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Models in Literature

-- David Quinn

I call this paper "Models in Literature" because I believe they have existed in the past and are still operative today. The very fact that we treasure literary relics from ancient antiquity and often use them as teaching tools in the formation of our present literary skills is evidence enough to support this claim, but at the same time it should be noted that so much is written today and so little actually gets into print, it must further be the case that editors and critics alike work consciously or otherwise with a sixth sense—one acquired from their experience with literary texts-- that helps determine the choices they have to make. Our purpose here, then, is to examine a select series of "ancient" texts that have survived the winnowing of time and to juxtapose them with more modern ones that seemingly have similar characteristics. When this process is completed and it is shown that the expanse of literature can be suitably divided into homogenous sections bearing common characteristics, a working definition will be provided for "models" and it will be further shown that inherent in them is a high degree of predictability.

Efforts at narrowing the scope of fiction from the generic to the specific are as old as Aristotle and as new as today’s contributors to journals of literary criticism such as New Literary History. And the effort has been rewarding in first distinguishing between literature and non-literature and in then limiting the genres to four; lyric, epic, drama and prose fiction. Many have been the contributions to the study and appreciation of each of these four, but the middle of this century witnessed an acceleration of critical activity by such critics as Northrop Frye,[1] Gerald Prince and Tzvetan Todorov whose catholic interests, tastes and expertise concentrate on first this genre or that but whose combined activity has produced major advances in the select field of prose. Further enrichening our critical development with their global views of rhetoric and history as these fields are related to our focus of interest to the degree that all verbal communication necessarily has to avail itself of the medium of language, we also have to keep in mind Kenneth Burke[2] and Hayden White[3]. This present essay on the question of literary models builds ecclectically on this foundation and it does so with the added advantage of making visual in the form of graphs their discoveries. Moreover, these schematizations are descriptive and not prescriptive, i.e., they are derived from the analysis of major works of literature that have survived the all-important test of time and they do this while providing the possibility of being specific about what is either an addition to, an elaboration upon or a subtraction from previously successful models.

Anthropologists tell us that story-telling began as a religious function; as an attempt at reconciling God’s ways with man’s, and vice-versa. Narratologists such as Gerald Prince further tell us that there are two types of narration; "minimal stories" that satisfy Aristotle’s postulation of the need for a beginning, middle and and, and "complete stories" that are comprised of a total of six phases or building blocks.[4] These segments of the literary construction can be distinguished, the one from the former and latter representation, by attempting to determine whether the content is either of a positive or negative value with respect to the protagonist’s personal interests and values. Elaborating even further, Northrop Frye suggests that there are five "levels" of narrative construction, regardless of whether that work is a full or minimal story. These levels are romance, high and low mimetic modeling and irony. The difference between and among these planes is found with respect to characterization, action, place and with the audience’s total response to these combinations.

Our first chart, then, makes visual all of these possibilities.



Genre Mode Point of View Personage Action Place
poetry myth devout divinities/prophets achievement of total well-being heaven/distant past
drama romance awe-struck nobility/superior beings pursuit of the ideal world of phantasy
novel high mimetic impressed leaders conquest/administration at the center of power and influence
short story low mimetic indifference run-of-the-mill types work/industry the world of everyday experience
essay irony condescending social misfits, criminals, pariahs delinquency/aberrant behavior the underworld slums/ghettos


Whether or not one adopts Frye’s terminology for identifying and distinguishing between and among these "levels" of representation is immaterial: There is no denying that they exist and, furthermore, that our expectations for each level are different. Moreover, one does not have to be a literary critic to find "practical" value in using one plane or another as a launch pad for the reception or rejection of concomitant expectations.

