Expectation and Literary Plots

  • Don LePan


Popular literature is perhaps the best guide we have to the habits of thought of a people: if a work runs too strongly against widely held notions, or requires for its appreciation the operation of cognitive processes that most people have not acquired, the work will simply not become popular. If we are to determine whether or not the faculty of expectation had been acquired by most medieval people, the aspect of literature to focus on is the plot, for the way in which a story is organised will either encourage or discourage the formation of audience expectations. If the thesis of this book is correct, one would expect the plots of medieval literature (or at least of popular medieval literature) to do little to encourage the formation of expectations, and perhaps even to be so organised as to make their formation impossible. Before turning to an examination of particular works, however, let us examine for a moment the mechanisms of literary plots, and particularly of dramatic plots, for the great bulk of the popular literature that has come down to us from the medieval period is in the dramatic form.


Literary Work Popular Literature Primitive Society Psychological Motivation Literal Truth 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    Kane, T. and Peters, L., Writing Prose, 5th edn (Oxford University Press, 1981) p. 496.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    For a full description see Greg, W. W., Dramatic Documents from the Elizabethan Playhouse (Oxford University Press, 1931) pp. 1–172.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Preminger, A., Hardison, O. B., Jr and Kerraine, K. (eds) Classical and Medieval Criticism (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1974) p. 462.Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    As M. Doran and others have pointed out, classical drama generally tells a story starting from the middle (in medias res), while Elizabethan dramatists tend to start from the beginning. For a fuller treatment of the subject, see Doran, M., The Endeavours of Art (University of Wisconsin, 1954) pp. 259–60.Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    See Archer, W., Playmaking (London: Small, Maynard & Co., 1912) p. 23. Archer also goes to bat against the conflict theory, offering a considerable list of plays that do not fit the pattern. Nevertheless, the conflict theory has retained its influence through to the present day, as witness Michael Billington’s comments on the plotting of ‘The Tempest’ in the Guardian of 3 May 1978: ’since that omnipotent necromancer, Prospero, holds all the cards in his hands anyway, there is precious little dramatic conflict’. Billington’s reaction to the play is surely shared by many. But the problem created by Prospero’s near-omnipotence may not be that it allows for very little conflict in the play, for there is, in fact, plenty of confict: Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano against Prospero; Prospero against Antonio; and Antonio and Sebastian against Alonzo. That the conflict does not seem ’dramatic’ to us is due to the fact that, as a result of Prospero’s power, there can be very little uncertainty in our expectations. If we are to feel suspense in response to a play, our expectations must include within them an element of uncertainty.Google Scholar
  6. 10.
    Forster, E. M., Aspects of the Novel (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1927 and 1962) pp. 93–4. Forster’s definition of ‘story’ corresponds to my definition of ‘simple plot’. To my mind, ‘story’ in itself does not imply any particular sort of organisation.Google Scholar
  7. 13.
    Among the collections that I have consulted and that I would recommend as being both interesting and entertaining are the following: Moyle, R. (ed. and trans.) Fagogo (Auckland University Press, 1981); Todd, Some Day Been Dey;Google Scholar
  8. Beier, U. (ed.) The Origin of Life and Death; African Creation Myths (London: William Heinemann, 1966);Google Scholar
  9. Singano, E. and Roscoe, A. A. (eds) Tales of Malawi (Blantyre: Popular Publications, 1974); Mbiti, Akamba Stories;Google Scholar
  10. Amore, R. C. and Shinn, Larry D., Lustful Maidens and Ascetic Kings: Buddhist and Hindu Stories of Life (Oxford University Press, 1981 );Google Scholar
  11. Carey, M., Myths and Legends of Africa (London: Hamlyn, 1970);Google Scholar
  12. Reid, D. M., Tales of Nanabozho (Oxford University Press, 1963).Google Scholar
  13. 14.
    Carpenter, E. S., ‘The Timeless Present in the Mythology of the Aivilik Eskimos’, in Valentine, V. F. and Vallee, F. G., Eskimo of the Canadian Arctic (Ottawa: Carleton Library Series, 1968), p. 42.Google Scholar
  14. 15.
    Ogumba, O., ‘Traditional African Festival Drama’ in Ogumba (ed.) Theatre in Africa (Nigeria: Ibadan University Press, 1978) p. 22.Google Scholar
  15. 16.
    Etherton, M., The Development of African Drama (London: Hutchinson, 1982) p. 116. Etherton suggests that the reason for the current poularity of ‘Everyman’ in Africa is that ’the theme of death in the midst of life… is able to cross cultural barriers very easily and compel audiences to seek an answer to the (existential) question of the meaning of life in the moment of death’ (p. 116). While there may be some truth in this, there are a great many Western plays from later eras that deal with similar themes (from ’Doctor Faustus’ and ’The Atheists Tragedy’ to ’Ghosts’ and ’Death of a Salesman’) and these have certainly not all caused mass conversions among Third World audiences. A more complete explanation of the current popularity of ‘Everyman’ must take into account the nature of its plotting, and the sorts of cognitive process to which it appeals.Google Scholar
  16. 17.
    Applebee, A. N., The Child’s Concept of Story (University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 123.Google Scholar

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© Don LePan 1989

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  • Don LePan

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