Describing Literary Universals

Comments on Keen: Universal Principles versus Uniformity

Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

Suzanne Keen is perhaps the world’s foremost expert on empathy and literature. As such, and also as a feminist and even as a human being aware of the world around her, she is deeply sensitive to the implausibility of claims that people’s empathic responses are all the same. In keeping with this, she is committed to arguing against claims that everyone reacts identically to situations of human suffering (see “Narrative Empathy: A Universal Response to Fiction?”). I completely agree with Keen in this. In the context of the Literary Universals Project, however, it is important to stress that the existence of literary universals in no way entails uniformity in individual response. Indeed, as universals are usually formulated, they are incompatible with such uniformity. Of course, Keen certainly recognizes this point. Nonetheless, it is important to make it clear for readers who may not be aware of the incompatibility.

More technically, the existence of universal principles in literature is most often inconsistent with uniformity of output in individual cases. This is true for two reasons. First, the universal principles bearing on persons often involve indexical features, features that change the output of the principles depending on the person to whom they are applied (see my “Possibility”). For example, it appears to be a universal principle that recipients (e.g., readers) are more likely to empathize with people or characters in their identity groups than people or characters outside their identity groups. Identity groups vary from person to person. In consequence, the output of the principle in any given case—that is, who a given person empathizes with—will vary. Greeks will be inclined to empathize with Greeks; Trojans, with Trojans. If, on the whole, Greeks tended to empathize with Greeks, not Trojans or any other enemy, while Trojans tended to empathize with Greeks or any other enemy, not Trojans, we would have a divergence in principle, not universality. Moreover, even among Greeks, there will be differences—due, for example, to sex category identity.

The second reason that universal principles do not predict individual uniformity is that, most often, there is not a single principle for any domain, but a range of alternative principles. For example, I take it that ethical evaluation is in part a matter of emotional response and in part a matter of emplotment. In both cases, several principles are available. One form of ethical response stresses pride and anger, particularly in-group pride and anger against antagonistic out-groups. This form tends to draw on heroic narrative structures which support the in-group in inter-group conflict. It celebrates group loyalty, bravery, and so on. Another form of ethical response stresses the alleviation of suffering, as shared empathically; another focuses on disgust and the purging of moral “contamination.” Thus, two recipients of a story are likely to have different ethical reactions to a situation insofar as those recipients differ in the emotions and story structures they favor. Faced with the same story, a reader whose ethical preferences involve empathy (e.g., with the misery of separated, same-sex lovers) will respond differently from a reader whose ethical preferences are connected with disgust (e.g., at homosexuality).

Thus, for the most part, universals bearing on empathy and literature would not predict uniformity of individual response. Rather, they would predict divergence of response, based on indexical features of outputs (e.g., in-group bias) and diversity of principles (e.g., ethical orientations toward empathy or toward empathy-inhibiting emotions, such as disgust or anger).

Given these conclusions, one might ask, where does this leave the topic of literary universals and empathy? One point worth noting is that different traditions often appear to stress something that may reasonably be characterized as empathy, understood as “an affective response that is more appropriate for another’s situation than one’s own” (in Hoffman’s definition [4]). When Aristotle refers to our éleos or compassion–for example at páthos or suffering (see, for example, Poetics XIV.4)–he seems to suggest some sharing of the hero’s anguish. When the Sanskrit literary theorist, Abhinavagupta, maintains that the crucial rasa or “sentiment” of a work is a function of the memory traces activated in the recipient, he is connecting the audience’s feelings with experiences parallel to those of the characters, thus presumably pointing toward what we would call an empathic connection (see Abhinavagupta’s Locana [81, 117, and 182] and his Aesthetic Experience [96-97 and 112]; for discussion, see chapter two of my The Mind). When the Arabic theorists stress the importance of developing raḥmah or compassion, following exemplary literary characters, they seem to be suggesting that we should share feelings with the compassionate character and have a parallel feeling for the target of that character’s compassion–thus a feeling that is more relevant to that target’s situation than to our own (on the Arabic theorists, see my “Stories”).

Outside theoretical reflections, it seems clear that various literary traditions are filled with works that presumably affect readers in ways that are far more consistently empathic than we would expect from mere chance. Every reader may not share Lǐ Qīngzhào’s grief over her husband’s death in “聲聲慢” (“Shēng Shēng Màn” [Late Sounds]). Indeed, in the “co-creation” of the poem stressed by Keen, some readers may make it into a poem about something completely different than her husband’s death. (I once had a star basketball player in my class who found the poem hilariously funny; I hope she “co-created” the poem in a way that made it treat some very different topic.) But it seems unlikely that the status enjoyed by the poem for centuries has resulted only from formal features (e.g., rhyme). In other words, it hardly seems plausible that readers’ emotional responses would vary randomly—sometimes contempt, disgust, hate, sexual arousal, rage, etc., and once in a great while empathic grief, just by chance—as the speaker sits at her window, recalling an earlier night, just like this one, waiting for her husband to return from a trip, and now realizing that he will never again appear across the courtyard, amid the clustered blossoms at its border, arriving home. (For a discussion of this poem, seem my “Affect Studies.”)

Thus, it seems likely that the experience of empathy is in fact an important feature of literary experience cross-culturally, even though individual response is not uniform. Moreover, it seems clear that, cross-culturally, literary works are often designed to foster empathy (whatever their actual effects). In connection with this, one might wish to investigate a range of further areas for possible universals as well.

For example, in The Mind and Its Stories, I distinguished between what I called categorial and situational empathy. The distinction was between empathy based on shared identity categorization (“categorial empathy”) and empathy based on having been in a comparable situation (“situational empathy”). I would now say that all empathy is situational (i.e., there is no distinct type of empathy that is categorial). In other words, we have an experiential sense of what another person is feeling based on the activation of emotional memories from a similar situation (in keeping with Abhinavagupta). Identity categories make a difference. However, they make a difference to one’s interpersonal stance, the attitude one takes up toward the other person, an attitude of parallel or opposed emotion. We are inclined initially to adopt a parallel stance toward persons with whom we share an active identity category. Thus, we are inclined to empathize with them. In contrast, we are likely to adopt an opposed stance toward out-group members, perhaps feeling Schadenfreude at their suffering, rather than sharing that suffering. (For evidence bearing on this topic, see Gazzaniga 164, Keestra 237, Hain et al. 155, and Klimecki and Singer 542.)

In terms of this distinction, we would expect in-group empathy to be far more prominent than out-group empathy cross-culturally. Indeed, we might expect out-group empathy to be virtually absent. However, I have also argued that, as authors imagine the lives and experiences of out-group members in detail, they come to experience them as more fully human and to portray them in ways that manifest and are likely to foster empathy. This is a general, human propensity, and likely to be found in life as well as art. It is the sort of experience that leads Majnūn, in Niẓāmī’s renowned Persian poem, to share the feelings of both sides in a war, even though one side favors him and the other opposes him: “While each warrior thought of nothing but to kill the enemy and to defend himself, the poet was sharing the sufferings of both sides” (58). Indeed, I have argued that heroic stories often include remorse over the harm done to the enemy (see chapter four of The Mind). These points are all apparently statistical universals of literature and empathy. Moreover, they potentially open up other areas of study bearing on interpersonal stance, identity categories, and other factors that interact with empathic sensitivities cross-culturally.

Another area for possible research is Keen’s own division of empathic appeals into those aimed solely at the in-group, those aimed at out-groups, and those aimed at both out-groups and in-groups. It seems clear that dominant groups frequently write for their peers in support of in-group prerogatives. It is also clear that, in some places at some times, writers from oppressed groups have appealed to dominant out-groups. One might reasonably ask to what extent the latter has occurred cross-culturally. We certainly find works that appeal to a dominant group on behalf of dominated people. For example, a work such as Śūdraka’s Little Clay Cart contains at least suggestions of a challenge to the oppression of Śūdras (members of the servant caste). There are parts of the Mahābhārata that seem to present a non-orthodox view of gender (see chapter six of my Sexual), plays that rewrite the Rāmāyaṇa in ways that pose (limited) challenges to patriarchy (see chapter three of my Affective), and so on. In most of these cases, there appears to be at least some recruitment of empathy. Admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to say if the author was part of the dominated group, and it is often fairly clear that the author was not. In this way, these cases may not strictly fit Keen’s division. However, they manifest a related appeal for empathy across identity groups. As with all study of cross-cultural patterns, we may ask if such appeals occur widely or narrowly; if they occur in particular circumstances (suggesting implicational or typological universals); if they are an instance of some other pattern.

The preceding list of topics is far from exhausting the possibilities for the study of literary universals and empathy. My point here has not been to give anything like a definitive catalog of such possibilities. Rather, I have simply hoped to suggest that research on literary universals and empathy has hardly begun. It is important to recognize that there is not individual uniformity in empathic response (and that there are other non-universal aspects of literature, such as recently developed techniques that are sometimes claimed to bear on empathy), as Keen has discussed clearly and forcefully. But it is also important to recognize that literary universals are largely inconsistent with such uniformity. In short, the rejection of individual uniformity does not mark the end of research in literary universals and empathy—no more than the search for linguistic universals is cut short by the fact that we do not all say the same thing. The recognition of individual variability is, rather, a preliminary to research on cross-cultural patterns. Indeed, cross-cultural patterns are to a great extent patterns of individual variability that reoccur—in different proportions and with different specifications–across traditions.

Works Cited

Aristotle. The Poetics. Trans. with a critical text by S. H. Butcher. London: Macmillan, 1895.

Armony, Jorge and Patrik Vuilleumier, eds. The Cambridge Handbook of Human Affective Neuroscience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Chang, E. C. “Analyzing Li Qingzhao’s Poem ‘Sheng Sheng Man.’” Bilingual Chinese Poetry and Prose. (accessed 22 February 2017).

Gazzaniga, Michael. Who’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain. New York: Ecco, 2011.

Hain, G., G. Silani, K. Preuschoff, C. D. Batson, and T. Singer. “Neural Responses to Ingroup and Outgroup Members’ Suffering Predict Individual Differences in Costly Helping.” Neuron 68 (2010): 149-160.

Hoffman, Martin. Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Affect Studies and Literary Criticism.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Ed. Paula Rabinowitz. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. Available at .

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Affective Narratology: The Emotional Structure of Stories. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2011.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “The Possibility of Aesthetics,” The British Journal of Aesthetics 34.4 (1994): 337-49. (Reprinted on Cogweb,

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Sexual Identities: A Cognitive Literary Study. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Stories and Morals: Emotion, Cognitive Exempla, and the Arabic Aristotelians.” The Work of Fiction: Cognition, Culture, and Complexity. Ed. Alan Richardson and Ellen Spolsky. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004, 31-50.

Keestra, Machiel. “Bounded Mirroring: Joint Action and Group Membership in Political Theory and Cognitive Neuroscience.” In Valk 222-248.

Klimecki, Olga and Tania Singer. “Empathy from the Perspective of Social Neuroscience.” In Armony and Vuilleumier 533-549.

Lǐ Qīngzhào (李清照). “聲聲慢.” In Chang.

Nizami. The Story of Layla and Majnun. Ed. and trans. Rudolf Gelpke in collaboration with E. Mattin and G. Hill. Final chapter trans. Zia Inayat Khan and Omid Safi. New Lebanon, NY: Omega Publications, 1997.

Valk, Frank Vander, ed. Essays on Neuroscience and Political Theory: Thinking the Body Politic. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Poetic Form

Geoffrey Russom, Brown University

In Russom, Evolution, I propose a general theory of poetic meter and explore its implications for metrical evolution. This article provides a brief summary of my findings as they relate to the study of literary universals. My initial hypothesis is that metrical constituents are abstracted from linguistic constituents: metrical positions from syllables, metrical feet from words, and metrical lines from syntactic constituents, preferably sentences. On this hypothesis it is obvious what constitutes the best match between abstract metrical patterns and the words chosen to realize them by the poet.

I think that my hypothesis qualifies as the null hypothesis but it is not uncontroversial. In Fabb and Halle, Meter in Poetry (11), the authors assume that “lines are sequences of syllables, rather than of words or phrases.” They reject “approaches which assume that literary language is a development of ordinary language, using the resources already available to it,” citing Hanson and Kiparsky, “Parametric theory,” as one of the language-based approaches they reject (pp. 46-8). According to an anonymous reviewer of this article, equating lines with sentences ignores the fact that syntax is asymmetric and hierarchical but meter is not. This generalization seems to be rather widely accepted but I regard it as an important error that has impeded metrical research. As will soon become apparent, I accept all regulated features of the poetic line as metrical. Regulated features of the line can include alliteration, rhyme, the word boundary, the major syntactic break (sometimes called the caesura), and syntactic parallelism. In the Celtic and Germanic alliterative meters I have studied, the constraints on syllabic patterns within the line are secondary consequences of constraints on morphological and syntactic structure.

In meters with long lines, there may be a metrical constituent between the foot and the line. In Germanic alliterative meters, the line consists of two verses and each verse contains two feet. The first verse of the line is called the a-verse; the second is called the b-verse. Important metrical constraints apply at verse level. I derive metrical constituents between foot level and line level from phrases between word level and sentence level. In meters that have a short line length relative to average word length, the line pattern might also be derived from a syntactic constituent below the level of the sentence.

All traditional meters employ the line. One early Irish meter specifies the number of words per line but imposes no constraints on syllables. This meter employs feet but no metrical positions. The Serbo-Croatian decasyllable counts syllables but imposes no constraints on word count, patterns of stress, or patterns of syllable length. This meter employs metrical positions but no feet. The meter of the Biblical psalms employs a line with neither feet nor metrical positions. The adjacent lines of a Biblical couplet match one another in syntax and propositional semantics, the characteristic features of the sentence as distinct from the word and the syllable. In this parallelistic meter, each line of the couplet takes the adjacent line as its semantic-syntactic prototype. Lines within a couplet are complex to the extent that they differ syntactically and semantically.

Certain features of the line can be fixed somewhat arbitrarily, for example the number of feet or the number of metrical positions. Many metrical rules are based on native-speaker intuitions, however, and operate below the level of consciousness, for the poet as well as the audience.

Metrical rules can be expressed as constraints on departure from a prototypical line pattern. The prototype for iambic pentameter can be realized by a line like

Refíned / gourméts // demánd / supérb / cuisíne.

