The Difference Between Fabula and Sujet According to the Russian Formalists
Russian Formalism was a school of literary thought which emerged in Russia during the 1910’s. Members of this movement attempted to study literary language and literature according to scientific methods, and Peter Brooks states that they focussed on “calling attention to the material and the means of its making, showing how a given work is put together”. According to Krystyna Pomorska, the Russian Formalists “explored several areas in an entirely new way…[and] undertook…an analysis of prose encompassing all of its structural components”. One of the structural aspects of literature which came under Formalist analysis was the way in which the narrative events are presented. Pomorska states that “they showed sujet (plot) and fabula (storyline) as related but not at all identical factors”. In this essay, I will outline the differences between these two terms, using examples from both contemporary and classic literature.
One of the key aims of the Russian Formalist movement was to distinguish systematically between that which was art, and that which was not. The influential Russian Formalist Victor Shklovsky outlined the Russian Formalist view of art by saying that “In a narrow sense we shall call a work artistic if it has been created by special devices whose purpose is to see to it that these artifacts are interpreted artistically as much as possible”. Indeed, the Formalist ‘artistic piece’ in regards to literature, is the sujet. The fabula, on the other hand, is what Russian Formalist thinker Vladimir Propp referred to as a “periodical devoted to narrative art” . The fabula, or story, is simply a chronological timespan of events, which can be manipulated and rearranged to form a sujet (plot). Shklovsky highlighted this as he argued that “As a matter of fact, the storyline is nothing more than material for plot formation”. Metaphorically, the fabula serves as a raw material, and the sujet serves as the structure which that raw material is used to construct. This was fitting with the Formalist focus on mechanical construction and how art is created over why it was created or what it was. However, Russian Formalists argued that in order for this material to be converted into an art form, artistic devices must be employed. As Lee T. Lemon highlights, the Russian Formalists aimed “to discuss the literariness of literature, to discuss that which makes literature different from other kinds of discourse. This quickly led the Formalists to distinguish between story and plot”. Indeed, they aimed to isolate the art of literature from both other art forms, and from non-art forms. The sujet of a piece of literature was deemed to be what made it literature. It was, as Brooks describes, “the dynamic shaping force of the narrative discourse”.
When distinguishing between what was and wasn’t art, the opposite of art according to the Russian Formalists was real life. Artistic perception was deemed to be entirely different from normal perception. The aforementioned artistic devices served to skew the normal perception into something unfamiliar, abstract and subsequently artistic. In regards to the Russian Formalist thinker Tomashevsky, Lee T. Lemon argues that “The central distinction Tomashevsky makes is that between story and plot…his main concern is plot for that is where artistry lies; the story is a background against which elements of the plot are studied”. This “background” is a set of events which occur in the nature and order that they would in reality. Victor Elrich summarizes Russian Formalist Jan Mukarovsky’s view by saying that “Literature signifies in a sense all the factors with which it comes into contact, e.g., the author, his milieu, his audience, without ever becoming a proxy for any one of them”. In other words, although the sujet uses the fabula as a basis, it transforms it through artistic devices, becoming much more than a simple imitation of the real world. Through this distortion of perception, the Russian Formalists believed that de-familiarization was achieved, which they deemed to be a crucial part of literature. They argued that it allowed us to grasp the full potential of literary language and devices. Brooks says of the Formalist notions of fabula and sujet “We must…recognize that the apparent priority of fabula to sujet is in the nature of a mimetic illusion… fabula is a mental construction that the reader derives from sujet, which is all that he ever directly knows”. This supports the distinction between art and real life, as the fabula resonates in the audience’s experience of time and perception. However, it also highlights the relationship between the two, as the audience use their knowledge of real life perception to make sense of the de-familiarized piece of literature.
