Fabula and Syuzhet

In ``Analysis and Interpretation of the Realist Text'', David Lodge discusses the distinction between what he calls ``fabula'' (фабула) and ``sjuzhet'' (сюжет; transliterated in the American system as ``syuzhet''). This distinction, introduced by the Russian Formalists and treated later by Genette, is an important, if somewhat confused, one. Both words come to Russian from Latin (fabula from the Latin for ``fable'', syuzhet indirectly from ``subjectus'', through French ``sujet''), and mean nearly the same thing in common usage. Thus one must be careful to distinguish the meanings given to those words by the Formalists.

Fabula means in Russian ``story'' or ``plot''. The fabula consists of the entirety of the events that actually (or supposedly, in fictional narrative) occurred, independent of the particular narration. Thus the fabula may be considered as having a chronological order, and being seen from a fully omniscient perspective. The fabula does not have the gaps which are so common to the narrative form, and is infinitely detailed. As such, it is only ideally approachable in writing or analysis.

In nontechnical Russian, the meaning of syuzhet overlaps somewhat with that of fabula. Syuzhet means ``plot'' or ``subject''. To the Russian Formalists and to Lodge, however, the syuzhet is quite distinct from the fabula. It is the ``way of telling'' the story---that is, the narration. As such, it has limited detail, as dictated by the author. The order of the syuzhet is the order of recounting, and the perspective may be limited and varied. The syuzhet, unlike the fabula, is a strictly literary or narrative entity, constructed by the author.

In terms of the story itself, fabula may be said to be the more fundamental of the two. Thus we are given in the syuzhet only part of the ``true story'', that is to say of the fabula. However, in terms of a work of literature, the syuzhet is fundamental. The syuzhet is actually present in the work, and hence an objective entity. The fabula, on the other hand, is produced by the readers of the work, through interpretation. Thus, where there is a single syuzhet, each reader introduces his or her own fabula. We may also speak of, and we often search for, the author's ``intended'' meaning or fabula; even this, though, is a construct we create from the given syuzhet. The fabula, though claiming to exist before the syuzhet and to give the latter its reality, is actually something of a hoax: rather than being more objective and more real than the syuzhet, it is actually less so. It still makes sense, though, when analyzing a narrative, to temporarily consider the syuzhet as a ``modification'' of some actual (rather than potential or subjective) fabula. Only then can the form of the syuzhet, in terms of what is not present, be understood. In what follows, then, we consider syuzhet as a function of fabula rather than vice versa.

According to Lodge, following Genette, syuzhet modifies fabula in two ways, namely point of view and time. That is, a syuzhet establishes itself as distinct from the fabula and from other syuzhets in two ways: by stating events from a particular point of view and restricting the related events to those which fall within the scope of that point of view; and by changing the temporal presentation of events. Each gives the syuzhet a metonymic relation to the fabula: certain details are elided or simplified so as to bring others---or possibly the omitted details themselves---to the forefront. We cannot really speak of the syuzhet expanding on the fabula: since the fabula is infinitely detailed, expansion of the narrative is strictly speaking impossible.

The first of the two types of modification is point of view. According to Lodge, we must distinguish between two aspects of point of view. The first, voice, is simply ``who speaks the description'' (Lodge) of the action. The second, and more important, is perspective---who sees the action. Lodge discusses perspective in detail with respect to ``Cat in the Rain''. Thus, the entire story has the same voice: a third-person non-participant, what Barthes calls ``a formal manifestation of the myth'' of literature (Barthes). However, the perspective is limited to that of a particular character: first the woman, then her husband; and the shift in perspective, which occurs near the end, is of fundamental importance to the effect of the piece. Likewise, the choice of the father's perspective in ``A Day's Wait'' is important: when the father learns that the boy had been expecting to die, it casts an ironic light on the father's hunting session. While certainly not insignificant, the first-person voice is not quite so important as the use of the father's perspective.

The second way in which syuzhet modifies fabula is in time. The syuzhet may alter the order, frequency, or duration of events in the fabula. Order is often changed by flashbacks; however, there are more subtle means of reordering events. For example, a single event may be told from the perspective of two characters. Since one of the recountings must follow the other, two events (the observation by characters A and B) that occurred simultaneously in the fabula become consecutive in the syuzhet. In, for example, ``Capital of the World'', the matador's harassment of Paco's sister is contemporary with (``meanwhile'') the conversation among Paco, Ignacio, and the older waiter. However, the conversation is presented in its entirety, followed by the scene with Paco's sister. This type of reordering is inherent in the form of the narrative, but is as much of a ``modification'' as more obvious flashbacks.

Time is also modified in frequency. In discussing ``Cat in the Rain'', Lodge refers to ``reiteration'' and ``summary''. Thus, by reiterating, a single event can be recounted multiple times; likewise, by summarizing, the syuzhet can describe at once multiple events in the fabula. There are also the possibilities of recounting multiple events (for example, constant rain) multiple times, which Lodge also classifies as ``reiteration''; and of relating a single event once, which is not given a special name. Thus ``A Natural History of the Dead'', rather than merely summarizing the narrator's observations of war-dead, reiterates a number of such experiences. Though the narrator certainly does not list all the dead people he has seen, he does describe a number of them: thus we have here what Lodge might call an n-to-m relation of events to descriptions.

The last form of temporal modification is in duration. The passage of time in the syuzhet is not at all constant: large stretches of time may be compressed into a single sentence or omitted entirely, while the events of a few seconds may receive an extensive treatment. For an example, we may return to ``A Day's Wait''. Here, the father's hunting trip, which takes most of the day, occupies only two paragraphs of narrative. His conversations with the boy, however, though likely only taking a few minutes each, fill the remainder of two-and-a-half pages. Thus the syuzhet gives greater duration to the conversations, which are ``more important'' than the details of the hunting trip. We can also see narrative frequency here: the hunting trip is summarized, while the conversation is directly related.

As mentioned earlier, the relation between syuzhet and fabula is a metonymic one. The syuzhet is, at least in the model considered here, given form by selecting certain parts of the fabula while omitting others: this selection usually serves to emphasize the ``important'' events or aspects of events, by omitting irrelevant ones. However, the elided events are often of the utmost importance: the author introduces tension, drama, and ambiguity by omitting them. Lodge quotes Hemingway, who says that ``the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood''. Thus, in ``The Killers'', we do not know why the killers have been sent to kill Ole Anderson; we also do not know whether they ever find him. Likewise, in Kafka's The Trial, we are always presented the world from Josef K.'s perspective; like K., we do not know what is happening in the courts, if anything. Thus the reader gets a taste of the overwhelming confusion, helplessness, and frustration of K.'s situation.

Though the choice of words in Russian may not be entirely clear, the distinction between fabula and syuzhet should be. What must be noted is the relationship between fabula and syuzhet in terms of content and in terms of construction. The syuzhet appears to be constructed from the fabula, and, in analysis, is usually treated as though it were; however, the fabula that readers find is one constructed by themselves from the material of the syuzhet. The ambiguity---fabula as underlying objective sequence of events versus fabula as reader-constructed theory---is important to understanding narrative fiction.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Writing Degree Zero, tr. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith. New York: Hill and Wang, 1968.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Complete Short Stories: the Finca Vigía Edition. New York: Scribner, 1987.

Kafka, Franz. The Trial, tr. Breon Mitchell. New York: Schocken, 1999.

Lodge, David. ``Analysis and Interpretation of the Realist Text''. In Rice, Philip and Patricia Waugh, eds., Modern Literary Theory: a Reader, 3rd ed. London: Arnold, 1996.

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.