Foundation of narrative theory:

Aristotle's Poetics.

Aristotle's Poetics , 347-342 B.C., is really just a little collection of lecture notes, yet for many centuries it served as the foundation of narrative theory in the West. Scholars believe there was a second book, which is lost.

Poetry comes from s: a making, forming, creating.

Aristotle says all forms of poetry are modes of imitation: s, or mimesis.

Imitation, he says, is natural and pleasurable, and indeed, it seems it is cross-cultural.

The form of poetry to which Aristotle devotes the most attention in the Poetics is tragedy, but what he has to say about this form was, for centuries, the paradigm for all forms of narrative.

1st Principle of Tragedy: Plot

According to Aristotle, tragedy has 6 elements or parts that fall under 3 categories:



Character (2nd most imp)



Language (Diction)

Melody (simply pleasurable)


Spectacle (costume, special effects, scenery--the least imp)

Aristotle gives pride of place to the "What," and within this category, he gives priority to the plot--the actions that are shaped into a system.

For Aristotle, the agents, or characters, are "imitated" only insofar as they are necessary to the plot:

"Tragedy is essentially an imitation not of persons but of action and life, of happiness and misery. All human happiness or misery takes the form of action; the end for which we live is a certain kind of activity, not a quality. Character gives us qualities, but it is in our actions--what we do--that we are happy or the reverse--a tragedy is impossible without action, but there may be one without Character."

The objects of poetic imitation are actions. For Aristotle, the characters are secondary.

(Modern novelists and dramatists opposed this. Henry James, for instance, contended that character development is equal, if not higher than plot.)

The organizing of these actions, or events, into a system is the emplotment, or s (muthos). Note that emplotment is itself an activity--it is a shaping of the events, giving them coherence. The actions the poet shapes into a plot do not come already organized. The plot is composed by the poet, the maker.

So Poetics is the art of composing plots.

Plot is the 1st principle, the end, the purpose of tragedy. Again, since what Aristotle has to say about tragedy is paradigmatic for all poetics, we can say that the plot is the purpose of all narration.

Since poetics is the imitation of action, and since the plot is the 1st principle of poetics, it follows that the plot is the imitation of action.

So imitation (mimesis) of action = organizing of the events (plot).

Mimesis is not an exact copy or replica. On the contrary, it produces something. Mimesis organizes events through emplotment.

Thus, narrative is the imitation (mimesis) of action, which, as we have seen, is equivalent to the organization of events (muthos or plot).

Aristotle goes on to say much about the nature of the action imitated in the plot.

The plot must be whole and have a certain magnitude.


The plot must have a beginning, middle, and an end.

Beginning: does not necessarily follow anything else--no necessity in its succession--but something else does necessarily follow from it. We do not necessarily even know what came before, as that is not essential to the plot.

Middle: necessarily follows something else (beginning) and necessarily has something that follows it (end).

End: necessarily follows something, but does not necessarily have anything that follows it.

The plot must be complete--it must contain everything necessary to travel from the beginning to the end by necessity.

For the plot to be whole, there must be an absence of chance: necessity or probability must govern succession in the plot. This succession is not taken from experience. Instead, it is an effect of the ordering of the poem.

Enjoyment of the plot, then, depends on the inevitability of its development. If there is an element of chance in the development of the plot, then it will not be universal.

Characters must act according to their natures, in accordance with psychological laws: universal behaviors. Plot is made plausible by relying on general psychological truths.

So the poet must understand human nature.

Poetry is therefore higher than mere history: Poetry concerns the universal, whereas history concerns the singular. For ex, singular statement: "Alcibiades did such and such"; universal: concerns what a man like Alcibiades will probably or necessarily do.

Since life itself does not have dramatic unity, to make a plot is to make the intelligible spring from the accidental, the necessary from the episodic. Even if "real events" are the subject of the narrative, the poet still makes it necessary, gives the events coherence.

For Plato, art is an imitation of an imitation (transcendental concepts, or Ideals), so art is debased, dangerous.

For Aristotle, art goes to the universal in things. It shows the universal forth, what we have in common: universal laws of behavior. Art translates the universal in things into the medium of the art.


Refers to the limit or length of the action.

It must be just as long as it needs to be to get from the beginning to the end, no longer, no shorter.

But it must also be able to be taken in as a whole by memory.

To limit the magnitude, the author makes events contiguous that may not be in a character's life. The author excludes vacuous times.

Should be such that the removal of any one element would dislocate the whole. If removal of any element would make no difference, it shouldn't be there.

There is always some limit--we do not ask what the hero did between two events in the plot, as these extraneous events are not important to the progression. If extraneous events are included, the author has exceeded the plot's proper limit.

So in Aristotle there is an important distinction between temporal unity and dramatic unity:

Temporal Unity

This refers to the unity of any single period of time (an hour, a day, a week, etc.), containing everything that happens therein to one or more people, whether these events have any relation to one another or not.

Dramatic Unity

Refers to a single plot that forms a whole, complete in itself, with a beginning, middle, and end following one from the other as a necessary progression.

Aristotle despised episodic plots, plots in which episodes follow one after another in no probable or inevitable sequence.

A plots proper ordering--its dramatic unity--makes it whole and complete.

If a tragedy has all of these proper elements, the spectators will experience the proper pleasure of tragedy.

Proper Pleasure of Tragedy: Catharsis

What, then, is the proper pleasure of tragedy that the poet marshals all of his powers to elicit in the spectator?

This is determined by the type of action it imitates, since, as we saw, the imitation of action is the first principle of tragedy.

Tragedy is an imitation of the actions of men who are better than we are. The objects of tragedy are serious, noble good actions. We experience pity when we contemplate the misfortune that has befallen them, and we experience fear when we contemplate the misfortune that awaits them.

So the proper pleasure is the pleasure that comes from experiencing pit and fear, which are induced in the spectator by means of imitation.

But how can we derive pleasure from emotions that are painful?

According to Aristotle, "the experience of pity and fear through the tragedy effects the proper purgation (s) of these emotions."

Aristotle is very vague about what he means by catharsis (probably in the missing 2nd book). There has been much theorizing about this.

2 main lines of explanation. The difference between the two can be revealed in the use of prepositions:

  1. Catharsis is a purification of the soul through pity and fear. The metaphor here would be ceremonial purification. In other words, the arousal of pity and fear in the spectator purifies the spirit, leaving it serene and pure.

  2. Catharsis is the temporary elimination of pity and fear, or a purgation. Metaphor here is medicine. In other words, when pity and fear are aroused in the spectator by a tragedy, the soul is relieved or purged of these emotions through the harmless and pleasurable outlet of art.

    All men are subject to these emotions, some to an excessive degree. These emotions are undesirable in excess. Thus, it is healthy and beneficial to give them the periodic opportunity of excitation and outlet through art. Also, pleasurable.