As traditionally described, the iambic pentameter line has ten metrical positions organized into five iambic feet (separated by slashes). Each foot has two metrical positions, and the most prominent syllable within a foot is normally placed on its second position. In the prototypical line above, each metrical position is realized as a syllable with normal length, each iambic foot is realized as an iambic word, and the line is realized as a sentence with normal English word order, which is SVO (subject-verb-object). The major syntactic break within the prototype (notated by a double slash) falls after the fourth metrical position, between the subject (refined gourmets) and the predicate (demand superb cuisine). This is the normal position for the caesura in iambic pentameter. The caesura falls most often to the left of center because specifiers like subjects are shorter than predicates, which typically have a tensed verbal head and one or more complements (e.g. an object, a governed infinitive, and/or a prepositional phrase). Like sentence patterns, prototypical line patterns are hierarchically asymmetrical.

Linguistic rules applying at higher levels of structure can modify the output of lower-level rules. The most prominent stress assigned by a word-level rule can be subordinated within the phrase, for example by the higher-level rule for adjective-noun constructions. In a Modern English phrase like grèen grápes, the primary word stress of the adjective is subordinated to the primary word stress of the following noun. The most prominent stress in a small phrase can be subordinated by rules applying at the level of the sentence, for example by the nuclear stress rule, which subordinates every stressed syllable before the nuclear stress and provides the phonological basis for pronunciation. In a metrical line, similarly, line-level norms based on sentence structure exert more influence than foot-level norms based on word structure. Level-dependent effects were recognized within generative metrics as early as 1989, when Youmans observed that “higher-level boundaries are progressively more significant than lower-level ones” (“Milton’s meter” 376).

Realization of the foot as a word is clearly desirable in iambic pentameter, especially at the end of the line, where the principle of closure restricts metrical complexity. In his analysis of a large corpus of Milton’s unrhymed verse, Youmans observed that Milton often departs from ordinary word order to place an iambic word at line end, but rarely to remove an iambic word from that position.

Realizing the line as a clause or sentence is even more desirable than realizing the foot as a word, and occurs more frequently. In Shakespeare’s well-known sonnet 18, ten of the fourteen lines are realized as sentences or as clauses transparently related to sentences. In other sonnets, however, Shakespeare makes significant use of long, complex sentences that occupy two lines instead of one. The power of line-level constraints stands out with particular clarity when other constraints are loosened and compensatory measures are required to keep the metrical complexity of the line within tolerable limits. In the 404 iambic trimeters of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, extrametrical words are added more freely than in iambic pentameter tradition (Russom, Evolution, chapter 10). To compensate, the frequency of trimeter lines realized as sentences or clauses is kept above 50%, a conservative estimate that can be validated by any reasonable counting procedure. Since these lines are significantly shorter than Shakespeare’s, we would expect a high frequency of sentences occupying two lines in Gawain, all other things being equal; but the Gawain poet keeps sentences short and simple to limit the total complexity of a line that is unusually complex in another way. Another compensatory device of the trimeter is a high relative frequency of closing feet filled by iambic words, as in Milton’s unrhymed verse.

The relation between sentence rhythm and the poetic line is highlighted by sound echoes like rhyme and alliteration, which are most effectively situated in prominent linguistic constituents. In SVO languages like Modern English, the last stressed word in a sentence normally has the most prominent phrasal stress, called the nuclear stress. The best site for the rhyming word in such languages is line-final position. Alliteration is universally associated with syllabic prominence (Kiparsky, “Role of linguistics” 231). In SOV languages like Proto-Germanic, the first stressed word of a phrase normally bears the most prominent stress; and the first word with metrically significant stress alliterates obligatorily in ancient Germanic meters, which include Old English, Old Norse, Old Saxon, and Old High German meters (Sievers, Metrik). The word at the end of a typical Proto-Germanic sentence has subordinate stress; and alliteration at the end of the line is systematically ruled out in the four alliterative meters. In a VSO language like Old Irish, the first stressed word of the sentence is typically a verb with subordinate stress. In the most common Irish alliterative meter, which resembles ancient Germanic meters in important respects, the first stressed word of the verse typically does not alliterate and the first alliteration falls on the second stressed word.

In meters with a single foot pattern and a single line pattern, metrical variety is achieved by carefully regulated departure from the linear prototype. In Old English meter, there is a foot pattern for every native word pattern. Most combinations of two feet qualify as verses and many combinations of two verses qualify as lines. In this meter, the many verse patterns and line patterns provide ample variety; and conformity to the prototypical two-word realization of each verse type is much more strictly regulated than conformity to the iambic pentameter prototype. Meters that switch unpredictably from one pattern to another, compensating with stricter conformity to patterns, provide especially valuable evidence for deep analysis of poetic form.

The most highly favored foot pattern in Old English corresponds to the pattern of trochaic words like hwīle ‘time,’ which has a stressed root syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. This is the prototypical Old English word pattern (Dresher and Lahiri, “Metrical coherence”). The most highly favored verse pattern has two trochaic feet. An example from Beowulf is lange / hwīle ‘a long time’ (the a-verse of line 16, notated as 16a). This verse prototype establishes a norm of two primary word stresses and four metrical positions for the verse. The prototype for the line corresponds to an SOV Germanic sentence, with a weakly stressed finite verb at the end preceded by more prominent words such as subject and object nouns. Lines ending in a finite verb are highly favored.

As with norms of iambic pentameter, norms of Old English meter exert more influence at higher levels. Consider for example two variants of verse type Da, one variant with four metrical positions and another with five. Both variants have a stressed word in the first foot and a compound word in the second foot. An example of the shorter variant is Beowulf 164b, fēond / mancynnes ‘enemy of mankind.’ An example of the longer variant is Beowulf 223a, sīde / sǣnæssas ‘large sea-nesses.’ The longer variant realizes the first foot with a trochaic word and is optimal in that respect; but it has five metrical positions, contravening the four-position norm for the verse. If the foot norm exerted more influence, the longer variant would have higher frequency; but in fact this variant has about half the frequency of the shorter variant and is vanishingly rare in the b-verse, where the principle of closure restricts complexity. The four-position verse norm exerts more influence than the foot norm.

In Beowulf, two-word verses like lange / hwīle, with each foot realized as a trochaic word, have highest frequency in the b-verse. When the first foot is realized as a group of constituents rather than a single word, the added metrical complexity inhibits placement in the b-verse, all other things being equal. Verses like 121a, fēond on / helle ‘a fiend in hell,’ occur 112 times in the a-verse but only 24 times in the b-verse. Distribution is very different, however, for verses like 45b, forð on-/ sendon ‘sent forth,’ which occur 11 times in the a-verse and 65 times in the b-verse. Such verses realize the first foot as a constituent group but end with a finite verb. The line-level preference for a finite verb at the end exerts more influence on verse placement than the preference for realization of the foot as a word.

For analysis of rule conflict in Germanic alliterative meters, it is helpful to think in terms of violable rules with varying influence. These rules are like the rules of Optimality Theory in important respects (Russom, Evolution 283). Unlike OT linguistic rules, however, metrical rules do not select one and only one linguistic pattern as the only acceptable output. Instead, optimal linguistic features are incorporated into prototypical line patterns. Departures from optimal form occur somewhat more freely in metrical systems than in linguistic systems, and under different conditions; but each departure from the metrical prototype increases metrical complexity, limiting the relative frequency of complex verse patterns and inhibiting their placement in the closing half of the line.

To be preserved for its cultural value over a long period of time, a meter must evolve to accommodate language change. English alliterative meter can be traced from its reconstructed origin in late Proto-Germanic (about 300 BCE) to its death in the sixteenth century CE. Evolution of this form involved abandonment of constraints that became unsustainable and introduction of new constraints based on traditional tendencies that were still perceptible. When the Old English inflectional system was vitiated by reduction of unstressed word-final syllables, unstressed function words were more urgently necessary, and the meter had to tolerate a larger number of unstressed syllables per line. In Middle English alliterative poetry, the metrical coherence of the line was preserved in part by stricter alignment of verses with clauses and by obligatory double alliteration in the a-verse. Effects of the principle of closure were reinterpreted as a rule requiring asymmetry between a-verses and b-verses. The more complex types were increasingly confined to the a-verse, and the b-verse was increasingly populated by types that ended with a trochaic word. A new rule was then introduced requiring a trochaic constituent at the end of the line. For thorough philological discussion of the new Middle English constraints and related bibliography, see Putter et al., Studies. By the late Middle English period, when SVO syntax was the norm, alliterative poets were using conspicuously archaic language to preserve a form almost two thousand years old that was designed for a different language type. After major language changes in early Modern English, poetic archaisms were no longer comprehensible and the meter died.

Borrowing from another language can complicate metrical history. During the early Middle English period, poetic culture was dominated by rhymed forms imported from France for the Norman French aristocracy. In the late fourteenth century, French was less widely spoken, but the prestige dialect of English had accumulated a vast store of words with the prototypical iambic pattern of French borrowings. Rhymed iambic meter must have seemed a natural choice for Chaucer, who stood close to the center of royal power. As the frequency of iambic words increased, the frequency of trochaic words declined. By Chaucer’s time, final -e in trochaic words was no longer consistently scanned as a metrical syllable. After massive loss of word-final unstressed syllables in early Modern English, the trochaic norm for native words had been replaced by a monosyllabic norm –– the stereotypical ‘four-letter word.’ The function of a lost inflectional syllable was usually taken over by a preceding monosyllabic function word such as a preposition, an article, or a demonstrative pronoun. The new stressed monosyllables had no inherent rhythm of their own and iambic meter was ideally suited to the proliferating iambic phrases that replaced trochaic words. Compare for example Beowulf 1507a, hringa / þengel, with its literal modern English translation, the lord / of rings. The Old English verse has two trochaic words; its translation has two iambic phrases.


  1. Metrical constituents are abstracted from natural linguistic constituents.
  2. Meters are not reducible to syllabic patterns, contra Fabb and Halle, ‘Meter in Poetry.’ Meters also employ morphological patterns, syntactic patterns, and perhaps other linguistic patterns as well, such as patterns of prosodic constituents between the syllable and the word.
  3. Meters exploit the native speaker’s ability to apprehend all aspects of linguistic form in real time with automatic facility.
  4. The only metrical constituent universally required is the line. The metrical position, the foot, and the verse (or half-line) may be employed but are not required.
  5. A meter can be represented as a prototype incorporating optimal features of the relevant language.
  6. Metrical constraints can be formulated as violable rules. A given rule can augment or diminish the effects of other rules.
  7. The influence of a violable rule depends on the metrical level at which it applies. Higher-level rules exert more influence than lower-level rules.
  8. A meter preserved through language changes may abandon unsustainable constraints and introduce new sustainable constraints based on statistical frequencies and stylistic preferences.

Topics for Future Research

Conclusions 1–8 above are based on meters I have been able to analyze. My frequency assessments are obtained from complete manual scansions of Beowulf and Gawain in sortable and filterable Microsoft Excel files. Researchers interested in obtaining copies of these files should send an e-mail to < >. In some cases, my conclusions can be sharpened in more than one way consistent with the data I have gathered. Language-based analyses of other meters by qualified researchers can impose useful constraints on progressively sharper formulations of universalist constraints. The following are just a few examples of relevant topics.

  1. Research on meters with short lines relative to average word length might reveal whether they are abstracted from phrases below the level of the sentence, as with Old English verses, or create allowable mismatches to lines abstracted from sentences.
  2. Short textual lines might be genuine metrical lines or artifacts of formatting conventions for manuscripts and printed documents. A Japanese specialist, for example, might consider whether the haiku is a genuine three-line unit or is best analyzed as a single line with three cola.
  3. I am willing to be persuaded that a meter can have an obligatory pattern of syllable stress or length that is in some sense ‘artificial’ and does not correspond to a natural linguistic pattern. Classical Greek and Latin quantitative meters may have these characteristics but I have not encountered a focused argument to that effect and would like to see one. I would analyze such an artificial pattern as one that has strong and weak metrical positions abstracted from strong and weak syllables but no ‘word feet’ of the kind discussed in this article. Artificial specification of stress or length patterns would be analogous to artificial specification of the number of feet or metrical positions, familiar subjects of conscious reflection by poets and their audiences.
  4. For language-based metrical theories, corpus-based studies can provide useful information about the relative frequencies of syllabic patterns, word patterns, and syntactic patterns. Studies of this kind may already be available for the researcher’s language of interest.
  5. Researchers who work on modernist experimental poetry might consider whether a given experimental form could be apprehended with automatic facility during oral performance; and if not on first exposure, whether subsequent exposure or conscious instruction could make the form intuitively accessible.
  6. The earliest meters provided important technologies of cultural preservation for customary law, religion, history, myth, and heroic legend. The cultural functions of poetic meter provide topics of great potential interest for psychologists and aestheticians.

Works Cited

(For additional bibliography see Russom, Evolution.)

Dresher, Elan, and Aditi Lahiri. “The Germanic foot: metrical coherence in Old English.” Linguistic Inquiry 22 (1991), 253–86

Fabb, Nigel, and Morris Halle. Meter in Poetry: A New Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008

Hanson, Kristin, and Paul Kiparsky. “A parametric theory of poetic meter.” Language 72 (1996), 287–335

Kiparsky, Paul. “The role of linguistics in a theory of poetry.” Daedalus 102 (1973), 231–44

Kiparsky, Paul. “The Rhythmic Structure of English Verse.” Linguistic Inquiry 8 (1977), 189–247

Putter, Ad, Judith Jefferson, and Myra Stokes. Studies in the Metre of Alliterative Verse. Oxford: Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, 2007

Russom, Geoffrey. The Evolution of Verse Structure in Old and Middle English Poetry: From the  Earliest Alliterative Poems to Iambic Pentameter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Sievers, Eduard. Altgermanische Metrik. Halle: Niemeyer, 1893

Youmans, Gilbert. “Milton’s meter.” In Paul Kiparsky and Gilbert Youmans, eds., Phonetics and Phonology: Volume 1, Rhythm and Meter, 341–79. San Diego: Academic Press, 1989.