Focusing on "place," for example, the expectations aroused at the levels of romance, high and low mimetic are all mainline to the degree that either we either partake of one or the other of them or most of the people we know do so. Embraced here are the fields of "romantic" adventure in exotic lands removed from us in time and space and also the comprehensive area of science fiction where the "place" may be as insignificant as a child’s chemistry lab in the basement of his house or as important as the latest top-secret investigation being undertaken in gene manipulation that may end up making us almost immortal in power and knowledge or, God forbid!, passive and obedient clones whose behavior will be little different from that of bees in a hive. At the outer limits of "myth" and "irony" we expect the likes of Nelson Algren and William Burroughs, to name just two writers renowned for depicting the seamier side of human existence or, conversely, the musings of many of our televison evangelists cum travel agents whose mission on occasion seems to be that of selling us one-way tickets to a mansion in the sky embellished with pearly gates. True to all expectation, there is usually a high degree of predictability between an individual’s environment and his personality; a factor that Virgil would have called the genius loci. Examples abound in such disparate places as the beginning of Hamlet where the protagonist is about to follow the Ghost and Horatio sounds a warning:

The very place puts toys of desperation,

Without more motive, into every brain

That looks so many fathoms to the sea

And hears it roar beneath.

Nineteenth-century regionalist writers throughout Europe and America, depicting scientific theories of a Darwinian cast, are renowned for uncovering motivation for their "fictions" in the ratio of equivalence between scene, agent and act. On the other hand, writers as diverse as Ibsen, Hardy and Pereda use this correspondence of expectation as a foil of frustration as their protagonists prove to be "misfits" in their surroundings.

It is already evident in our rapid observation of the question of "place" in fictional representation that the relationship between scene and act is a long-standing one, but the history of modeling is even older than Greece and Rome’s instrumentation in the formation of Western Civilization. Extant records are rare from before that time but a classic exception is Gilgamesh, a jewel from Eastern Civilization which dates back close to 2700 years before the advent of Christianity.

The New Testament of the Bible is one of the cornerstones of the West and it is significant, in light of what is said above with respect to the assumed link between story-telling and the formation and perpetuation of religious doctrine, that this work is couched in the mode of "romance" just one rung removed from that of "myth." First, however, a word should be offered about the title of the following chart:


Modal "Plot" Phases in Literary Modes

Romance Problematic "birth" Youthful ventures & mistakes Quest Metamorphosizing passivity Final confrontation Superior knowledge or wisdom
High Mimetic The violated "ceremony" The "family" fragments The "fateful" feuds The "family" feuds Murder suicide mutilation revenge The "reflective" survivors
Low Mimetic The "other side of the fence" Social blunderings How it could be How it shouldn't be How it is Picking up the "fallen standard"


It is to be noted that there is a difference between "story" and "plot." The former can be summarized as What happens first? And then? And then? Until, finally, everything comes to an end.

Plot, on the other hand, is the order of presentation of these phases or construction blocks in the telling of the story. Stories can begin at the beginning, progress to a middle and then arrive at the end or they can be "plotted" in other ways. Typical of ancient and neo-classics dramas, for example, is that they begin in medias res, i.e., at a moment of critical importance with respect to the well-being of the protagonist. Famous practitioners of this technique in France are Racine and Moliere and in Spain we have Jovellanos and García de la Huerta. The so-called "detective model" is different in the hands of its leading practicioners such as P.D. James, Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle and Robert Barnard, for example, but they are all the same with respect to "plot" as we are presently defining it. At the level of low mimetic representation they invariably begin with "how things shouldn’t be", work backwards to the point in time when the "crime" was committed and then spring forward to an explanation which is usually followed by the incarceration of the criminal. This leap from the actual enactment of the crime to its explanation has given rise to Sherlock Holmes’ famous words to his friend and accomplice: "It’s elementary, my dear Watson." It is also possible for this model to be used in works that have nothing whatsoever to do with criminal behavior. Julio Camba’s short story "Fuego," for example, is a first person narration in which a Spaniard visiting America is trapped in a high rise building and since the elevators aren’t working and the staircases are blocked, the workers on one of the top floors are told they have to make their escape by using the fire ladders that are raised to them. When a beautiful woman in front of him passes out in fright he pick her up in his arms and immediately imagines the headline’s in the next day’s newspapers: "Valiant Spaniard to the Rescue. Is a new political accord now possible?" It turns our, however, that this is just a test of what could happen if a fire were actually to break out and when the firemen finally announce this, the former damsel in distress won’t even look a second time at her would-be rescuer. The point is, however, that in such works there is both backward and forward movement. And, finally, all of have are familiar with works of literature that begin and end at the end of the story but which present everything else as a flashback, with a popular work of this type being Harold Robbin’s The Adventurer.

