[Paleopsych] NYTDBR: 'The Seven Basic Plots': The Plot Thins, or Are No Stories

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'The Seven Basic Plots': The Plot Thins, or Are No Stories New?
New York Times Daily Book Review, 5.4.15


By Christopher Booker
728 pages. Continuum. $34.95.

    So what does Steven Spielberg's shark-fest "Jaws" have in common with
    the Old English epic "Beowulf"? And what do those two stories have in
    common with "High Noon," "The Guns of Navarone" and most any James
    Bond movie?

    What links "David Copperfield," "Jane Eyre" and the legend of King
    Arthur together with the fairy tale "The Ugly Duckling"?

    What story line resurfaces in such disparate works as the Grail quest,
    "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "The Lord of the Rings" and Richard Adams's
    bumptious bunny tale "Watership Down"?

    What could Peter Rabbit, Scarlett O'Hara and Alice from Wonderland
    possibly have in common? Or Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Silas Marner
    and Scrooge?

    These aren't trick SAT questions or annoying Trivial Pursuit queries.
    They are questions that lie at the heart of the thesis that the critic
    Christopher Booker sets out in his gargantuan, sometimes absorbing and
    often blockheaded new book.

    According to Mr. Booker, there are only seven basic plots in the whole
    world - plots that are recycled again and again in novels, movies,
    plays and operas. Those seven plots are: 1. Overcoming the Monster, 2.
    Rags to Riches, 3. The Quest, 4. Voyage and Return, 5. Rebirth, 6.
    Comedy and 7. Tragedy.

    The Overcoming the Monster plot lies behind horror movies and
    thrillers like "Jaws," as well as many war stories, Hollywood westerns
    and science fiction tales. In this genre, a community dwells under the
    shadow of a monstrous threat; a hero or band of heroes does battle
    with the beast (be it a giant white shark, an evil gunslinger or a
    horde of Nazis); initial dreamlike success is followed by nightmarish
    setbacks; but a final confrontation results in victory for the hero,
    the vanquishing of the monster and the restoration of order to the

    In the Rags to Riches story line traced by works like "Jane Eyre," an
    immature hero (often an orphan), who is looked down upon by others,
    has a series of adventures culminating in a terrible crisis, and
    emerges from those tests a mature person, ready at last to assume his
    or her place in the world and make a lasting love match.

    Hazardous journeys filled with physical perils provide the structure
    both for Quest tales like "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Voyage and
    Return" and for narratives like "Alice in Wonderland," while inner
    journeys (from naïveté to wisdom, psychological paralysis to emotional
    liberation) form the armature of Rebirth tales like "Snow White" and
    "A Christmas Carol."

    In laying out these archetypes, Mr. Booker - a British newspaper
    columnist and the founding editor of the satirical magazine Private
    Eye - does a nimble job of collating dozens of stories, using the 34
    years he says it took him to write this volume to identify and
    explicate all sorts of parallels and analogies that might not occur to
    the casual reader. He shows us how "The Terminator" and its sequel
    "Judgment Day" adhere to traditional narrative tropes, moving
    inexorably if violently toward the ideas of rebirth and redemption.
    And he reminds us how the movie "E.T." embodies classic
    coming-of-age-story patterns: the boy hero Elliott's encounter with
    E.T., his alien alter ego, helps him to grow up, forces him to
    demonstrate leadership, and enables him to bring new harmony to his
    fragmented family.

    Mr. Booker suggests that five of the seven basic plots (Overcoming the
    Monster, Rags to Riches, the Quest, Voyage and Return, and Rebirth)
    can really be placed under the larger umbrella of Comedy: in their
    purest form, all have happy endings, all trace a hero's journey from
    immaturity to self-realization, and all end with the restoration of
    order or the promise of renewal.

    In a sense, these plots all represent variations on Freud's family
    romance - the process whereby a young person comes to terms with
    parental authority, ventures out into the wider world, faces assorted
    tests and eventually achieves independence. Along the way, confusion
    (be it a case of mismatched couples or a community in disarray) is
    dispelled, and alienation gives way to a new sense of wholeness and
    well-being. This is often symbolized, Mr. Booker argues, by a marriage
    that represents the coming together of masculine and feminine values
    and the achievement of balance among the four virtues of "strength,
    order, feeling and understanding."

    Only in the seventh plot type, Tragedy, he observes, is there a
    deviation from this fundamental pattern. Here, the hero or heroine
    also goes on a journey, but is "held back by some fatal flaw or
    weakness from reaching that state of perfect balance," he writes.
    "They are doomed to fall short of the goal because in some way they
    are stuck in a state of incompleteness or immaturity." Despair,
    destruction or death is often the end result.

    The problem is that most of Mr. Booker's theories - from his belief
    that archetypal stories are rooted in the human unconscious to his
    arguments about Tragedy and Comedy - are highly familiar, lifted in
    part or whole from a wide spectrum of influential, even canonical
    works by writers and thinkers as varied as Jung, Freud, Joseph
    Campbell, Bruno Bettelheim, Sir James George Frazer, the Shakespeare
    scholar A. C. Bradley and the folklore experts Peter and Iona Opie.

    Not only is Mr. Booker a voracious magpie (who does not always
    acknowledge the sources of his ideas), but he also turns out to be an
    annoyingly biased and didactic one. As "The Seven Basic Plots"
    progresses, it grows increasingly tendentious. Mr. Booker evaluates
    works of art on the basis of how closely they adhere to the archetypes
    he has so laboriously described; the ones that deviate from those
    classic patterns are dismissed as flawed or perverse - symptoms of
    what has gone wrong with modern art and the modern world.

    In the past two centuries, Mr. Booker complains, "a fundamental shift
    has taken place in the psychological 'center of gravity' from which"
    stories have been told; as a result, "they have become detached from
    their underlying archetypal purpose."

    In fact, when it comes to analyzing classic works from the Romantic
    and Modernist eras, Mr. Booker proves shockingly narrow-minded and
    obtuse. He complains that in "Le Rouge et le Noir," Stendhal failed to
    see his hero as a "monster of egotism." He whines that Chekhov's
    people are never "strong enough to take control of their own lives"
    and that they exhibit little growth in the course of their stories. "À
    la Recherche du Temps Perdu" is denounced as "the greatest monument to
    human egotism in the history of story-telling," and Joyce's account of
    Bloom's day in "Ulysses" is dismissed as signifying "defeat, failure,
    lack of purpose, the trivialized world of the rootless ego divorced
    from love or any sense of meaning."

    Such inane readings of modern literature effectively eclipse the more
    engaging arguments presented in the first portion of Mr. Booker's
    book. Anyone tackling "The Seven Basic Plots" would be advised to
    peruse the informative first half and quickly ditch the second half of
    this 700-plus page tome.


    1. http://query.nytimes.com/search/query?ppds=bylL&v1=MICHIKO%20KAKUTANI&fdq=19960101&td=sysdate&sort=newest&ac=MICHIKO%20KAKUTANI&inline=nyt-per

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