Literary Meaning: An Evolutionary Perspective

Joseph Carroll, University of Missouri, Saint Louis

Four Meta-Universals of Literary Meaning

In a persuasive formulation, Meyer Abrams reduces all literary activity to four components: the author, the reader, the world to which a literary work refers, and the work itself (Abrams “Types”). Since the poststructuralist revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, much literary theory has consisted in eliminating or de-emphasizing one or another of these components—announcing the death of the author, declaring the impossibility of reference to a world outside the text, dissolving individual texts into circulating streams of cultural energies, or reducing the reader to an uncritical participant within a “community” that passively echoes this or that dominant episteme. Humanist and Darwinist critics have frequently criticized these efforts to develop a theory of literature by discarding some of its parts (Abrams, “Transformation”; Carroll, Evolution; Crews, Postmodern Pooh; Crews, Skeptical Engagements; Storey; Carroll et al., Graphing 1-8; Cain; Boyd, Carroll and Gottschall; Patai). There is no need to go over all that ground again. Instead, in this current essay, I use Abrams’s categories as a starting point for developing evolutionary ideas on universals of literary meaning.

Abrams’s four categories are literary meta-universals: conditions without which no other literary universals could exist. Authors speak to readers; literary works refer to a world shared by authors and readers; and a literary work is the medium through which authors communicate with readers. Those four propositions imply four further aspects of the universal literary situation: (1) intentional meaning (what authors intend to communicate); (2) interpretation (the activity of readers seeking to understand what authors mean); (3) meaning itself (what authors say and how readers respond to what authors say); and (4) the organization of meaning in language (linguistic and literary structure).

Abrams’s meta-universals are couched in the ordinary language of humanist common sense. Correlating these concepts with concepts from evolutionary biology situates them within an established scientific paradigm and confirms their robust validity. Authors and readers are human organisms. The world to which literary works refer is the environment in which those organisms live. Literary works are communicative signals, a form of social interaction that is displayed also by many species that do not have the capacity for articulate language. Abrams’s humanist concepts are not, then, superficial descriptors. They cut nature at its joints.

Abrams’s four categories identify appropriate units of analysis for literary research, but they do not offer causal explanation. The theory of adaptation by means of natural selection is a causal explanation that encompasses a vast network of subsidiary causal explanations. Ethology, the zoological discipline that deals most broadly with behavior, distinguishes four main categories of explanation: phylogeny, ontogeny, mechanism, and adaptive function (Tinbergen). Phylogeny concerns the evolutionary origins of any given behavior. Ontogeny concerns development within a single lifespan. Mechanism refers to the anatomical, physiological, and neurochemical structures that are the proximate causes of behavior. Adaptive function concerns the way any given mechanism has contributed to survival or reproduction, hence to the propagation of genes.

Evolutionary literary study assimilates information and explanatory hypotheses from a wide range of disciplines: primatology and comparative psychology (Chapais, “Social Universals”), cognitive and affective neuroscience (Panksepp and Biven; Decety and Cacioppo), developmental psychology (Konner), evolutionary social psychology (Carroll, “Social Theory”; Graham, Haidt and Nosek), evolutionary anthropology (Low), evolutionary psychology (Buss), and biocultural theory (Henrich; Carroll et al., “Biocultural Theory”). Evolutionary hypotheses about universals of literary meaning should integrate ideas from all these disciplines with ideas from empirically grounded disciplines more closely associated with literary study, for instance, from narrative psychology, affective narratology, the psychology of fiction, and evolutionary literary study (McAdams, “Actor”; Johnson-Laird and Oatley; Oatley, Psychology of Fiction; Tamir et al.; Oatley, Passionate Muse; Hogan, “Story“; Hogan, Authors’ Minds; Hogan, Affective Narratology; Carroll, “Minds”; Boyd; Gottschall Storytelling; Boyd, Carroll and Gottschall; Saunders; Clasen; Jacobs and Willems).

Four Levels of Organization for the Analysis of Literary Meaning

Meaning consists in mental experiences in the minds of authors and readers: perceptions, emotions, and thoughts. From an evolutionary perspective, meaning in literary texts can be analyzed at four distinct levels of organization: (1) universal, pan-human forms of experience; (2) specific cultural configurations that are prompted and constrained by pan-human forms of experience; (3) individual identities of authors, readers, and characters; and (4) structures and qualities that distinguish individual literary works from one another. Each of these levels is itself a universal feature of literary works. All works reflect pan-human forms of behavior and experience; all works are lodged within one or more particular cultural traditions; all works are produced by individual minds and interpreted by other individual minds; and all works display unique, distinctive characteristics. Each level of analysis can yield valuable information. A comprehensive evolutionary critique of meaning in any given literary text would integrate all four levels of analysis.

The Pan-Human Level of Organization

An ongoing effort in evolutionary social science aims at identifying the species-typical characteristics of human nature. Donald Brown’s classic portrait of “The Universal People” in Human Universals (1991) suggests the rich complexity of concepts required to describe a fictional “tribe” that exhibits features of behavior, qualities of experience, and forms of thought that appear in every known culture. Later research has pursued many different aspects of that universal picture, for instance, language, cognition, emotions, mating psychology, parenting, kinship, social dynamics, morality, religion, and the arts. (See Brown, “HUMAN UNIVERSALS.”)

Every species has a distinct, species-typical organization of birth, growth, ways of reproduction, and (if the species is social) social life. In every species, the overarching structure of life consists in a reproductive cycle. The field of biology that analyzes species-typical reproductive cycles is known as “life history theory” (Flatt and Heyland). Research on human life history theory has produced detailed accounts of how human reproductive and social behavior has evolved in adaptive interactions with ecological factors to produce the specifically human organization of the life cycle: altricial birth, extended infant dependency, extended childhood, pair-bonded dual parenting combined with cooperative male coalitions, cooperative child care, bilateral multi-generational kin networks, post-reproductive longevity, and death (Muehlenbein and Flinn; Kaplan, Gurven and Winking; Chapais, “Monogamy”). Life history theory reveals the underlying structure and the adaptive logic behind the rich complexity of behavior exhibited by “The Universal People” (Carroll, “Imaginary  Lives”).

The Cultural Level of Organization

In the past three decades or so, evolutionary cultural theory has gradually gained a firmer purchase on the peculiarly “biocultural” character of the human species (Carroll et al., “Biocultural Theory”). The theory of “gene-culture coevolution” describes the causal interaction of biological characteristics and cultural inventions over the course of human evolutionary history. Major landmarks in gene-culture coevolution include upright walking (freeing the hands), the use of tools, the control of fire (enabling cooked food, a reduced gut, and an expanded brain), the development of cooperative foraging centered on a campsite, the organization of families, the expansion of groups into clans and tribes, the evolution of language, the advent of agriculture and pastoralism, the invention of writing, and the massing of populations in cities. Each of these events has involved reciprocal alterations in the human genome and in the transmission of heritable cultural practices (Lumsden and Wilson; Richerson and Boyd; Henrich; Cochran and Harpending).

Because humans have evolved to be highly cultural, every culture develops distinct beliefs and practices, but all beliefs and practices, no matter how diverse, are informed by universal human motives, passions, and imaginative proclivities. Hence the fact that love poems, family dramas, heroic quests, or stories of revenge are easily intelligible across diverse cultures. Hence also the existence of a recognizable body of “world literature”—a common world heritage produced by translations of works from diverse cultures.

Organization at the Level of Individual Persons

Differences in individual identity include the three categories most often invoked in the cultural theory pervasive in the academic literary establishment: gender, race, and class. Major differences less often registered include distinctions of age and family role, degrees of social connectedness, differences of vocation, differences of religious and political belief, differences in temperament such as exuberance or moodiness, aggressive anger or affectional warmth, and differences in intellectual or imaginative characteristics such as learning, humor, imaginative vigor, aesthetic sensitivity, eloquence, creativity, or talent in some particular art or science (McAdams, Personality Development).

All individual differences are platformed on common, shared features of human experience. Races and classes interbreed. Genders are interdependent. Family members form parts of interdependent social organizations. Specialized vocations are functional units in complex economic systems. Personality differences are grounded in neurophysiological characteristics essential to all normal human functioning. All normally developing people have minds and recognize mental life—beliefs, values, feelings, thoughts—in other individuals.

Meaning can only take place in individual minds, but individual minds are always in interactive relationship with other individual minds. The production of meaning in literature is itself an inherently social activity—an activity of transmission, reception, and response.

Organization at the Level of Individual Literary Works

Human nature—the species-typical organization of human life—offers a wide range of subjects for literary depiction. Authors can choose, for instance, to write about any of the phases of life, from childhood and adolescence to maturity and old age; about any motives or concerns—survival, ambition, self-realization, gender or relations between the sexes, family life, kin relations, or social interactions; or about intellectual, artistic, or spiritual aspirations. Every culture has complex traditions that organize all these features of life, and they also have forms of imaginative culture that contain mythic figures, folk tales, and religious and artistic traditions that present such themes in multifaceted ways. Each culture contains an array of poetic, narrative, dramatic, and rhetorical techniques that can be used to construct literary works. Every individual human being has a unique identity that involves some particular configuration of personality traits, mental aptitudes, networks of family and social relationships, personal experiences, and ideas, beliefs, tastes, and attitudes. When some individual author sits down to compose a literary work, he or she has a virtually unlimited range of variables from which to select, and an unlimited range of possible ways in which to organize those variables.

A Formal Definition of Literature

To give more substance to the concept of literary meaning, we have to have a usable working definition of literature. To produce a definition, we need not suppose that literature is a Platonic absolute and that the purpose of definition is to identify the secret essence of literature. We need only locate literature in a class of human behaviors and distinguish it from other members of that class. (That procedure is the definition of a “formal definition.”) The definition proposed here is that literature is an aesthetically modeled verbal construct that evokes or depicts the subjective quality of human experience. In evoking subjective quality, literature is like the other arts but different from science and from much humanist scholarship. In using words as its specific medium, literature differs from the plastic arts and overlaps with science, philosophy, and history. Like the other arts, and unlike these other disciplines, literature typically concerns itself with the aesthetic aspects of its medium: the formal organization of sensory properties.

This definition implies no necessary boundary between high and low art. The definition is broad enough to take in doggerel verse, stand-up comedy, impromptu dramatic enactments, lyric poems, theatrical works, and narrative fictions of every sort. The definition allows for overlaps with other media—film or opera, for instance, or graphic narratives with verbal captions. It does not stipulate fiction as a necessary or exclusive feature of literature, and it draws no sharp boundary between literary works and the more highly colored forms of rhetoric, philosophical disquisition, biography, or historical narrative. The two limiting features in the definition are the aesthetic modeling of the verbal medium and the evocation or depiction of subjective experience. Presuming that readers provisionally accept the definition here offered, we can say that these limiting features—aesthetic modeling and qualitative subjectivity—are themselves universals of literary meaning. They are integral to the kinds of meaning conveyed in literature, and to the way literature conveys those meanings.

Imaginative Virtual Worlds

Literary authors often give direct expression to their own subjective sensations. Most lyric poets are overtly expressive, and many novelists and short story writers comment explicitly on their feelings about the fictional events they depict. Characters in drama and fiction often express emotions and describe their inner states, and authors of fiction routinely describe and analyze the inmost qualities of sensation and thought in their characters.

All these forms of subjectivity are encompassed within a broader, universal category of subjective sensation in literature: the imaginative virtual world. Every literary work creates an imaginative space shared by the author and reader. The subjective sensation within that shared imaginative space is modulated by universal features of human experience, by beliefs and forms of feeling peculiar to the cultures in which it is created and in which it is read, by the personalities of the author who creates it and the reader who reads it, and by the semantic, affective, and aesthetic properties of the words that are the medium of its existence.

Every individual literary work is imbued with the whole array of attitudes, beliefs, and tastes that make up an author’s world view. Attitudes, beliefs, and tastes within a single mind can of course conflict with one another. When they do, those internal conflicts—tensions, ambiguities, confusions, the feeling of disunion—are themselves distinctive features of the author’s world view. Each individual work is a manifestation of that world view, a fragment of the whole. Each fragment is indelibly stamped by the mind of the person who creates it. In entering imaginatively into a literary work, a reader is entering also into the author’s world view.

The very act of using artistic verbal constructs to create a shared space of imaginative experience is a universal aspect of literary meaning. In entering a shared imaginative space created by intentional verbal constructs, readers implicitly enter into the common human fellowship of imaginative virtual experience. So far as we know, that kind of experience is uniquely human. Independently of any specific quality in any given literary work, that uniquely human fellowship has inherent qualities all its own. It is verbal, imaginative, creative. It points to the world outside itself but organizes itself internally through concepts, images, rhetorical constructions, and tonal patterns. It contains denotative statements but deploys forms of meaning that are fully realized only through the interactions among its conceptual, emotional, and sensory elements. It is a simulacrum but also runs parallel with the real inner world of memories, dreams, and reveries that make up much of our active mental life (Raichle; Kaufman and Gregoire; Buckner, Andrews-Hanna and Schacter; Carroll, “Minds”; Andrews‐Hanna, Smallwood and Spreng).

Authors have a primary determinative force in using words to create an imaginative virtual world. They choose and arrange the words, and they imbue their artifice with their own mental character. Even so, readers are not merely passive recipients of authorial intentions. Every reader has his or her own world view. Each is animated by basic human motives and emotions—for instance, by hunger, thirst, love, and fear. Each reader’s culture endows him or her with beliefs, values, attitudes, and forms of imagination that have descended through generations and are shared by multitudes. Despite these shared aspects of mental life, each reader has a personal identity shaped by a unique combination of genetic endowments and environmental influences.

Readers willingly enter into the imaginative virtual worlds created by authors, but each reader also makes something of his or her own out of what the author gives. However explicit, definite, and unequivocal an author might be, intended meanings necessarily interact with the whole structure of values, beliefs, tastes, and attitudes that make up the reader’s own world view. As Auden says in his elegy for Yeats, “The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living.” Readers do not only assimilate. They respond and judge.

We have empirical evidence that readers respond in broadly similar ways to literary texts. They identify similar meanings in an author’s work, and even their emotional responses display broad similarities (Carroll et al., Graphing). Those similarities are grounded in common, shared aspects of human nature. Humans are broadly similar—anatomically, physiologically, neurologically—but no one person (not even an identical twin) is precisely the same as any other person. The uniqueness of individual identity is itself a human universal. In parallel, the uniqueness of individual response is a universal of literary meaning. It seems safe to say that no reader ever experiences the same work in precisely the same way as any other reader. And indeed, it seems likely that no reader ever reads the same work, or the same line, in quite the same way twice.

Universals of literary meaning include both these contrasting tendencies: broad similarity of recognition and response, and the unique subjective particularity of transient moments of literary experience.