The New Testament "story" of Christ follows the romance "plot" and is undoubtedly the formal underpinning of subsequent reifications of this model in the form of novels of chivalry such as the aurthurian tales in England and in Spain everything from the anonymous Amadís de Gaula to Cervantes Don Quijote de la Mancha.

This model begins with 1) a "problematic birth," and what can better exemplify this than the birth of the Savior of the World to a virgin and for all of this to take place in a stable surrounded by the sight, sounds and smells of farm animals. This is patently an ironic vision of the world in which everything is questioned and challenged, including the nature of reality itself. 2) Jesus next appears at the age of twelve and he is now lecturing to the rabbis in the temple. This is obviously a "youthful adventure" and by most accountings a "mistake." 3) Jesus the hero-protagonists of this story disappears still again until about the age of thirty when he is baptized and then seriously considers the possibility that he is indeed the messiah predicted throughout the Old Testament. And if such is the case, it just may be that there is life of the spirit beyond the death of the flesh. This is Jesus’ "quest," and with the Miracle on the Mount, everything bodes well for the future. 4) Immediately, however, he retreats to the desert for forty days where Satan tries to convince him to cease and desist; to relax and enjoy the pleasure of this world of the here-and-now and to forsake the possibly empty promises of the next-world. This is Jesus’ period of "metamorphosizing passivity" during which the spiritual elevation of his quest is threatened by exposure to baser longings of the flesh. 5) "The Ultimate Confrontation" is found in the last words of the crucified jesus where he rolls his eyes to the heavens and cries: "Father. Father. Why hast thou forsaken me?" It is at this point that he loses faith in himself, in the value of his quest and even in God himself. And he dies. 6) All Christians, however, belive they know what happens next. On the third day his mother Mary and other mourners go to the cave where jesus is buried and the rock is pushed back from the cave’s entrance and an angel is sitting there waiting. "He is risen," they are told. There is indeed life beyond death; total fulfillment in the future. 6) Can anyone ask for a better example of "superior knowledge and wisdom"?

Admitting, begrudgingly perhaps, that there may be literary models for a limited number of works as opposed to the existence of a pattern that embraces a plethora of examples, a quick glance at the history of literature is highly enlightening. This very same model is found in the above-mentioned Gilgamesh toward the very dawn of humanity, it exists and persists for over two-hundred years during the apogee of the novels of chivalry but, significantly, this very same model is experiencing a total renovation today in the form of science fiction whose presence makes itself felt in print and film and with what has to be called the new novel of chivalry, with A Game of Thrones, R.R. Martin’s fantasy novel of the year in 1977, and Ana María Matute’s Olvidado rey Gudú.

The high mimetic mode finds socially superior protagonists compromised in serious affairs of state whose resolution is of vital importance both to themselves and to their society. Accordingly, these individuals are to be found at the center of power, whether this be an ancient court or a modern seat of government. The epic Cantar de Mío Cid of 1140 is the first representative of this model in Spanish literature.

El Cid begins in medias res with 2) "The ‘family’ Fragments," and this for the reason that Rodrigo Díaz, the protagonist, has just been exiled from Castile by King Alfonso V1. Left behind, necessarily, are his wife and two young daughters. Moreover, banishment from the fortifications of Christianity during this period was tantamount to a death sentence since the Moors who governed the vast majority of the Spanish Peninsula were always such a threat awaiting beyond the protection of the court. What has El Cid done, one asks, to suffer such humiliation and personal threat? An explicit answer is never given textually but our personal involvement in the text as critical readers is more than sufficient to satisfy our curiosity and concern as we shall see at the end of this summarizing. El Cid and his small band of followers are skilled warriors and they capture one small town after the other and, surprisingly 3), El Cid unfailingly sends part of the booty to the king who has exiled him. When El Cid captures Valencia, the greatest of his conquests, his wife and daughters are permitted to leave Castile and join him. At this time the king decides to marry Elvira and Sol, the daughters, to two nobles from the intimate circle of his Court. The marriages take place and the social pretenders, feeling ill at ease in Valencia surrounded by their highly successful father-in-law and his valiant followers, decide to return to their own families. On the return trip, however, 4) they first make love to their wives, beat them to within an inch of their lives, and then abandon them to die in the wilds of the woods. 5) El Cid petitions the kng for justice, and a trial is convoked during which "revenge" for the outrage is meeted out. It is at this point that two other princes petition the hands of El Cid’s daughters, and the work concludes with the narrator reporting that now 6) El cid’s bloodline is found in all the subsequent kings of Spain. The message here is that being faithful has its reward, and it is also at this point that we discover the nature of the missing 1) "violated ceremony." El Cid’s enemies have detracted him before the king and they have done so by falsely attributing to him their very own greed and disloyalty. The internal thrust of this work, then, moves from a false accusation to the presentation of the truth.

