From Christopher Booker’s ‘The Seven Basic Plots’ (2004) to the variously attributed assertion that ‘all great literature is one of two stories: a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town’, I have found it fascinating to consider to what degree we can abstract general narratives from literature. Recently, though, I’ve begun to believe that there is really only one story…
As with almost everything I teach, I want to answer a key question first: Why does this matter?
One of the most challenging aspects of the study of literature for students is the importance of abstraction. It is easy for people to read and study GCSE and A Level texts such as Of Mice and Men, The Handmaid’s Tale or The Canterbury Tales and never consider their relevance nowadays. Whilst the increased focus on contextual factors has helped to some degree, this tends to be more about how the text reflects or critiques the writer’s contemporary society rather than the text’s modern relevance.
Yet it is this modern relevance that is the most important part of literature. Otherwise, reading and analysing become little more than a study of a fictional history.
The art of abstraction enables us to see why these texts matter now. Most of us will (thankfully) never know what it is like to have to murder a friend as George has to in Steinbeck’s novella, but we all have to – or at least should understand the importance of – sacrifice. Few will live in quite as totalitarian a regime as that of Gilead (though more than perhaps we would like to imagine), yet we can all appreciate the hunger for control and identity. The times of knights, millers and yeomen are past, yet the Wife of Bath’s comments on the nature of love and marriage are frighteningly modern. What we must learn to do is see the stories not solely as unique tales but as manifestations of broader experiences – as concrete examples of ubiquitous human concerns. This, after all, is why Shakespeare is still so popular.
Let’s begin with the seven basic plots: overcoming the monster; rags to riches; the quest; voyage and return; rebirth; comedy; and tragedy. The theory is that every story fits into these categories. With a certain level of abstraction, this is true. Rebirth can mean multiple things, whether physical rebirth such as in Desai’s Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard or psychological rebirth as in the case of Palahniuk’s Fight Club.
The statement that ‘all great literature is one of two stories: a man goes on a journey of a stranger comes to town’ then takes this to another level of abstraction. ‘A man goes on a journey’ could be The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or Gulliver’s Travels; ‘A stranger comes to town’ is almost any western novel, Great Expectations (if we take the initial stimulus for Pip’s journey as the arrival of Magwitch) or It. As numerous other writer’s have stated, these are, in essence, the same story from two different perspectives. Othello goes on a journey; Iago comes to town. Bilbo Baggins goes on a journey; Gandalf comes to town.
But there is a further level of abstraction that I think underpins all stories. It appears in every creation story and, as far as I can tell, every religious text: the creation of habitable order out of chaos. (I am borrowing a phrase from Dr Jordan Peterson which I think encapsulates the idea beautifully.)
Whether an event occurs that disrupts a pre-existing order that requires quelling (such as in The Lord of the Rings) or the order created is so oppressive as to create internal chaos (as in 1984), all texts can be seen in this light. God creates order from chaos; George’s sacrifice of Lennie removes the unpredictability element that causes chaos; Offred’s tale manifests a more habitable society from the chaotic oppression of Gilead. All stories at this level of abstraction are therefore ways in which the characters, a society or a culture directly challenge an insidious or pervasive chaos in order to carve out a more orderly way of living – physically, psychologically or morally. At this level of analysis, there is only one story, and it is the story of our own self-creation from the chaos of the unpredictable world around us.