A Framework for Analyzing Meaning in Literature: Theme, Tone, and Form

The broad similarity of humans—the kind of similarity described in Brown’s “Universal People”—makes it possible to construct a set of categories for the impersonal, objective analysis of literary meaning. A common framework of comparison is necessary both for describing the similarities of literary experience and for distinguishing experiences among cultures and individual persons. Some set of common terms is indispensable to any research program that aspires to joining a collective effort in producing cumulative, empirical knowledge (Gottschall, New Humanities; Carroll et al. Graphing).


If a work of literature is an aesthetically modeled verbal construct that evokes or depicts subjective qualities of human experience, a neutral analytic framework for analyzing literary experience would need to take in the constituents of subjective experience and the specifically aesthetic, literary characteristics that evoke or depict that experience. Subjective experience does not take place in a vacuum. In literature, it is invariably set in relation to events and circumstances. Events and circumstances might seem infinitely diverse, but the analysis of human actions can be reasonably delimited by analyzing the species-typical patterns of human life. Specifically human forms of mating, parenting, family organization, social interaction, and imaginative culture can be precisely described (Brown, Human Universals; Muehlenbein and Flinn; Chapais, “Social Universals”; Henrich). Every phase and kind of relationship identified in human life history theory displays its own characteristic motives and concerns. Those motives and concerns can be used as taxonomy of basic themes for literary analysis (Carroll, “Imaginary  Lives”; Carroll, “Minds”).

Adopting one common meaning of the term “themes,” I here designate subject areas as “themes.” (Other theorists use the term “themes” with a different signification.) Major themes include childhood and the struggles of growing up, life in a social group, intergroup conflict, mating, parenting, relations among siblings and other relatives, and the life of the mind (religion, ideology, and the arts).

Emotional Tone

Every subject bears within itself a range of affective potentialities, from joy and fulfillment to rage and despair. Characters depicted in literature experience emotions; authors have emotional responses to depicted events; and readers respond both to depicted events and to authors. This whole range of subjective sensation is traditionally characterized as “tone.”

The subjective quality of experience is best captured in the study of emotions. From an evolutionary perspective, two particular kinds of emotional study seem most useful for the purposes of generating a neutral analytic framework closely allied with evolved motives, phases of life, and species-typical kinds of social relationships: the cross-cultural study of emotional facial expressions, and affective neuroscience. On the basis of cross-cultural research on facial expressions, Paul Ekman identifies seven basic emotions: anger, fear, contempt, disgust, joy, sadness, and surprise. On the basis of neurological research, Jaak Panksepp identifies seven emotional systems that partially overlap with Ekman’s seven basic emotions: seeking, fear, rage, lust, maternal care, grief, and play. Basic emotions and emotion systems like those identified by Ekman and Panksepp are complicated and extended in self-conscious and social emotions such as embarrassment, pride, shame, guilt, remorse, and jealousy (Hogan, Affective Narratology; Oatley, Passionate Muse; Carroll et al., Graphing).


Form in fictional narrative begins with the choice of words and the combinations of words in sentences and larger structures such as stanzas, paragraphs, and scenes. Purely physical properties include sound patterns and rhetorical rhythms, but the purely physical elements of language are always intertwined with semantic content and emotional tone. Images and figures of speech are indirect forms of sensory perception and thus also part of the aesthetic quality of literature. The aesthetic medium that begins in sensory experience in literature extends in imagination up through levels of formal organization that can be “perceived” only indirectly, through decoding time schemes and analyzing perspectival interactions among characters, narrators, implied authors, and implied readers (Carroll, “Minds”).

Since its inception, literary theory has aimed at identifying universal structural features in literary texts. Aristotle’s beginning, middle, and end offers a classic example of a purely structural hypothesis. Efforts at creating a universal and universally accepted system of genres have so far met with limited success (Fowler), but there is wide general agreement on the characteristics of a few basic genres such as tragedy, comedy, satire, and heroic quest (Frye; Hogan, “Story”; Carroll, “Literary Meaning”). The forms of narration can be delineated with reference to relations among an implied author, a narrator, characters, and an implied reader (Booth; Carroll, “Minds”). Classifications based on the form of representation—verse, drama, and narrative—are well understood. Most literary critics, regardless of theoretical affiliations, recognize the central role of imagery, metaphor, and symbolism in literary structure (Hogan, “Imagery“).

Attributes of “The Universal People” described by Donald Brown include forms of oral, proto-literary expression: narrative, metaphor, metonomy, onomatopoeia, and poetic meter. The existence of these proto-literary forms in all known cultures points toward underlying pan-human forms of neurological development. Empirical research on the psychology of reading now has techniques and tools, including neuroimaging, that are likely to produce rapid advances, in the near future, on understanding the neurological mechanisms that regulate these processes (Jacobs). Pan-human neurological mechanisms are “natural kinds.” Classifications based on natural kinds offer good prospects for empirical development and for integration with thematic and tonal analysis focused on basic motives and emotions.

Established terms in prosody and narratology can be tested against techniques that allow empirical investigation into the psychology of reading (Jacobs). The ideal, ultimately, would be to ground all purely formal categories in cognitive science and to integrate them with an understanding of themes and emotional tone.

Living in the Imagination

Literature or its oral antecedents are human universals. People in all known cultures tell stories, act out scenes, play imaginatively with language, and use it for evocative, expressive, and aesthetic purposes. The idea of imaginative virtual worlds suggests why humans might have evolved this peculiar, uniquely human form of behavior. The imagination seems to be part of the universal repertory of human adaptive capacities (Abraham; Carroll, “Adaptive Function”; Kaufman and Gregoire; Mithen). Compared to humans, animals of other species are more tightly locked into the sensory present, reacting to stimuli from the environment and deploying a relatively narrow range of species-typical behaviors. All normally developing human beings connect the present with the past and with anticipations of the future, entertain cosmological ideas, evaluate behavior through reference to abstract moral codes, construct autobiographical narratives, and interpret events by comparing them, consciously or not, with stories, myths, and images drawn from their culture. In this sense, all human beings live in the imagination. They occupy a virtual imaginative world. Words are crucially important in constructing those worlds. When the words are organized in aesthetically modeled ways to evoke or depict subjective human experience, we call that literature.

Future Research

The evolutionary social sciences have been gradually moving toward the formation of a true paradigm: a model of the human mind that is comprehensive in scope, grounded in empirically validated causal explanations, and capable of cumulative empirical and theoretical development. Biocultural theory has become widely accepted in principle (Carroll et al., “Survey”), but in much evolutionary thinking, theories of “culture” still focus chiefly on technology, social customs, and markers of tribal identity. From the perspective adopted in this essay, understanding that humans live in the imagination is the last major component needed to construct an adequate basic model of the adapted mind. Several streams of research are now converging on that last major component: neuroimaging research on the brain’s default mode network (also known as “the imagination network”; Kaufman and Gregoire), narrative psychology (McAdams, Personality Development), the psychology of fiction (Oatley, Psychology of Fiction), cognitive and affective literary theory (Boyd; Hogan, Affective Narratology), and evolutionary literary theory (Boyd, Carroll and Gottschall).

The sciences characteristically seek explanations that reduce complex phenomena to basic causal principles, preferably principles that can be quantified. Literary critics characteristically seek to evoke complex imaginative structures in literary works. From the perspective adopted in this essay, a comprehensive research program in literary meaning would extend across a methodological spectrum that is occupied, at one pole, by empirical, quantitative research, and at the other pole, by imaginatively responsive interpretive work. Empirical research on the psychology and neurology of literary experience would be constrained by the need to approximate to the complex imaginative structures evoked in interpretive criticism. Interpretive criticism would be constrained by established scientific knowledge, an ethos of respect for empirical validity, and the logic of causal explanatory reduction. Research at both poles would be lodged within a comprehensive, unified conception of the human mind. That conception would synthesize convergent findings from the whole range of disciplines that take Homo sapiens as their subject matter.


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Tamir, Diana I., et al. “Reading Fiction and Reading Minds: The Role of Simulation in the Default Network.” Social cognitive and affective neuroscience  (2015): 215-24.

Tinbergen, Niko. “On Aims and Methods of Ethology.” Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie 20.4 (1963): 410-33.

Poetic Line Length

Nigel Fabb, Strathclyde University

Absolute universal:  Some types of regular poetic form – meter, rhyme, alliteration and parallelism – regulate linguistic form relative to a sequence of words which must be short enough to fit into working memory.  For example, a meter is regulated over a line which can fit as a whole into working memory.

It has been claimed by various authors that a line of metrical poetry is limited in its upper length by working memory capacity.  This claim requires a distinction between two aspects of metricality.  Consider Paradise Lost, which is in iambic pentameter for all of its length.  The meter is a set of constraints on a sequence of words which add up to about ten syllables (with a rhythm holding over that sequence); any constraint on line length must relate to this aspect of metricality, where the meter holds of a textual sequence of a certain length (often within a range of variations, but never limitless, and never very long).   The other aspect of the meter is that the whole poem is in iambic pentameter, and in this aspect of metricality there is no upper limit on length.  It is thus necessary to distinguish the aspect of metricality which holds within a section (e.g., the metrical line) and the aspect of metricality which holds over a whole text, which can be isometric or heterometric, where distinct sections are in different meters (in some cases, radically heterometric as in Greek lyric poetry).  There is usually no relation between these two aspects of a meter: iambic pentameter always controls the line in the same way but can combine with other meters in all kinds of ways to form patterns across a longer text.

Once we focus on the aspect of metricality which holds within a section (usually called a line), we can specify that the sections are always fairly short.  In many metrical traditions, the meter holds over a section which we might call a line.  (In some traditions, there is a longer and a shorter section, each of which might be called the line, depending on what aspect of form we focus on – as in Beowulf for example or the Arabic beyt); even if the meter holds of the larger section it is still always fairly short.  Various authors have argued that the metrical section can be no longer than the sequence of words which can fit into working memory capacity (Tsur, Hogan, Willett etc).  They tend to assume Miller’s characterization of working memory capacity as “seven plus or minus two” units (e.g., words, or sometimes syllables).  This however would not offer enough capacity for lines in many metrical traditions; it is also incorrect as a characterization of working memory capacity.  Working memory capacity is now considered by psychologists to contain about four ‘chunks’ of information (Cowan), and Baddeley suggests that in the episodic buffer of working memory a sequence of about fifteen lexical/grammatical words can fit into working memory.  Some such word-based measure is a larger estimate of capacity which is likely to be enough to fit any metrically-governed sequence of words in any poetic tradition.  (I illustrate this claim from a range of traditions in Fabb What is Poetry.)  This raises the possibility that the metrical line may be subject to an upper limit on length: it must fit into working memory capacity.

Note that this limit on length is based on information (e.g., number of words) and not on duration.  There is no specifically durational limit on the upper length of the line;  Turner and Pöppel claim a three second upper limit, but this is disproved by Fabb’s (“There is No Psychological Limit”) survey of recorded poetry.  Baddeley has a multi-component theory of working memory, and suggests that one part of working memory, the phonological loop is indeed limited by duration (two seconds of material); but it is not this part of working memory which is involved in this generalization (instead it is the episodic buffer which is limited by information, not time).

Adapting an existing tradition, my suggestion is that a kind of regular poetic form – meter – is constrained to operate over sequences which are no longer than can be held in working memory.  In Fabb What is Poetry I suggest that three other kinds of regular poetic form are similarly constrained: rhyme, alliteration and parallelism.  This requires a similar separation between two aspects of a form: (i) the constraints it places relative to a sequence of words, where the sequence is limited in length, and (ii) the overall pattern it forms over a text, where there is no upper limit.   Consider for example rhyme.  The constraint relative to a sequence can be stated for an English sonnet as ‘the final word in a line must rhyme’ (note that again this refers to the line as the relevant section, a section of limited length).  Rhyme can then be distributed in various kinds of pattern, which can hold over couplets, quatrains, octave/sestet or the whole poem, where there are no upper limits on the size of unit over which the pattern is defined.  Similar claims can be made for alliteration, where the rule requires e.g., one word in every half-line to alliterate, or one word in every line.  The same alliteration pattern can then be sustained throughout a whole poem (e.g., in the Somali gabay genre).  Parallelism is a looser structural notion, and can be found intermittently in prose (unlineated text) as well as poetry; when it is found in poetry, however, each part of a parallel pair is relatively short in length (Fabb “Poetic Parallelism”).  In conclusion, it appears that the four most widespread kinds of regular form found in poetry all hold of relatively short textual sequences, short enough to fit into working memory capacity.

Though Fabb What is Poetry shows that these claims appear to hold true for many different poetic traditions, the claims suffer from a lack of relevant psychological evidence.  First, we know rather little about the capacity of working memory as regards how many words will fit into it, and how different languages with different kinds of word place different demands on working memory (Cohen-Mimran et al).  Second, the measures offered, e.g., Baddeley’s fifteen words, depend on the words being syntactically connected in a coherent way (enabling chunking), but this is not always true of poetry where nonsyntactic concatenation is more common (Fabb “Why is Verse” suggests that poetic lines actually have no syntax).  Third, as far as I know there are no experimental results telling us how many words within a poem can fit as a sequence into working memory.

The generalization is that certain regular poetic forms must hold over a sequence of words which can fit into working memory.  This rules out two possibilities.  First, it means that regular poetic forms such as meter, rhyme, alliteration and parallelism cannot hold of prose. This is because the difference between prose and poetry is that only the latter has sections (e.g., lines) which are not isomorphic with syntactic or linguistic prosodic constituents; it is these sections over which the poetic forms hold, and which are limited in upper length.  Second, it means that in poetry, regular poetic forms cannot depend on long sequences; to give a specific example, there should be no poetry in which the only constraint on rhyming words is that they must fall at the end of quatrains (because they would be too long).

Note that the generalization does not apply to poetic lines as such.  Whitman’s lines can be longer than likely to fit into working memory.  But these lines also have no regular poetic form; the poetic forms emerge temporarily in Whitman’s poetry, just as they can do in prose.  The generalization applies only to poetic lines which have certain kinds of regular form. However, other kinds of poetic form may not be constrained in the same way; for example, in the Hiberno-Latin poem Altus Prosator (attr. St Columba) the first word in each of the six-line stanzas is alphabetically constrained: A in the first stanza, B in the second, etc.  Though the pattern is unconstrained (as it always is), there is nevertheless a rule, “put an alphabetically constrained word at the beginning of each stanza,” which because of the size of unit referred to would be impossible for rhyme, alliteration, metre, or parallelism. It is worth noting that this type of form depends on writing (which may allow for the larger units relative to which it is defined).

