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Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Structuralist Analysis of the Stories of Vikram and Betal

Mala Krishnamurthy


A Structuralist Analysis of the Stories of Vikram and Betal

Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp (Russian: Владимир Яковлевич Пропп; 29 April [O.S. 17 April] 1895 – 22 August 1970) was a Soviet formalist scholar who analyzed the basic plot components of Russian folk tales to identify their simplest irreducible narrative elements.

Vladimir Propp broke up fairy tales into sections. Through these sections he was able to define the tale into a series of sequences that occurred within the Russian fairytale. Usually there is an initial situation, after which the tale usually can take 31 different functions. Vladimir Propp used this method to decipher Russian folklore and fairy tales. First of all, there seems to be at least two distinct types of structural analysis in folklore. One is the type of which Propp's Morphology is the exemplar par excellence. In this type, the structure or formal organization of a folkloristic text is described following the chronological order of the linear sequence of elements in the text as reported from an informant. Thus if a tale consists of elements A to Z, the structure of the tale is delineated in terms of this same sequence. Following Lévi-Strauss (1964: 312), this linear sequential structural analysis we might term "syntagmatic" structural analysis, borrowing from the notion of syntax in the study of language (cf. Greimas 1966a:404). The other type of structural analysis in folklore seeks to describe the pattern (usually based upon a priori binary principle of opposition) which allegedly underlies the folkloristic text. This pattern is not the same as the sequential structure at all. Rather the elements are taken out of the "given" order and are regrouped in one or more analytic schemas. Patterns or organization in this second type of structural analysis might be termed "paradigmatic" (cf. Sebag 1963:75), borrowing from the notion of paradigms in the study of language.

Respectively equivalent to syntagmatic and paradigmatic are the terms "diachronic" and "synchronic." Diachronic is the analysis that gives the reader a sense of "going through" the highs and lows of a story, much like the pattern of a sine wave. The second term, synchronic, is where the story is taken in all at one time, like in the pattern of a circle. Most literary analyses are synchronic, offering a greater sense of unity among the components of a story. Although both structural analyses convey partial information about the story, each angle of analysis delivers a different set of information

When studying mythology a mytheme is the essential kernel of a myth- an irreducible, unchanging element, a minimal unit that is always found to be shared with other, related mythemes and reassembled in various ways- 'bubdled' was Claud-Levi Straus' image- or linked in more complicated relationship, like a molecule in a compound. For example, the fairytales we read are all similarly structured myths, with similar elements, making some scholars believe they have a shared source.

Images passed down in cultures or from one to another, being ascribed new interpretations of the action depicted aswell as new names in various reading of icons. Levi-Struas, who gave the term wide circulation, wrote "if one wants to establish a paralled between structural linguistics and structural analysis of myths, the correspondence is established, not between mytheme and word, but mytheme and phoneme."

The structuralist analyser of fairytales, Vladimir Propp, considered that the unit of analysis was the individual tale. The unitary mytheme, by constrast is the equivalent in myth of phonemes, morphemes and sememes into which structural linguistics divides language, the smallest possible units of meaning within language system.

In 1950s Claude Levi-Strauss first adopted this technique of language analysis to analytic myth criticism. In his work on the myth systems of primitive tribes, working from the analogy of language structure, he adopted the term mytheme, with the assertion that the system of meaning within mythic utterance parallels closely to that of a language system. This idea is somewhat disputed by Roman Jakobson, who takes the mytheme to be a concept or phoneme which is without significance might be shown by sociological analysis.

Narreme is the basic unit of narrative structure. According to Helmut Bonheim (2000) the concept of narreme was developed three decades ago by Eugene Dorfman and expanded on by Henri Wittmann; the narreme is to narratology what a morpheme is to morphology and the phoneme is to phonology. The narreme however has yet to be persuasively defined in practise.

Narrative structure is generally described as the structural framework that underlies the order and manner in which a narrative is presented to a reader, listener or viewer. Narrative structures are the plot and settings. A non-linear narrative is one that does not proceed in a straight-line, step by step fashion, such as where an author creates a story's ending before the middle is finished.


Panchavimshati (Sanskrit: वेतालपञ्चविंशति, IAST: vetālapañcaviṃśati, "Twenty five tales of Baital"), is a collection of tales and legends within a frame story, from India. It was originally written in Sanskrit.