In its most well-known form, the difference between the Formalist ideas of the terms fabula and sujet has its roots in its relation to the order of events in a piece of literature. The fabula, or story, is essentially a chronological order of events as they would have happened in the real world. Sujet, or plot, on the other hand, refers to the order of events as they appear within in a piece of literature. For example, the use of flash backs and flash forwards as a narrative device would mean that the order of events in the sujet are different to the order of events in the fabula. The beginning, middle and end as portrayed in the sujet may not correlate with the beginning, middle and end chronologically. Shklovsky describes an effect of this artistic device on literature as he argues that “In order to impede the action…the artist resorts not to witches and magic potions but to a simple transposition of its parts.” An example of the artistic transportation of a fabula’s parts can be observed in Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow, which essentially tells a man’s life story in reverse chronological order. This is done from the perspective of a secondary consciousness of the main character, who experiences everything backwards with no control over the man’s actions. Due to this narrative style, the events as they would have occurred in real life (the fabula) are largely distorted and purposely easy to misunderstand. For example, the main character of the novel, who was really a Holocaust doctor, is perceived to be a bringer of life and healer of the sick, as the torture and murder he inflicts is recounted in reverse. Here, the Formalist distinction between fabula and sujet seems well founded, as the use of the artistic device of transposing events leaves us with an entirely different piece of literature both in style and in meaning. The notion of the sujet being the true art form, rather than the fabula, is also supported as Time’s Arrow effectively disjoints itself from the reality we know to displace the simplest ideas of cause and effect. For example, acts of injury become acts of healing, and death becomes life or rebirth.
Another artistic device which separates the fabula from the sujet is narration from an unusual, or unreliable, perspective. For example, a child narrator, an untruthful narrator, or a person who is mentally ill. Like the transportation of events, this kind of narrative device allows people to see the real word through a lens of de-familiarization, through the eyes of another person rather than the artistic ordering of time. An example of this device in employment can be seen in J.D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. The audience’s perception of the fabula is effectively hindered as it is seen through the eyes of a depressed, pessimistic teenage boy. Holden Caulfield’s view of the world and of people is one of harsh criticism and negativity. He see’s people as phonies, and harshly judges almost everyone and everything he comes into contact with. Here, the Russian Formalist separation of fabula and sujet shows off its strengths as a theory as the use of an unreliable and non-standard narrator effectively displaces the novel from reality. What it becomes is an artistic literary representation of teenage angst and isolation of the other. The reality of events of the fabula become more likely to differ from the events described in the plot based on the fact that Holden is shown to be a self-confessed liar. He lies to various characters he meets, including pretending to have a brain tumour, and even says of himself “: “I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful.” Therefore, it is safe to assume that his lies are likely to carry over into his narration.  Another example of non-standard narration turning a fabula into an artistic sujet can be seen in Jack London’s novel White Fang. London, although narrating from a third person perspective, does so in such a way that the wolf-dogs are often the main focus, and the narration is through their eyes. This causes the reader to become completely de-familiarized from the finished sujet as the human world and human actions are both shown from the largely alien and outsider perspective of a different species.
Non-linear chronology and non-standard narration are often used as artistic devices in novels, but in poetry the fabula is also often transformed into art through language devices such as alliteration, assonance, imagery and rhythm. Bijay Kumar Das argues that, under Russian Formalism, “poetic language disrupts ordinary language just as plot disrupts story. Ordinary language is the logical and sequential order of words just as story is a logical order of motifs”. In other words, just as the fabula of a novel consists of events in their real life nature, and in their chronological order, the fabula of a poem consists of everyday language describing an event, object or situation. Like with a novel, this fabula serves as the material for the artistic sujet, which is constructed using poetic language devices. The artistic devices in poetry can be seen to effectively achieve the Russian Formalist notion of de-familiarizing the audience from real life through language rather than through the presentation of events. For example, in Sylvia Plath’s poem Daddy, artistic language devices, in particular the use of metaphors and similes, transform the simple description of her relationship with her father into something unfamiliar, darker and altogether more powerful. The narrator compares her father to a Nazi through imagery such as a “swastika” and her father’s “Aryan eye”. She also compares herself to a Jew, forming a powerful Holocaust metaphor. This hyperbolic imagery shows her relationship with her father less for what it actually was, and more for how her mind may have processed it. Of course, it is unlikely that it was anywhere near comparable to the Holocaust, but to her it felt that way. The audience, therefore becomes estranged from the sujet of the poem, due to the unfamiliarity of a father daughter relationship being compared to an atrocity such as the Holocaust. The sujet of Plath’s poem is essentially an artistic expression of pain and feeing as oppose to being a simple description of real life events.