If the generalization is correct, then it might suggest that working memory has a role in the processing of regular poetic forms such as meter, rhyme, alliteration and parallelism; long-term memory is also important, for the overall patterns (including the very complex patterns formed by rhyme schemes or by responsion in Greek odes).   Does it have any consequence for the aesthetics of poetry: e.g., arising from the need to hold a metrical line as a whole unit in working memory.  Hogan suggests that the relation to working memory has a function of fostering aesthetic experience by enabling what Abhinavagupta calls “savoring” and that such savoring is in part a matter of fuller or richer encoding of verbal properties, relative to our (usually non-aesthetic) encoding of ordinary language

Future Research

(i)     It would be useful to know a lot more about working memory capacity and how it relates to linguistic form.  For example, psychologists claims about working memory capacity tend to refer to lexical/syntactic words, but it is clear that prosodic words (and prosodic constituency) are relevant in metre and other aspects of poetry.

(ii)    I know of no relevant experimental work to test working memory capacity and poetry.  In comparison, there is a big body of work on long term memory and poetry (particularly oral poetry).  The relation between the two kinds of memory would also be interesting to explore, as regards poetic form and the line.

(Thanks to an anonymous reviewer who forced a complete rewrite and resubmission.)

Works Cited

Baddeley, Alan. “Working Memory: Theories, Models, and Controversies.” Annu. Rev. Psychol.  63 (2012): 1–29.

Cohen-Mimran, Ravit, Jasmeen Adwan-Mansour and Shimon Sapir. “The Effect of Morphological Complexity on Verbal Working Memory: Results from Arabic Speaking Children.”  Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 42 (2013): 239–253.

Cowan, Nelson. “The Magical Number 4 in Short-term Memory: A Reconsideration of Mental Storage Capacity.”  Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24 (2000): 87–185.

Fabb, Nigel “Why is Verse Poetry?” PN Review 189. 36 (2009): 52–57.

Fabb, Nigel “There is no Psychological Limit on the Duration of Metrical Lines in Performance: Against Turner and Pöppel.” International Journal of Literary Linguistics 2 (2013): 1-29

Fabb, Nigel. What is Poetry?  Language and Memory in the Poems of the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Fabb, Nigel. “Poetic Parallelism and Working Memory.”  Oral Tradition 31/2 (2017). Special issue on Parallelism in Verbal Art and Performance, ed. Frog & Lotte Tarkka.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Literary Universals.” Poetics Today 18 (1997): 223–249.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Miller, George A. “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two. Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information.”  Psychological Review 101 (1956):  343-352.

Tsur, Reuven. Poetic Rhythm: Structure and Performance. An Empirical Study in Cognitive Poetics. Berne: Peter Lang,1998.

Turner, Frederick and Ernst Pöppel. “Metered Poetry, the Brain, and Time.”  In Beauty and the Brain. Biological Aspects of Aesthetics. Eds. Ingo Rentschler, Barbara Herzberger and David Epstein.  Basel: Birkhäuser Verlag, 1988, 71–90.

Willett, Steven J.  “Working Memory and its Vonstraints on Colometry.” Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica. New Series 71 (2002): 7-19.

Chinese and Western Drama: Tragi-Comedy and Tragedy

Zheng Ying, Zhejiang University

The structural difference between traditional Chinese and western drama has long been studied by generations of comparative literary scholars. However, with the universal structure of human narratives — tragi-comedy, as promoted by Patrick Colm Hogan in The Mind and Its Stories–the issue of similarities and dissimilarities could find some answers. Professor Hogan defines “tragi-comedy” as a structure with a sorrow-eliciting middle part and a happiness-eliciting ending simultaneously, and hence the traditional genre of tragedy is merely a variation of it, a shortened form in which the plot comes to end in the middle part (see Hogan, The Mind and Its Stories), the model of which can be outlined by the following graph.


Structure of Tragedy and Tragi-Comedy (Hogan)

A: Beginning                           B: Sorrowful Middle                           C: Happy Ending






In this paper, with comparison under the model of “tragi-comedy” and tragedy respectively, and with evidence drawn from Chinese and western literary theories and classical works, I would try to argue that both Chinese and western drama have “tragi-comedy” and the shortened tragedy as one of their important narrative universals, but only that Chinese and western tragedy are shortened differently. For the convenience of narration, I would use “A-B-C” structure to refer to “tragi-comedy” and a shortened “A-B” structure to refer to tragedy.

Tragi-Comedy in Chinese and Western Drama

After examination, it can be found that both Chinese and western drama have the structure of “tragi-comedy” as one of their narrative prototypes, which is not only suggested in their literary theories but also manifested in many of their representative classical works.

Comparison from Literary Theories

Though it is widely believed by western literary theorists that tragedy and comedy are two distinguished dramatic genres, the genre of “tragicomedy” has been separated from genres of tragedy and comedy since very early times, and become one of the independent literary genres. Though traditional critics such as Hegel did not give high reputation to this mixed literary genre, many modern critics advocate tragicomedy to be a quite important genre since the mix of tragedy and comedy is exactly “the basic pattern of human life”, informing “human being’s perception of their environment and their most central religious beliefs” (Foster 9).

In Chinese dramatic theory, however, though there is no similar independent concept as “tragi-comedy,” this A-B-C structure was indeed widely approved and considered legal and valuable. In On Lyrics(曲品), Lu Tiancheng of the Ming Dynasty, spoke highly of the plays which mixed the tragic emotions and happy ones, and remarked on The Story of Lute(琵琶记, a tragi-comedy, as the best example of “work of great excellence”, for it “alternates so properly, setting sadness and pleasure in turn”[1] (Lu 224). In Principles of Lyrics (曲律), Wang Jide compared the plot of a drama to “a snake in the mountain, whose head is in good link with its tail”[2] (Wang132). The description, “whose head is in good link with its tail,” is in fact another way of saying that the seed of happiness-pursuing sown at the beginning of a play must have its harvest in its denouement, though the middle could be somewhat different.

Comparison from Literary Works

Along the history of western drama, a lot of great examples of tragi-comedy, or “tragicomedy” as it is traditionally defined, could be found. In works of ancient Greek, Euripides’ Alcestis is a good example. The goal there is somewhat the romantic reunion of lovers from the heroine’s position. In the “middle” part, the goal is tragically unobtained, for even though the heroine Alcestis has prepared to donate her own life to save her husband’s and only asks her husband never to marry again in return, her husband eats his words soon after her death. But in the end, her life is saved by her husband’s friend, who sends her to her husband’s hand and unites her with him again. In the Renaissance period, many Shakespearean plays fit this model in the same way. His famous work, The Winter’s Tale, even encompasses two stories of romantic tragi-comedies. One is around the royal family: In the middle, queen Hermione’s faintness (which is due to her husband king Leontes’ accusation) becomes the rumor of death and is believed by the king deeply. Hermione comes back to life from the unconsciousness statue and gets united with her family in the final part. The other is around the heirs of the two countries: Their engagement is strongly rejected by the prince’s parent Polixenes. They must escape to Sicilia, and their marriage gets his approval only later in the play. Besides, as Hogan has put forward, some classical series of tragedies such as Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Sophocles’ Oedipus plays, or the two parts of Faust of modern works, can also be integrated into tragic-comedy of a larger cycle.

In traditional Chinese drama, we find Zheng Guangzu’s The Soul of Qiannu Leaves Her Body(倩女离魂)as mentioned by Hogan. In Act II of this play, Qiannu’s soul departs from her body and joins her fiancé who is forced to spend three years away from hometown. This is the sorrowful middle, as Qiannu’s body seems destined to die at home. In Act IV, however, she gets married with her fiancé after her soul joins into her body again. This is the happiness-eliciting ending. Many other classical plays are of the same general type–The Story of Lute(琵琶记),The Tale of Rabbit (白兔记), The Romance of the West Chamber(西厢记), Night Rain in the Xiaoxiang Court (潇湘夜雨), The Peony Pavilion(牡丹亭)etc.

Tragedy in Chinese and Western Drama

In both western and Chinese drama, we can, similarly, find the shortened version of “tragi-comedy”—tragedy. However, we would also find that they are shortened to a different extent and in slightly different ways, the relation of which may be seen more clearly in the graph below. As it is shown, suppose Point C in tragi-comedy includes several happiness-eliciting elements. Though both Chinese and western tragedy give Point C as a cut off, Chinese tragedy tends to cut off only part of C, while western tragedy cuts off C more thoroughly. In other words, more elements of Point C get preserved in a Chinese tragedy, very often in a partial “joyous reunion” following the sorrowful middle part). (The term “joyous reunion” is conventially used in Chinese dramatic studies to refer to the phenomenon that Chinese dramas often end with some kind of pleasure: those who begin with sadness end with happiness, those who begin with separation end with reunion, and those with poverty and with richness, and so forth [see Wang Guowei, A History of The Dramas of the Song and Yuan Dynasties (宋元戏曲史]). It is modified as “partial” here because, compared with the “joyous reunion” in other dramas, in tragedy, it is neither a complete restoration of the statement appearing in Point A nor a goal finally realized, but a partial restitution of the original order, a half-achieved statement of the goal, or a satisfying compensation to the sorrowful middle when the goal is impossible to gain as expected. In contrast, the story will cease strictly in Point B in a western tragedy.


Structure of Tragedy (Revised)

A: Beginning                           B: Sorrowful Middle                           C: Happy Ending


Western Tragedy


Chinese Tragedy                                                   Partial Joyous Reunion


Comparison from Literary Theories

For Chinese tragedy, we can not only understand this “joyous reunion” from the ancient literary theories mentioned above, but also from several modern scholar’s observations. The goal in the beginning must have some echo in the end, and if it is not obtained, it must have some compensation. For instance, Qian Zhongshu has once asserted that in Chinese drama, “the curtain does not fall on the main tragic event, but on the aftermath of that event. The tragic moment with passion at its highest and pain at its deepest seems to ebb out in a long falling close” (Qian 53-65), in which the involvement of both Point B and C is highlighted. Wang Guowei (Wang 12) and Cai Yuanpei (Cai 66-67) have maintained that for Chinese drama, “those who begin with separation end with reunion.” Wang Jisi’s research, in which western drama is described as “happiness—sorrow—deeper sorrow”, and Chinese drama as “happiness—sorrow—happiness—deeper sorrow—lighter happiness” (Wang 75-79) also outlines this relation.

Similarly, we can find the requirement for the precise A-B structure of western tragedy from western dramatic theories, from ancient Aristotle’s to the previous dramatic critics. Aristotle described the magnitude of tragedy (30-31, 36-37), writing that

as great as a magnitude as it takes for a change to happen into good from bad fortune, or from good to bad fortune, when it comes about by a likely or necessary sequence, there is a sufficient limit of magnitude…it is therefore necessary for the story that is in beautiful shape to be single–not double as some people claim–changing not into good fortune from bad but the opposite way, from good fortune to bad.

This is to say that, as long as there is a complete change “from good to bad fortune”, the change from Point A to Point B, the “sufficient limit of magnitude” is so well finished that no more excessive joyous sequence, thus Point C, is needed. In Hegel’s opinion, in tragedy, each of the two parties of the conflict stands for their own reason. Now that either of them could defeat the other and get the final success, the ruin of both is the necessary ending of the whole play. In “The Psychology of Tragic Pleasure”, Roy Morrell pointed out that tragedy should firmly exclude Point C, which is the period of “the gratification of a wish” in his word, “In short, tragic pleasure does not arise through the gratification of a wish, but in a wish’s frustration…Tragedy does not ‘please’ in this sense; it does not please our palate, nor awaken pleasurable anticipation. On the contrary, we resist Tragedy, and try to avert it” (22-37). And in V.G. Belinsky’s idea, the hero “could not be ‘hero’ without this sacrifice or death” (Belinsky, 370).

Comparison from Literary Works

Many canonical works from each tradition provide evidence for this distinction as well. Tragic plays since the Yuan Dynasty, such as The Gross Injustice to Maid Dou(窦娥冤)by Guan Hanqing and The Orphan of Zhao (赵氏孤儿)by Ji Junxiang, have been recognized as models of Chinese tragedy, and they are composed in this structure. In The Gross Injustice to Maid Dou, for example, a young woman named Dou Duan-yun is going after the goal of social justice, for she is unjustly charged with murder by villain Zhang Lu’er who poisons his own father but accuses her of the murder. In Act III, when Dou Duan-yun is sentenced to death by the governor and appeals to heaven to have pity, the sorrow-eliciting Point B comes to its climax for the justice she pursues has not yet been obtained before her death. But in the end Dou Duan-yun’s spirit asks her father, a government official, to retry the case and he manages to give the criminals the punishments they deserve. Thus a compensation of justice qualifies Dou’s tragedy.

As comparison, in Shakespeare’s King Lear, Lear’s distribution of the land can be viewed as Point A in which his goal is to give his daughters their deserved share of his land. But after his distribution plan proves to be totally wrong, the disastrous failure becomes inescapable even though he has once regretted and tried to rectify it. In the end of the play, he and his three daughters all die, and this is exactly the sorrow-eliciting Point B. In another play of Shakespeare, Othello, the story ends with Point B likewise. The goal herein is the loving union of Othello and Desdemona, but this happiness goal is not finally achieved. Though he has managed to marry her, he smothers her to death under the deceit of Iago, and commits suicide after the truth is revealed.

It is true that in some western dramas, when the goal could not be attained, the decent man and the evil one will meet their doom at the same time. To some extent, the death of the evil group is another way of the triumph of the good, and hence analogous to the “joyous reunion.” Nonetheless, it is far less “happy” than the latter, since a usual Chinese literary practice would not only give the sinner his deserved punishment but also give the hero or his group some restitution after their sorrowful experience. So, if the most ideal form of happy ending in tragi-comedy is to give a happy life to the good and bitter penalization for the evil, the ending in Chinese tragedy preserves more of it.

Let us take Hogan’s heroic tragi-comedy as example, and divide the full version of it into three stages, (A) the possession of power, (B) the lost of power during which the hero makes great effort to regain that power, and (C) the ultimate regaining of the power. In relation to this, we may consider two tragedies of this same theme, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Ji Junxiang’s The Great Revenge of the Orphan of Zhao (赵氏孤儿大报仇). They are extraordinarily alike in the first two stages, but differ in the ending stage.

