self-confirming method. From the three questions of Goldilocks and Red Riding Hood to Lear’s three daughters, sets of three are ubiquitous in literature, Booker claims. “Once we become aware of the archetypal significance of three in storytelling,” he explains, “we can see it everywhere, expressed in all sorts of different ways, large and small.”

Sure, and anyone who studies the personality types of astrology will begin to see Virgos and Scorpios everywhere too. Relations among three, four, or five characters in a narrative enable more dramatic possibilities than relations between two. This is a matter of ordinary logic, not literary criticism. The “archetype of three,” as he calls it, is no archetype at all, though he contrives to find it where it is plainly absent. Scylla and Charybdis may look like two dangers to you and me, but the middle way between them actually makes, as Booker explains, three possibilities for Odysseus, thus saving the Rule of Three. The three days Jane Eyre spends running across the moors “conveys to us, by a kind of symbolic shorthand, just how tortuous and difficult” her escape is. But why three? If Jane had spent five days on the moors, or 40 days, she’d have been even more tuckered out. And while there are three bears, three chairs and three bowls of porridge in Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” there are actually four characters. The story would better support Booker’s theory were it Goldilocks and the Two Bears. But like astrologers, he is not keen to consider negative evidence.

The first thinker to tackle Booker’s topic was Aristotle. Write a story about a character, Aristotle showed, and you face only so many logical alternatives. In tragedy, for instance, either bad things will happen to a good person (unjust and repugnant) or bad things happen to a bad person (just, but boring). Or good things happen to a bad person (unjust again). Tragedy needs bad things to happen to a basically good but flawed person: Though he may not have deserved his awful fate, Oedipus was asking for it.

In the same rational spirit, Aristotle works out dramatic relations. A conflict between strangers or natural enemies is of little concern to us. What arouses interest is a hate-filled struggle between people who ought to love each other — the mother who murders her children to punish her husband, or two brothers who fight to the death. Aristotle knew this for the drama of his age as much as soap-opera writers know it today.

Booker has not discovered archetypes, hard-wired blueprints, for story plots, though he has identified the deep themes that fascinate us in fictions. Here’s an analogy: survey the architectural layout of most people’s homes and you will find persistent patterns in the variety. Bedrooms are separated from kitchens. Kitchens are close to dining rooms. Front doors do not open onto children’s bedrooms or bathrooms.

Are these patterns Jungian room-plan archetypes? Hardly. Life calls for logical separations of rooms where families can sleep, cook, store shoes, bathe, and watch TV. Room patterns follow not from mental imprints, but from the functions of the rooms themselves, which in turn follow from our ordinary living habits and values.

So it is with stories. The basic situations of fiction are a product of fundamental, hard-wired interests human beings have in love, death, adventure, family, justice, and adversity. These values counted as much in the Pleistocene as today, which is why they are so intensively studied by evolutionary psychologists. Our fictions are populated with character-types relevant to these themes: beautiful young women, handsome strong men, courageous leaders, children needing protection, wise old people. Add to this the threats and obstacles to the fulfillment of love and fortune, including both bad luck and villains, and you have the makings of literature. Story plots are not unconscious archetypes, but follow, as Aristotle realized, from human interests and the logic of what is possible.

Booker ends his 700-page treatise with a diatribe against literature of the past two centuries. Modern fiction has “lost the plot,” he argues. Moby-Dick initially may look initially like a heroic “Overcoming the Monster” tale, but in the end we do not know who is more evil, Captain Ahab or the whale who kills him. While the ambiguities of modernism trouble Booker, some of his readers will be even more disturbed to find movies like E.T. and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings extravagantly lauded in a book that disparages the complex moral pessimism of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and achievement of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Times Past, which he dismisses as “the greatest monument to human egotism in the history of story-telling.”

Fail though it might in its ambition to offer a single key to literature, The Seven Basic Plots is nevertheless one of the most diverting works on storytelling I’ve ever encountered. Pity about the Jung, but there’s no denying the charm of Booker’s twice-told tales.

 

Denis Dutton edits the journal Philosophy and Literature and the website Arts & Letters Daily.