The pedigree of this high mimetic mode has already been alluded to above with reference to the "tragedies" of the eighteenth-century in France and Spain, but admittedly this is the least popular of the five modes. This is not to say, however, that the mind-set that first produced it has disappeared completely. El Cantar de Mío Cid is unique in the annals of epic literature in its depiction of historical events that are independently verifiable by disinterested chronicles and by the absence in it of existents that usually are found only in the mode of myth. It is also possible to show a close correspondence between history and literature in x’s Pelayo and in x’s Raquel but the point is that there is no such thing as "neutral" facts and this for the reason that in the process of being reported they become necessarily entangled and manipulated by the formative nature of the element of discourse in which they are couched.[5]  It is for this reason that there is disagreement about some of our contemporary readings of history, as with Viet Nam and the War of the Persian Gulf. During the heated debate about America’s involvement in the war is south-east Asia a U.S. senator found himself confused when faced with the official "facts" of the war and the heated protests being waged against our participation in it. "We are the ones wearing the white hat, aren’t we?" he asked of a general. Underlying this statement is America’s assumed role as the leading instrument in defense of the low mimetic model with its insistence on preserving the peace and re-establishing the status quo whose equanimity has been disrupted by foreign invasion. Our government continued playing that role in the Persian Gulf where it successfully thwarted Saddam Hussein’s invasion of oil-rich Kuwait. Hussein was crushed, as we all know, but even today he claims to have been victorious precisely for the reason that he couches the "facts" in the discourse of the romance mode and it is there, as we have already seen with the death of Christ, that there is superior knowledge and wisdom at the end of the story.

The low mimetic mode is by far the freest and most innovative of the three modes of literature for which there are models. Our discussion of the difference between "story" and "plot" of above addresses the question of order of presentation in the telling of the constructive elements of story. Briefly seen there is the initial backward and then the subsequent forward direction given to the narrated events. At this point in our discussion of models, more should be said about this "detective model."

The detective model is above all a "complete story" as it is seen above as being comprised of six elements or phases of construction. It starts with 4), a dramatic presentation of "how it shouldn’t be," i.e., a robbery, kidnapping, murder or some other serious threat to the status quo of the reigning values of the dominant society. An investigation is begun and there is promising light on the horizon either because there are already very viable suspects or because the reputation of the investigator himself is sufficient to augur well for the desired outcome. This is 3), "how it could or should be." 2) More and more details of the "crime" are uncovered and in this illumination of journalistic information about Who? What? When? Where? There is an uncovering of the "social blunders" of the perpetrator until, finally, 1) the investigator appraises himself of the underlying Why? along with details about the How. At this point there is a jump to 5) "how it is" where a complete explanation is given. At this point, 6) the perpetrator is imprisoned or otherwise removed from society and there is a desired return to the status quo.

Short stories are more often than not "minimal stories" with a total of three constructive elements. And at the level of low mimetic modeling these can be presented "in order" as 3, 4 and 5 or "out of order." The 4, 3 and 5 combination, for example, is an extremely popular one, and this for the reason that it begins with a "hook" designed to capture the attention of the reading audience.