1) Similar Beginning, the Order Destroyed

In the beginning of The Orphan of Zhao, in the name of the king, Tu’an Gu slaughters over three hundred people who constitute the family of his political rival, Zhao. When Zhao’s wife, the princess, Lady Zhuang is briefly spared, and prisoned in their house, she gives birth to her son. That heir, the orphan of Zhao, is not only threatened to death, but also deprived of his aristocratic life and political power.

The order is similarly seriously destroyed in Hamlet. The old king is murdered by his own brother, the usurper Claudius, and Hamlet’s mother is married by the latter. As Hamlet has said that he “hath killed my king and whored my mother” and “Thrown out his angle for my proper life” (V.ii.65, 67). Hamlet himself is at the risk of being deprived of his proper position, and the royal family is destroyed.

2) Similar Middle Part, the Order Lost in Pursuit

In The Orphan of Zhao, the newborn orphan is entrusted to the doctor Cheng Ying and carried out of his home in the medicine chest, after which he is endowed with the great task of revenge. As Cheng Ying explains in Act II, “all of the Zhao family rest their hope on this little boy, wishing him to take revenge.”[3] In Hamlet, after Prince Hamlet gets to know the truth of his father’s death from his father’s ghost. Thus he too is endowed with the task of revenge, as his father has asked him “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder”(I,v.25) and he himself announces that “The time is out of joint:O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right !”(I,v.189-190) .

And in both plays, situations in this part are sorrowful as many people lose their lives. In the former, they are the kind general Han Jue, Cheng Ying’s own son, minister Gongsun, and so on; in the latter, they are Hamlet’s fiancée Ophelia and her brother, as well as his own mother.

3) Varied endings

According to Hogan, the final stage of tragi-comedy will very often include at least two elements , one is the punishment of the destroyer of the order, that “He/she then battles the usurper” in Hogan’s words, and the other is the order’s going back to normal, the hero “is restored to his/her proper place as leader of his/her society” (110). While both plays have the first element, the second element is completely cut off in Hamlet but embodied in a compensatory form in the Ji’s play.

As for the first element, both plays have it. In The Orphan of Zhao, it is manifested as the grown-up orphan arrests the killer Tu’an, who has been his adoptive father for twenty years, and gives him a torturous death, to “stick him to the wooden donkey (a instruments of torture), cut off the flesh from his bones, and when all of his flesh is taken off, chop off his head and give him disembowelment, in case he dies too quickly.”[4] In Hamlet, it is embodied as Hamlet kills the usurper Claudius by the poisoned foil.

As for the second element, it gets half-embodied in The Orphan of Zhao, and in a form of compensation. While the orphan wins his deserved position back and his major saver, Cheng Ying gets a considerable reward, many other decent people who have passed away during the previous stage, such as Han Jue and Gongsun, who have no chance to come back to life, but only get some compensation from the emperor’s citation which declares, “To let Han Jue’s descendant be the general still, and to give Cheng Ying farms ten hectares. To build memorial for old Gongsun, to give all decent people praise”[5](VI). In contrast, not only does Hamlet die soon after the death of Claudius due to his wound (a standard way in which a heroic tragi-comedy is shortened into a tragedy), his rightful dominion is seized by the outside invader, prince Fortinbras of Norway.

With the examination of Chinese drama and its western counterpart under the framework of Hogan’s universal narrative structure of tragi-comedy, it might be concluded that (1) both of the two literary conventions have the prototype of “tragi-comedy” similarly; (2) though both of them have the shortened form of “tragi-comedy,” tragedy as well, they have it shortened differently, with an additional “joyous reunion” in the typical Chinese dramatic ending.

Furthermore, with this finding, a possible cognitive answer might be suggested to the classical question “whether China has tragedy” in comparative literary study of 20th century. If we define the “tragedy” here as “tragedy of the western version”: the answer may be “no”, for a Chinese tragic play may differ from a western tragedy in how it gets the ending of tragi-comedy cut off; but if we define the “tragedy” as a shortened form of tragi-comedy, the answer could be “yes,” for Chinese tragic play resembles its western counterpart in its “tragi-comedy minus” shape.

[See also Patrick Colm Hogan, “Comments on Zheng“]


Works Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. Newburyport: Focus Publishing/R. Pullins Company, 2006.

Foster, Verna A. The Name and Nature of Tragicomedy. Ashgate Publishing, 2004.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Morrell, Roy. “The Psychology of Tragic Pleasure.” Essays in Criticism VI (1956).

Qian Zhongshu. “Tragedy in Old Chinese Drama”. A Collection of Qian Zhonshu’s English Essays. Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Researching Press, 2005.


蔡元培,在北京通俗教育研究会演说词,载《蔡元培文选(注释本)》,百花文艺出版社, 2006.

陈季同(著),李华川, 凌敏(译),《中国人的戏剧》. 桂林:广西师范大学出版社,2006.

纪君祥,《赵氏孤儿》. 上海:上海古籍出版社, 2010.


莎士比亚,《哈姆雷特》(中英对照). 北京:中国广播电视出版社, 台北: 远东图书公司, 2002.

王国维,宋元戏曲史,载《王国维文学论著三种》.北京: 商务印书馆, 2001.

王季思,悲喜相乘.《戏曲艺术》, 1990 (1).

王骥德,曲律,载《中国古典戏曲论著集成(第四册)》, 北京: 中国戏剧出版社,1982.

朱光潜,《悲剧心理学(中英文)》.北京:中华书局, 2012.



[1] “串插甚合局段,苦乐相错。”

[2] “务如常山之蛇,首尾相应。”

[3] “赵氏一家全靠着这小舍人,要他报仇哩。”

[4] “与我将这贼钉上木驴,细细的剐上三千刀,皮肉都尽,方才断首开膛,休着他死的早了。”

[5] “韩厥后仍为上将,给程婴十顷田庄。老公孙立碑造墓,弥明辈概与扬。”

Distant Time: A Possible Typological Literary Universal

(revised July 17, 2017)

Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, University of Oregon, Eugene 

Argument and Evidence

Literature began tens of thousands of years ago as tales told aloud by hunter-gatherers. Consequently, the search for literary universals properly begins with oral narrative, the form that storytelling has taken for most of its existence (Scalise Sugiyama, 2017). The distinction between oral and written literature is a non-trivial one: there are fundamental stylistic differences between these narrative media (Tedlock 1971; Ong 1982; Collins 2016). Similarly, there are pronounced generic (Scalise Sugiyama, forthcoming) and thematic (Scalise Sugiyama 2011) differences between forager and modern storytelling. Thus, due to the emphasis on written literature in the Western canon and academe, many typological universals specific to oral narrative and/or forager storytelling may have been overlooked.

One such candidate is the widespread belief across forager, forager-horticulturalist, and forager-herder (heretofore referred to as “forager”) societies in an epoch referred to variously as “Distant Time” (Nelson 1983), “Myth Time” (de Laguna 1995), the “myth” (Jacobs 1959:ix) or “mythic” age (Liebenberg 2016:167), or the time “When the Animals Were People” (Laird & Laird 1976:147). As Vansina (1985) observes, oral cultures are characterized by two kinds of remembered past, the recent past and the distant past, the latter being the age of creation when the world was populated by supernatural beings, and humans as we know them today did not exist (see Appendix I, below). The distant past is “so remote that its realities are not those of today, and are not to be believed or judged in the ordinary terms of the present” (de Laguna 1995:76). For example, a Yãnomamö narrator observes that “in primeval times all the honeys were easily accessible and would call out their names,” making them easy to find (Wilbert & Simoneau 1990:204). The essence of the Distant Time concept is that, deep in the past, the world was different than it is today and events occurred that are no longer possible. The San, for example, tell stories about the Early Race, a people who lived long ago when the physical laws of the present world did not apply (Lewis-Williams 2000:207). Similarly, the aboriginal people of Australia tell stories of the Dreamtime, “a time, long ago, well before the memories of the older living people, when Australia was transformed from a featureless plain by the activities of a great number of ancestral beings” who were “larger than life and gifted with superhuman magical powers” (Tonkinson 1978:15). The concept of Distant Time is present among foraging peoples across all of Murdock’s (1967) world geographical regions except the Circum-Mediterranean (Table 1)—the only region that lacks extant hunter-gatherer populations. A probable analogue in this region, however, is the “once upon a time” world of European fairy tales, Celtic legends, Norse mythology, and similar traditions: like forager literature, these stories were originally transmitted orally, and transpire in a vague era long ago when magical things happened.


Culture Cluster Culture Group Geo Region Distant Time Animals Like People Human/Animal Transformation Story Categories
2 San, Ju/’hoansi, !Kung Africa x x x x
155 Chukchi, Koryak E Eurasia x x x
157 Ainu E Eurasia x x
229 Arnhem Land Pacific x x x
230 Mardudjara Pacific x x
233 Barrow Point Aborigines Pacific x x x
237 Mimika Pacific x x x
277 Siberian Yupik N Am x x x x
278 Interior Eskimo N Am x x x x
279 Copper Eskimo N Am x x
280 Cree N Am x x
284 Kaska, Tahltan N Am x x x
286 Koyukon (Dena/Ten’a) N Am x x x
287 Tanaina (Dena’ina) N Am x x x x
290 Bella Coola N Am x x
292 Twana N Am x x x
293 Tillamook N Am x x
295 Wiyot, Yurok-Karok, Hupa N Am x x
297 Maidu N Am x x
298 Coast Yuki N Am x x x
299 Yokuts, W. Mono, Miwok N Am x x x x
301 Chumash N Am x x
304 Paiute, Shoshoni N Am x x
305 Chemehuevi N Am x x x
306 Walapai N Am x
308 Klamath-Modoc N Am x x x
309 Nez Percé, Klikitat N Am x x x x
310 Coeur d’Alene, Salish N Am x x x
311 Thompson N Am x x x
312 Kutenai N Am x x
314 Teton-Dakota N Am x x
315 Crow N Am x x x
316 Kiowa N Am x x x
319 Winnebago N Am x x
320 Menomini N Am x
327 Lipan, Chiricahua N Am x x x
364 Yãnomamö S Am x x x
390 Yamana (Yaghan) S Am x x
394 Makka S Am x x x
396 Chamacoco, Ayoreo S Am x x x
n = 40 All Clusters Combined 37 (93%) 33 (83%) 16 (40%) 22 (55%)

Table 1: Evidence of the Distant Time Belief Complex in Forager, Forager-Horticulturalist, and Forager-Herder Societies, by Culture Cluster. Table represents data collected incidentally in the course of conducting other research, and is presented as evidence that more systematic study is warranted. The geographic regions, culture clusters and culture groups are derived from Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas. The North American bias is a by-product of historical circumstance and the language constraints of the investigator. Early Western anthropological study of foragers focused extensively on North American groups, which are consequently over-represented in the Atlas. This bias was likely reinforced by the author’s reliance on English translations.


Many foraging peoples categorize their stories according to whether they are set during Distant Time or the recent past (Table 1). For example, the Teton-Dakota Sioux divide their stories into those that are true and those that are “not to be believed,” the latter of which “are a sort of hang-over . . . from a very, very remote past, from a different age, even from a different order of beings from ourselves” (Deloria 1932: ix). Similarly, the San distinguish between n≠ wasi (“stories”) and n≠ wasi o n!osimasi (“stories of the old people”). The former include hunting stories and historical accounts, while the latter are “without exception set in that long ago time when God walked upon the earth, when animals were still people, and when many strange things occurred which do not occur in the world today” (Biesele 1976:306). Other names for these stories are n≠ wasi o n//ahamasi or “stories of long ago,” and n≠ wasi o k x’aishemasi or “stories of the beginning” (Biesele 1976:306). The Cree make a similar distinction between tipâcimôwin (historical accounts and personal experiences) and âtalôhkân (sacred legends and myths). Ậtalôhkân are set long ago “when things were still in a state of flux in the world” and “before the world jellied down to the way it is today” (Ellis 1995:xix-xx).

One way in which Distant Time typically differs from present time is that the boundary between humans and other life forms is fluid (Table 1). This is expressed in slightly different ways across cultures, but the basic idea is that “animals were like people” (Erdoes & Ortiz 1998:12) or “animals were people and people were animals” (Reichard 1947:14). For example, the ancestral beings of the Dreamtime “are generally conceived of as simultaneously part animal, part human, and endowed with characteristics of both” (Tonkinson 1978:15). The Yamana origin myth corpus is set during a “protohuman” era, during which “primeval ancestors . . . migrated to what became known as Yamana country from a distant place in the East. They came on foot, as anthropomorph or zoomorph beings, and, after their various earthly adventures, ascended into the sky or stayed on earth in animal form” (Wilbert & Gusinde 1977:10-11). Similarly, the !Kung believed that “the animals were all people in the beginning. All stories dealing with animals, therefore, have them acting much like human beings, though they already possess traits that will characterise them when they become animals” (Biesele 1993:21). Along these same lines, the Mono Lake Paiute believed that “long ago, all the animals were people and lived in tribes as men do” (Steward 1936:429).

A common corollary of this belief is that, in the Distant Time, animals and humans could understand one another. For example, the Koyukon believed that, “In the beginning. . . . all the birds and animals were like men. All were talking” (de Laguna 1995:121), and the Bella Coola believed that long ago “man was able to understand the speech and actions of the birds, the mammals, and the fish” (McIlwraith 1948:385). Likewise, the Klamath and Modoc believed that the primeval denizens of their world were anthropomorphic beings who “walked and spoke like men” (Stern 1956:141). Another common belief is that animals could turn into people at will, and vice versa (Table 1). This belief is reflected in Salish tales, where “in any story, a mythological character may change his appearance and his personality, so that at any point he seems human and at another point an animal” (Clark 1966:25). Similarly, in the tales of the Nunamiut and other peoples of the far north, when animals “‘push back their hoods,’ they either assume human form or become able to talk with humans” (Ingstad & Bergsland 1987:51). The converse is also true: humans can transform themselves into animals. For example, a Tanaina story tells of two women who “wrapped brown-bear skins around themselves” to turn into grizzlies, later “pushed back their hoods” to resume human form, and finally “pulled their hoods back down. . . [and] turned back into brown bears” (Tenenbaum & McGary 1987:29-31).