In conclusion, the Russian formalist distinction between fabula and sujet is often seen as a distinction based on order of events; it is the idea of chronological order versus artistic order. However, on a wider level the formalist separation of the two terms is predominantly based on their distinction between art and real life. The fabula is simply an everyday story in both order of events, and in the style of narration. The sujet, on the other hand, was what the formalists saw as art. Russian formalism focussed greatly on the mechanical construction of literature, and how it was made. In turn, the fabula came to be viewed as a raw material for the creation of the sujet. Multiple artistic devices could be used, including transposition of events, non-standard narrators, and poetic language devices in order to de-familiarize literature from everyday life and the real world. The sujet therefore, was essentially an artistic presentation of the fabula after it had been taken apart and reconstructed into a work of formalist artistic value.
AMIS, Martin. Time’s Arrow. London: Vintage, 2003.
BROOKS, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. New York: Harvard University Press, 1992.
ELRICH, Victor. Russian Formalism: History – A Doctrine. The Hague: Walter De Gruyter, 1980.
KUMAR DAS, Bijay. Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Dist, 2005.
LEMON, Lee T. and Marion J. Reis, eds. Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays. Nebraska: U of Nebraska Press, 1965.
LONDON, Jack. White Fang. New York: Dover Publications,  1991.
PLATH, Sylvia. “Daddy”. In Ariel, edited by Sylvia Plath. London: Faber and Faber, 1968.
POMORSKA, Krystyna. “Poetics of Prose.” In Verbal Art, Verbal Sign, Verbal Time, edited by Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy, 169 – 177. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.
PROPP, Vladimir. Theory and History of Folklore. Translated by Ariadna Y. Martin and Richard P. Martin. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984.
SALINGER, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Little, Brown and Company,  1991.
SHKLOVSKY, Viktor. Theory of Prose. Translated by Benjamin Sher. Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991.
 Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (New York: Harvard University Press, 1992), 14.  Krystyna Pomorska, “Poetics of Prose”, in Verbal Art, Verbal Sign, Verbal Time, eds. Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 169.  Viktor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose, trans. Benjamin Sher (Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991), 2.  Vladimir Propp, Theory and History of Folklore, trans. Ariadna Y. Martin and Richard P. Martin (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), 76.  Shklovsky, Theory of Prose, 170.  Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis, eds., Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays (Nebraska: U of Nebraska Press, 1965), 25.  Brooks, Reading for the Plot, 13.  Lemon and Reis, Russian Formalist Criticism, 61.  Victor Elrich, Russian Formalism: History – A Doctrine (The Hague: Walter de Gruyter, 1980), 209.  Brooks, Reading for the Plot, 13. Shklovsky, Theory of Prose, 170.  Martin Amis, Time’s Arrow (London: Vintage, 2003)  J.D Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (New York: Little, Brown and Company,  1991).  London, Jack, White Fang (New York: Dover Publications,  1991).  Bijay Kumar Das, Twentieth Century Literary Criticism (Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Dist, 2005), 83.  Sylvia Plath, “Daddy”, in Ariel ed. Sylvia Plath (London: Faber and Faber, 1968).
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Russian Formalism was a school of literary thought which emerged in Russia during the 1910’s. Members of this movement attempted to study literary language and literature according to scientific methods, […]