One of its oldest recensions is found in the 12th Book of the Kathā-Sarit-Sāgara ("Ocean of the Streams of Story"), a work in Sanskrit compiled in the 11th century by Somadeva, but based on yet older materials, now lost. This recension comprises in fact twenty four tales, the frame narrative itself being the twenty fifth. The two other major recensions in Sanskrit are those by Śivadāsa and Jambhaladatta.

The vetala stories have been popular in India, and have been translated into many Indian vernaculars. Several English translations exist, based on Sanskrit recensions and on Hindi ("Baital Pachisi" is the Hindi title), Tamil, and Marathi versions. Probably the most well-known English version is that of Sir Richard Francis Burton which is, however, not a translation but a very free adaptation.

The legendary King Vikram, identified as Vikramāditya (c. 1st century BC), promises a vamachari  (a tantric sorcerer) that he will capture a vetala (or Baital), a celestial spirit who hangs from a tree and inhabits and animates dead bodies.

King Vikram faces many difficulties in bringing the vetala to the tantric. Each time Vikram tries to capture the vetala, it tells a story that ends with a riddle. If Vikram cannot answer the question correctly, the vampire consents to remain in captivity. If the king knows the answer but still keeps quiet, then his head shall burst into thousand pieces. And if King Vikram answers the question correctly, the vampire would escape and return to his tree. He knows the answer to every question; therefore the cycle of catching and releasing the vampire continues twenty-four times.

On the twenty-fifth attempt, the vetala tells the story of a father and a son in the after-math of a devastating war. They find the queen and the princess alive in the chaos, and decide to take them home. In due time, the son marries the queen and the father marries the princess. Eventually, the son and the queen have a son, and the father and the princess have a daughter. The vetala asks what the relation between the two newborn children is. The question stumps Vikram. Satisfied, the vetala allows himself to be taken to the tantric.

On their way to the tantric, Vetala tells his story. His parents did not have a son and a tantric blessed them with twin sons on a condition that both be educated under him. Vetala was taught everything in the world but often ill treated. Whereas his brother was taught just what was needed but always well treated. Vetala came to know that the tantric planned to give his brother back to his parents and Vetala instead would be sacrificed as he was an 'all- knowing kumara' and by sacrificing him the tantric could be immortal and rule the world using his tantric powers. Vetal also reveals that now the tantric's plan is to sacrifice Vikram, beheading him as he bowed in front of the goddess. Then tantric could then gain control over the vetala and sacrifice his soul, thus achieving his evil ambition. The vetala suggests that the king asks the tantric how to perform his obeisance, then take advantage of that moment to behead the sorcerer himself. Vikramāditya does exactly as told by vetala and he is blessed by Lord Indra and Devi Kali. The vetala offers the king a boon, whereupon Vikram requests that the tantric's heart and mind be cleaned of all sins and his life be restored as a good living being and that the vetala would come to the king's aid when needed.

Vlademir Propp's theory – a tale consists of a standard set of functions in a standard sequence. All plays move to a closure. Evil gives way to good.

Time and space remain a constant in most of the stories. The kingdoms in which the stories are set are usually fictitious. The period of time in which the stories are set remains constant throughout all the stories.

Certain events such as tests of valour, a son lost in the forest, accidental deaths are used in many of the stories making them a narreme in themselves. These events may seem to exist in isolation but structuralism would identify them as a pattern.

Propp states characters as a separate category to the functions in each tale. But these characters also can be seen as similar or structurally bound.

The king- The meta-narrative of king Vikramaditya stresses the appearance of a king in each of the stories narrated by Betal. The kings in the stories usually looking for a husband for their daughters. They in themselves play small roles, and are not seen performing many actions displaying valour.

The princess- The daughter of the king, like the real princesses of the 1st century, are all trained in battle. They are in search of suitors who can equal them at skills they have learned at court. They are often seen as difficult to please as they don't see any man as equal to themselves.

The Brahmin-The Brahmin is another constant character in all of the stories. The Brahmin is usually depicted as a poor but powerful man. He too usually has a daughter who needs to be married off. He uses his magical powers in many of the stories to curse the other characters. He also uses magical powers to reverse death in many of the stories.

All stories have the roles of daughters and sons in relation to their parents. The idea of marriage can be found in all the stories and the marriage is decided after testing the suitors by making them perform death defying feats to prove their valour, commitment and love.

As mentioned before, every story ends with Betal asking the king a quizzical question based on the facts of the story. Because of this, each story invariably has an open ending.

Reference :

A History of Literary Criticism and Theory, M. A. R. Habib,  Literary Theory: A guide for the perplexed, Mary Klages. 

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