Another component of the Distant Time complex is the belief that, at some point in the past, the world was transformed into its current state. This is often referred to as the transformation period, or simply the Transformation. During this era of world change, an ancestral being or beings traveled throughout the land and, in the course of their daily activities, created land formations, deposited resources, and made other modifications that characterize the physical environment of the present time (e.g., Napaljarri & Cataldi 1994:xvii). For example, the Klikitat “recognized a ‘former world’ when all living things were persons, which was followed by a ‘Great Change,’ resulting in the present world. Myths from the former world, including the events of the Transformation, are wat’i’t’ac; stories from the latter days are txa’nat, ‘happenings’ or ‘customs’” (Ramsey 1977: xxiv). Known as transformers, these characters and story cycles based on their adventures are common across forager oral tradition, and are another possible typological universal (Scalise Sugiyama, forthcoming).

Future Research

The claim being made here is that across foraging cultures we see: (1) a belief that in primordial times the world was different from the world of today; (2) predictable patterns in the components of this belief complex; and (3) a story category rooted in this belief complex. The fact that the data in Table 1 and Appendix I were collected incidentally in the course of conducting other, unrelated research suggests that this phenomenon is sufficiently widespread to warrant more extensive, systematic investigation.

The early anthropologists and linguists who collected forager myths and tales did not as a rule identify the belief complexes that informed them; thus, information about the Distant Time belief is typically mentioned only in passing. Due to gaps in the ethnographic record, then, it is impossible to determine whether the Distant Time belief is an absolute universal. However, in many cases the belief in Distant Time can be inferred from the stories themselves, as in a Chamacoco story that begins, “Long ago the toucan was human” (Wilbert & Simoneau 1987:156). Thus, it should be possible to determine whether the Distant Time belief complex is a statistical universal by conducting a cross-cultural survey using a representative sample of forager story corpora (see, e.g., Scalise Sugiyama 2014).


Appendix 1: Cross-Cultural Evidence of the Distant Time Belief Complex

in Forager, Forager-Horticulturalist, and Forager-Herder Societies

The passages aggregated in this appendix evince one or more of the following: (1) a belief in a Distant Time when the world was different than it is today and events occurred that are no longer possible; (2) a belief that, during the Distant Time, animals were like people; (3) a belief that, during the Distant Time, people could turn into animals and/or vice versa; and (4) a cultural distinction made between stories of the Distant Time and stories of the recent past. Evidence is presented by culture cluster (Murdock 1967), and in some cases is drawn from multiple cultures within that cluster. Not all clusters contain evidence of all four facets of the Distant Time belief complex (see Table 1). This is likely due to the preliminary nature of this study; the absence of a trait in the appendix should therefore not be interpreted as definitive evidence of its absence in the culture or culture cluster in question.

2 Bushmen

The San distinguish between n≠ wasi (“stories”) and n≠ wasi o n!osimasi (“stories of the old people”). The former include hunting stories and historical accounts, while the latter are “without exception set in that long ago time when God walked upon the earth, when animals were still people, and when many strange things occurred which do not occur in the world today” (Biesele 1976:306). Other names for these stories are n≠ wasi o n//ahamasi or “stories of long ago,” and n≠ wasi o k x’aishemasi or “stories of the beginning” (Biesele 1976:306).

The !Kung believed that “the animals were all people in the beginning. All stories dealing with animals, therefore, have them acting much like human beings, though they already possess traits that will characterise them when they become animals” (Biesele 1993:21).

“Though Bushman oral literature contains a number of other forms, folktales are the most frequently performed. The Ju/’hoansi call these . . . ‘stories of the old people’. They are all set in a long-ago time when the trickster walked upon the earth, when animals ‘were people’, and when many bizarre things occurred which do not occur in the world today” (Biesele 1993:17).

“Their old people tell the Ju/’hoansi of today that when the world first began, the animals were people, with people’s names. Then Kaoxa, through the agency of his servant the kori bustard, changed all the people into the different animals by branding markings on them with fire” (Biesele 1993:122).

“The Naron say, in olden times the trees were people, and the animals were people, and one day Hife bade them be animals and trees” (Bleek 2011:26).

155 Paleo-Siberians

“Chukchee story-tellers usually class their stories in three distinct groups” (Bogoras 1920:581). Stories from the first group are referred to as “tidings from the time of first creation” and include creation myths and stories of deities. The second group, “genuine tales,” includes “stories about the adventures of shamans” and stories “containing very realistic descriptions of every-day life, without any trace of the imaginative element. Animal tales and fables are usually classed with this group” (Bogoras 1902:581). The third group, “hostile tidings,” comprises “stories of wars with various neighboring tribes” (Bogoras 1902:581). “The reason for the distinctions between these groups of tales is founded on the belief that they happened in different periods. The first group is considered to be anterior to all others, and to have some ‘from the limit (of the time) of the first creation’ (tot-tómwa-tágnêpu). The second group comes ‘from the limits of story-time’ (lŭ’ mñıl-tágnêpu). The third group comes ‘from the limit of the quarrelling-time (a qalılát-tágnêpu), which is considered to be quite recent” (Bogoras 1902:582).

Koryak: “the Raven myth . . . on the Asiatic side, is not less prominent than on the American side. . . . The character of the Raven is essentially the same as on the American side. He is the transformer, but not the creator, of the world. He brings light and fresh water, and teaches the human race the ways of earthly life, from copulation to the making of nets. At the same time he is the common, laughing-stock, foolish and dirty, perpetrator of many misdeeds, and the object of various tricks. In several episodes of the myth his supernatural qualities are more or less skillfully blended with his ordinary features and faculties as a real bird, eating carrion and always hungry. . . . Some of the American episodes of the Raven tale appear on Asiatic soil; others are peculiar to Asia, though similar to the rest in character and composition. Many of them are common to most of the Asiatic Bering sea tribes. Among the Chukchee, notwithstanding the large number of Raven stories, they do not appear to be very prominent among the whole mass of traditions, since a large part of their folklore bears resemblance to that of the Eskimo. . . . Among the Koryak, on the contrary, the Raven myth has a much greater importance. . . . He is the transformer of the world, the ancestor of mankind, the teacher of various pursuits, who, after making mankind fit to support themselves, goes away to another country or else turns into stone” (Bogoras 1902:636-638).

157 Ainu

“the concept of time is ideologically differentiated in Ainu world view into two categories: the category of the mythical time (the divine time) and that of the historical time (the human time). The former signifies the time when Ainu-moshir [the Human World] was integrated with heavenly Kamui-moshir [the Divine World], and the latter is the time after the two worlds were separated. (Yamada 2001:38).

“The motif of oina, which symbolizes the return of the culture hero Oina Kamui to heaven, represents the termination of the participation of heavenly deities in the Human World (Ainu-moshir) on earth after its creation. The return of the culture hero to heaven signifies the separation of the Human World from the heavenly Divine World, which had been united, and the end of the mythical era” (Yamada 2001:188-189).

“An ear of millet was pounded. In six tubs it was moved to the sacred place. After two or three days, the Gods desired to partake of it. The odour filled the whole house. So when it was strained and was ready to drink and all was ready, a host of gods were invited to drink—the male Owl; the male Jay and the male Crow; the male Eagle and the male Ousel; and the male Black kite were brought in. . . . [They] were drinking at the height of the feast, when the male Jay danced and . . . gllided out of sight from the house; and carrying an acorn in its beak he entered the house and put it into the tub; the wine being bettered the Gods rejoiced. And then, the male Crow danced and went outside from sight. And holding a lump of filth entered and put it into a tub. And so the wine being spoiled there was a great uproar—and now the male Crow being in danger of getting killed the guests were afraid and asked the male Woodpecker to intervene, but the male Woodpecker said: “You made wine but you did not invite me to partake. Even though there be a quarrlel I will not help you. So listen to me.” So he said. So . . . they appealed to the male Snipe who replied saying: “You made wine but did not invite me to partake, even though there be a quarrel I will not help you”; so he said. The male Snipe having so spoken made haste and entered his own house. And so from very olden times crows have been killed” (Batchelor 1924:25-28).

229 Northwest Australia

Arnhem Land: Most “Australian aboriginal creation beliefs. . . . have in common accounts of a period dim beyond memory called the Dreamtime or wongar time, during which spirit beings appeared and created the earth. These creator spirits had the form of animals, birds, and fish, but people did not yet exist. The Dreamtime period ended when some of these spirit beings turned themselves into human form and their descendants began to populate the earth. The creator spirits are eternal, they live now as in the beginning and will continue to exist forever” (Allen 1975:42).

230 Central Australia

Mardudjara: “a time, long ago, well before the memories of the older living people, when Australia was transformed from a featureless plain by the activities of a great number of ancestral beings” who were “larger than life and gifted with superhuman magical powers.” These beings “are generally conceived of as simultaneously part animal, part human, and endowed with characteristics of both” (Tonkinson 1978:15).

233 Northeast Australia

The indigenous people of Barrow Point distinguish between stories “about times past when things happened to distant but traceable kinsmen” and stories “from a much earlier era when animals walked, hunted, talked, and ate like human beings, and when the present conditions of life were established” (Haviland & Hart 1998:26).

237 West Papuans

Mimika/Asmat: “the Asmat people divide the past into two periods of which one embraces the other. The ultimate past includes the most recent past as well as the distant past. The mediate past is the interval of time between and begins with yesterday and goes as far back as the generations still alive can recall from their own experience” (Offenberg & Pouwer 2002:22). They make a distinction “between stories about the primal time of the culture heroes and stories about the historical time of the ancestors. The historical period covers in their idea only three generations: parents, grandparents, and sometimes great-grandparents. Anything preceding the ancestors is seen as amoko, primal time or mythological time” (Offenberg & Pouwer 2002:24).

Mimika/Asmat: “It is remarkable that creation stories about the origin of earth are lacking in the Asmat and Mimika. The world exists and that is experienced as a simple fact. Parts of the world are described and ascribed: how the moon appeared in the heavens, where the sago palm grew first, how rivers came into being. . . . There is no mention of a creator or a Supreme Being and gods are not mentioned, only culture heroes. These seem to be a kind of superior beings, amokowe, who act as human beings but possess extraordinary gifts and strengths. With a gesture of the hand they make a tree or river appear and often they have a human being or an animal as mother. Metamorphosis is a regular occurrence: the dividing line between humans, animals and plants is flexible. There is no ranking order of creatures although some people are ‘better’ than others because of their behavior or talents. . . . But a human being who becomes a tree is not downgraded and a tree that becomes a human is not given a higher ranking order. Culture heroes, departed ancestors and living humans interact frequently” (Offenberg & Pouwer 22-23).

Mimika/Asmat: “the storyteller Warsekomen distinguished tarei atakam, a story about olden times about one’s own ancestors from je atakam, stories which are not about one’s own ancestors. . . . The category tarei atakam can be seen as history . . . while the category je atakam stands for mysterious stories. . . . When the story is about culture heroes the Asmat call these myths je atakam. . . . Pouwer adds that the same holds for the Mimika. For them the amoko-kwere are stories about the culture heroes and the stories about the ancestors are called tata-kwere” (Offenberg & Pouwer 2002:23).

Mimika: “In the evening the old woman. . . . dived into the water and began to turn into a turtle. She grabbed a piece of wood and pierced her nose. Now she looked more like a turtle. She waved what was left of her arms and legs. . . . Her daughter appeared. The old woman cried. . . . ’Your husband has chopped off my arms, legs and ears. . . . I have become a sea turtle so that my grandchildren will be able to eat me.’ A little later she cried, ‘Daughter . . . give me a shove eastwards. Then I will go to Potaway and stay there’” (Offenberg & Pouwer 2002:235-236).

277 Western Eskimo (Yupik)

Note: Although not inherently derogatory, the name “Eskimo” is now widely regarded as pejorative by indigenous peoples. It has been retained here and below to prevent confusion: it is the name used in the texts cited and, in the absence of other identifying information, there is often no obvious alternative.

The Yupik recognize three different types of tales: “unipagan (the story of true happenings), unipamsyuk (news), and unipak (new things). All three terms are derived from the basic verb unipa (to tell, to narrate)” (Dolitsky 2000:vii).

“Many tales about animals go back to ancient totemic myths and myths about cultural heroes. The heroes of the tale are animals, birds, and insects always occupied with the search for food. Similar to people, they conduct their housekeeping, have hunting gear, reindeer, boats, human-like dwellings, and clothing” (Dolitsky 2000:viii).

“The totemic concepts of the aborigines of the Chukchi and Kamchatka Peninsulas about animal ancestors of man . . . find reflection in their narrative traditions. Later the animal ‘personages’ of the tales . . . change into human beings” (Dolitsky 2000:89).

“The woman cautiously took the kukhlyanka, began to put it on and did so without effort. She looked at herself and saw that she had turned into a fox. She tried to walk, she could not; her muzzle was resting on the floor. . . . She tried once, she tried twice—to no avail; she fell on her side and overturned upside-down. The small woman taught her: you have to walk slightly sideways, hold your tail level with the body, don’t lower it, don’t turn it up. . . . She sat among the boulders until night came. When it got completely dark she took off the fox hide and hid it among the boulders. She became a woman again and walked down to the village” (Dolitsky 2000:33).

278 Interior Eskimo

Alaskan Eskimo, Colville River: “The world was not always the same as it is now. Nor were the game animals. Our first ancestors hunted big game which exist no longer. The birds too have changed, for there are memories of their once being heavy and snow fliers. It was in the time when people walked on their hands. Everything is different now, the world, the game, and the people” (Rasmussen 1952:151).

Alaskan Eskimo: “again and again they [myths] describe the times when animals could turn into men and often lived as animals” (Rasmussen 1952:37).

Alaskan Eskimo: “The first human beings on the earth were partly animals, partly humans. They could turn themselves into which they liked, animal or man. From these original ‘dwellers of the earth’ descend the land game” (Rasmussen 1952:118).

Alaskan Eskimo, Colville River: “Once upon a time two ravens, man and wife, had a little house high up on an ivnaq (cliff). In those days the ravens would sometimes be human beings, at other times ravens. Thus all animals might change their form, habits and customs” (Rasmussen 1952:167).

Alaskan Eskimo, Utorqaq River: a story tells of the “girl Alarana and her brother who were eaten by wolves and afterward became caribou.” After Alarana and her brother are transformed into caribou by a she-wolf, they and their herd are pursued by a group of hunters. Alarana visits the hunters’ camp in the evening because “she longed for human speech, and . . . human company. She felt a desire to visit them, so she and her brother ran into the forest and threw off their outer fur. On the ground lay two wet caribou skins, but brother and sister were again human beings, and thuswise they visited the settlement” (Rasmussen 1952:178).