Literature is more than the sum of its parts as has already been insinuated above in our brief glance at the formative nature of "discourse" on the constructive phases of "story."[6] It is seen there that individual "readers" may see "facts" differently according to the mode of presentation in which they wish to "interpret" them, but there is more to be examined in our discussion of models in literature than these questions of order and self-regulation, i.e., the reader’s participation in the creation of the work of fiction. There is, additionally, the question of "transformation," and at that level of description there are also models.

Translated from the original French,[7] these transformations are the following:

1) Social harmony ß -----------à Social disaffection

2) Prediction -----------à Realization of the prediction

3) Enigma presented -----------à Enigma resolved

4) False accusation ------------à Correct presentation

5) Deformed presentation ---------à Rectification

6) Motif ß ----------à Parallel motif

Literary transformations can occur in single sentences in which the grammatical object reflects on the grammatical subject in any of the six ways outlined above. Our present concern, however, is with the role of transformations as an informing principle joining the beginning and end of an complete works of literature.

There is neither time nor space here to elaborate on the history of this principle as has been done above with the question of "story" model. Accordingly, we shall limit ourselves to a few select examples.

Most of medieval literature is derivative and unoriginal as it "resurrects" Greek, Roman and other models from the Judeo-Christian origins of Western Civilization. So close is this relationship that medieval authors proudly identify their sources. This is exemplification of the "motif—parallel motif" transformation at its simplest level. A corollary is the model known as frame-stories which are in effect stories-within-stories. Boccaccio’s Decameron, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Berceo’s Milagros de Nuestra Señora and Juan Manuel’s Conde Lucanor are classic examples. Still other presentations of this model are found works whose endings dovetail with their beginnings or with those in which the same motifs are repeated time and time again. With all of these possibilities we are in the province of 20th century literature dating from the example of James Joyce’s Ullyses and culminating in García Márquez’ A Hundred Years of Solitude.  With this brief examination of the role played in literature by only one of the six possible literary "transformations," it is now possible to arrive at the conclusion that literary models can defined as the modal allineation of "story material" informed with transformations which is found to be both repeatable and historically repeated.

In conclusion, it should be noted that many of today’s literary critics are ideologically prejudiced against the very question of the existence and persistence of models in literature, and this is to be expected in light of the role that "deconstruction" has played for approximately the last forty years. Additionally, those years have witnessed further confrontations on the canon of literature with the presentation of Black and Women’s Studies. Furthermore, those years have also witnessed "anomalies" in the so-called metaphysical or self-reflective works and in the "boom" in Latin America that blatantly juxtaposes elements from the mode of romance with the substratum of low mimetic presentation. Nevertheless, with literature’s return to its origins in the romance model that dates back to the very dawn of Western Civilization, it is now possible to end this paper with a prediction: Future critics now undergoing their formative period will find it normal to address the question of models in literature as being nothing more nor less than a statement of the obvious.


[1] Anatomy of Criticism  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957).  Allen Tilley builds on Frye and strives to visualize his modes in Plot Snakes and the Dynamics of Narrative Experience (Gainsville: University of Florida Press, 1992).  The present writer is responsible for the complete visualization of these modes. See "Formal Criticism and the teaching of Survey Courses." Hispania, Vol. 63 (March) 1980, nu. 1, pp. 76-84 and "The Four Master Tropes as Informing Principles." Hispania, Vol. 66 (May) 1983, nu. 2, pp. 242-46.  [back to article]

[2] A Grammar of Motives and A Rhetoric of Motives (Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Company, 1962).   [back to article]

[3]  Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973).  [back to article]

[4] A Grammar of Stories (The Hague: Mouton Press, 1973).  [back to article]

[5]  "If we take the dominate tropes as four—metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony—it is obvious that in language itself, in its generative or prepoetic aspect, we might possibly have the basis for the generation of those types of explanation that inevitably arise in any field of study not yet disciplinized in the sense of being liberated from the conceptual anarchy that seems to signal their distintively prescientific phases" (Hayden White,  Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978),  p. 72). [back to article]

[6] For an excellent presentation of this relationship, see Seymour Chatman,  Story and Discourse (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1980).  [back to article]

[7] Tzvetan Todorov,  Poétique de la prose. (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1971), pp. 225-40.  [back to article]