Alaskan Eskimo (Noatak and Kotzebue regions): “the mother drew the large skin over her and sang a magic song. The skin immediately laid itself about her body and she herself became a brown bear. The children were afraid and began to cry: ‘Mother, mother, you look like a brown bear. Mother, mother, we are so afraid of you!’ Then the mother took the fur off and became a woman again, saying, ‘That is how it must be. We shall all look like brown bears’, and she tried the cub skins on the children and made magic over them, so that they became brown bears too” (Rasmussen 1952:186).

The “Iñupiat differentiated between legends (unipkaat) and historical chronicles (uqaluktuat). The former were ancient tales that were thought to be true, while the latter were authentic incidents only a few generations old or less” (Burch 2005:50).

In Nunamiut stories, when animals “‘push back their hoods,’ they either assume human form or become able to talk with humans” (Ingstad & Bergsland 1987:51).

Tikerarmiut: “Two kinds of tales, one called Oqaluktoq, the other Unipqok, communicated all the native theories about the world and its people from one generation of Tikerarmiut to the next. Oqaluktoq comprised authentic incidents, perhaps two or three generations old, which related native experiences with the pack ice, the currents, the winds, the animals hunted, and the methods by which unusual situations were resolved. Related as they were by the old men in the qalegis, these narratives were tantamount to instruction of the young men and boys in the mores of the tribe, in social behavior, in the meeting of practical day-to-day situations, and in the methods of contending with the natural world about them. These instructions from members of the family and, particularly, from the namesakes who acted as mentors constituted the practical education of Tikerarmiut youths. . . . The Unipqok, on the other hand, were the very ancient tales which the Tikerarmiut thought were true, tales which had been passed on from one generation to the next for perhaps centuries. Related as the experiences of very remote ancestors and mythical beings, they explained the nature of animals and men, and the world they lived in. They served as the intellectual bridge between the mundane and the supernatural worlds. They justified, explained, and set a precedent for beliefs and customary patterns of behavior. An unusual circumstance, a conflict of opinions, or a special difficulty demanded the recitation of either of the two types of tales to determine the course of action to be followed. Together they constituted a kind of moral and legal code for the tribe” (Rainey 1947:269).

Tikerarmiut: “So far as I know, no Unipqok tale explains the original creation of the world and men. In the beginning there were people, a strange kind of people who walked on their hands and lived in a world with no daylight. . . . To these people, snow was blubber. . . . They had no name. One time an old woman modeled a little image of a man with a bird’s bill on his forehead from the gummy drippings of a seal oil lamp. After she had placed the image near the wall of her house and slept for a time she found a man seated there. . . . This man . . . walked on his feet; when he spoke, his voice was like that of a raven” (Rainey 1947:269).

Tikerarmiut: “Returning to the village of the people who walked on their hands, Raven-man transformed them so that they walked on their feet; he changed the snow from blubber to drinking water. . . . Tulugak [Raven-man] finally went off towards the south, intending to travel all over the earth and the sky ‘fixing people up’” (Rainey 1947:269-270).

279 Central & Eastern Eskimo

The Copper Eskimo believed that, “In former times animals in human form were very common. Then they lived just like men as long as they were in human form. . . . In olden times, too, everybody could easily turn into animals, and until quite recently shamans have had the same powers” (Rasmussen 1932:35).

280 Cree-Montagnais

The Cree make a distinction between tipâcimôwin (historical accounts and personal experiences) and âtalôhkân (sacred legends and myths). Ậtalôhkân are set long ago “when things were still in a state of flux in the world” and “before the world jellied down to the way it is today” (Ellis 1995:xix-xx).

284 Carrier-Nahani

Kaska: “A long time ago, when all the animals were people, Beaver was a great transformer” (Teit 1917:429).

Kaska: “Rabbit-Man was very clever. He was a shaman and next in power to Beaver. He had two brothers and a sister. The latter was married to Bear-Man, and the two brothers lived with them. Rabbit lived alone in another place. Bear became angry because his young brothers-in-law were lazy, and he made up his mind to starve them. He made them always camp behind himself and his wife, in a different place, and gave them raw liver. Rabbit-Man knew that his brothers had no fire and no good food to eat” (Teit 1917:467).

Tahltan (Tagish): “Long time ago, animals were all people. That was before they had light. One time they were all out fishing. Fox and Bear were fishing there—they talk like a person. Crow comes up. . . . He can’t die, that Crow, can’t get killed. . . . He turns himself into a little [piece of] dirt—puts himself right there [in the water]. . . . That lady comes to get water. Just like a dish, that pot [she carries]. He goes into that pot, goes in like a little dirt. . . . That girl started to drink the water and she swallowed him down!” (Cruikshank 1990:179-180).

Tahltan (Tagish): “A middle-aged man and his wife and daughter camped one place. . . . because they were too old to travel around. She’s quite a young girl, that daughter. Whenever she went out, a dog sits in the doorway. . . . Finally, they moved someplace. . . . But that dog doesn’t go with them. ‘Go back and get my dog,’ that father says to the girl. The girl goes almost close to the camp. Just near the camp, a pretty young fellow meets her. ‘Marry me. Stay with me,’ he says to her. . . . The next morning, they go hunting. They kill moose. . . . Another time, he went to hunt caribou. She heard a dog bark. . . . She looked and saw her father’s dog. . . . One night she wakes up. Here her husband is gone! She hears a dog chewing something. She waits a while, looks around. She sees her father’s dog across the fire, chewing bones. . . . She hears the dog shake. Soon her husband comes in again, all clean. . . . That night, she throws bones out again—pretends she falls asleep. He tries to move around, to check if she’s asleep. She pretends to be asleep. He went outside. Then he came back in inside—a dog! He started chewing. She sneaked up quiet. . . . She clubbed him to death. . . . Finally, she traveled out, back to her father and mother. She found she’s going to have a baby. She had eight puppies that time. What’s she going to do?” (Cruikshank 1990:103-104).

286 Lower Yukon

The Koyukon concept of Myth Time refers to a period “so remote that its realities are not those of today, and are not to be believed or judged in the ordinary terms of the present. That was when all Animals were Men, with the power of human speech” (de Laguna 1995:76).

The Koyukon believed that, “In the beginning. . . . All the birds and animals were like men. All were talking” (de Laguna 1995:121).

287 South Central Alaska

Tanaina (Dena’ina):”a large group of traditional stories called sukdu. . . . The Dena’ina regard these stories as descriptions of the way the world was and of events that occurred before the world became the way it is today; in this ancient time, all animals were people. . . . sometimes characters like Raven and Lynx and Wolverine act the way they would in animal form, and sometimes they do things in human form; in those days, // they had the ability to be either animal or human” (Tenenbaum & McGary 1987:6-7). They recognize another story type; these stories “are not, strictly speaking, sukdu. They are, rather, historical accounts of events that occurred in the wars with the neighboring Yupik Eskimos” (Tenenbaum & McGary 1987:7).

290 Kwakiutl-Bella Coola

Bella Coola: The Bella Coola believed that long ago “man was able to understand the speech and actions of the birds, the mammals, and the fish” (McIlwraith 1948:385).

292 Coast Salish

The Twana distinguished between tales set before the “turning over” or world change, and those set after it. Stories that take place before the world change “have their setting in a prehuman period, the sa ‘bu. . . . The people of the sa ‘bu are animals, or at least they bear animal names and have some of the attributes of animals. Yet they are more or less human in personality and motivations. Informants consistently refer to the sa’ bu period as ‘when the animals were people,’ but also as ‘when the people were animals’” (Elmendorf 1993:lii).

293 Chinook

“The stories in the Tillamook literature were classified by the natives as belonging to one or the other of three successive time levels. The earliest is the myth age. The next is the era of transformation, when South Wind made the world over as it is known today. The third is the period of true happenings—or rather the era of relatively recent history from the point of view of the Tillamooks, because all the stories describe what these people believe truly occurred” (Jacobs & Jacobs 1990:ix).

Tillamook: “The Myth Era per se, represented by myth-narratives disclosing a time when the world (meaning the specific homeland of the people) is ‘raw,’ unfinished, in some respects chaotic, populated by freaks and monsters as well as the prototypes of the people-to-come, who as yet lack the rituals, customs, and know-how of civilized life” (Ramsey 1990:xxi).

295 Northwest California

“One of the most fundamental characteristics of the mythological beliefs of these three tribes [Wiyot, Yurok-Karok, Hupa] is the idea of a former distinct race, conceived of as very human in nature although endowed with supernatural powers, who inhabited the world before the coming of men, and then either left the inhabited world to become spirits or turned into animals. This race is the Kixûnai of the Hupa. In a general way this previous race is held responsible by the Indians for everything now existing in the world, and it is often stated that all the characters in myths were members of it. . . . The most prominent characters in the several mythologies are one or more culture-heroes, of whom the Hupa Yimantuwiñyai, ‘Lost-across-the-ocean,’ by another name ‘Old-man-over-across,’ is a typical illustration. . . . The Yurok and Karok characters that correspond to him are called ‘Widower-across-the-water’” (Kroeber 1905:87).

297 Maidu-Wintun

Maidu: “Some of the stories . . . take place in a time that clearly predates the advent of Indian people; in these stories the actors are predominantly animals, plants, or objects with human or humanlike characteristics and occasional human beings who are not identified as flora, fauna, or objects. Other stories involve humans–that is, Indian people–but may also involve nonhuman people, such as Pitch Woman” (Seaburg 2007:40).

298 Pomo-Yuki

Coast Yuki: “Myths (alwisa) were called ‘night stories.’ To relate them in the daytime, or to even think about them, would give the narrator a humpback. Moreover, winter was the season for telling them. . . . Coast Yuki women, as well as men, told ‘night stories.’ At the conclusion of a story the raconteur touched his belly and his forehead with his right palm and said, ‘Winen nen, winen tok.’ I could not learn the exact meaning of this expression. It referred to the story being finished. . . . One informant said that if he missed telling any detail of the story, he or I would become ill. On one occasion when there was a call for me in the middle of a story, he insisted on finishing instead of postponing it. The events told in night stories occurred before the appearance of the present race. The characters of the stories constituted the prehuman race, which the Coast Yuki believed preceded them” (Gifford 1937:116).

Coast Yuki: “All the birds were the first people [not the mammals, but all the birds we see now, even gull, cormorant, and turkey vulture]. There was to be a big shinny game. They started playing the game. People from all over the country came to play the game” (Gifford 1937:119).

299 Miwok-Yokuts

Yokuts and Western Mono: “With few exceptions the stories collected are myths in the sense which Boas has defined. They are concerned with persons and events of an era before the appearance of man, when birds, animals, insects, and even plants, were active denizens of this world. . . . Of tales which are believed to record recent historical events, Newman obtained two, one the narrative of an actual war between several tribal groups (which is not included here)” (Gayton & Newman 1940:8-9).

Miwok: “The mythology of the Indians of California goes back much farther than our mythology: it goes back to the time of the First People—curious beings who inhabited the country for a long period before man was created.” Their myths tell of “the doings of the First People. . . . [and] of the transformation of the First People into animals and other objects of nature” (Merriam 1910:17). The Miwok believed in the “existence of a First People, beings who differed materially from the present Indians, and who, immediately before the present Indians were created, were transformed into animals, trees, rocks, and in some cases into stars and other celestial bodies or forces—for even Sah’-win-ne the Hail, and Nuk’-kah the Rain were First People” (Merriam 1910:18). They also believed in the “preexistence of Coyote-man . . . a divinity of unknown origin” as well as “other divinities, notably Wek’-wek the Falcon, grandson and companion of Coyote-man, Mol’-luk the Condor, father of Wek’-wek, and Pe-ta’-le the Lizard, who, according to several tribes, assisted Coyote-man in the creation of Indian people.” They also believed in the “possession of supernatural powers or magic by Coyote-man, Wek’-wek, and others of the early divinities, enabling them to perform miracles” (Merriam 1910:18).

Miwok: “The names of individual personages among the First People were carried on to the animals, objects, or forces which these people became at the time of their final transformation, and are still borne by them. Hence in the accompanying stories the names of the various animals and objects should not be understood as referring to them as they exist today but to their remote ancestors among the First People. Whatever their original form—and the Indian conception seems to picture them as half human—the distinctive attributes of the First People were in the main handed down to the animals and objects they finally became” (Merriam 1910:23).

Miwok: “In addition to the Ancient Myths or First People stories, which relate to the early history of the world, the Mewan tribes have numerous beliefs concerning the present and the very recent past” (Merriam 1910:207).

301 Southwest California

Chumash: “When animals were still people, there was a fiesta at Zaca and all the quail were invited” (Blackburn 1975:228). “Long ago, when the animals were people, Coyote got to worrying about his poverty, and one day he said to himself, ‘I’m going to travel around and see what I can find’” (Blackburn 1975:229). “This is not a story, it’s an incident that happened long ago, when animals were people” (Blackburn 1975:245).

304 Central Great Basin

Mono Lake Paiute (“Tu’kini”): “Long ago, all the animals were people and lived in tribes as men do” (Steward 1936:429).

Shoshoni: “Once all the animals were people” (Steward 1936:434).

305 Southern Paiute

Chemehuevi: “A myth is tɨwiinyapɨ, deriving from tɨwiinyagah, tells a myth, narrates an ancient tale. . . . This root and its derivatives may be used only of events or beings belonging to pre-human times, When the Animals Were People. Tɨwiinyagah is not applied to the narration of exploits or adventures taking place in the world as it is at present, no matter how remote in time or drenched with magic these events may be. . . . The characters in the myths are Narɨwiinyapɨwɨ, Immortal Ones, Everlasting Ones, literally, Self-Mythologizing Ones” (Laird & Laird 1976:147).

306 Plateau Yumans

Walapai: “Coyote . . . and Wolf . . . were sitting in their house talking over the naming of the different animals. At this time these animals were men” (Kniffen et al. 1935:250).

308 Lutuami

Klamath/Modoc: “myths depict a time long past, before humans like those of today existed, when the world was populated by anthropomorphized animals who ‘walked and spoke like men’” (Sobel & Bettles 2000:290, citing Stern 1956:141).

“The Klamath distinguish myths from other narratives by referring to a myth as ‘s’ as’ apg’ lis’ meaning ‘a telling’ or ‘a tale’” (Sobel & Bettles 2000:290, citing Stern 1956:141).

309 Sahaptin

Nez Percé: “‘When the world was young’—so old Indians often began their tales—human beings and animals and birds all spoke the same language. . . . Because of this close relationship between the Indian and nature, it is not surprising that most of this tales were about animals and birds. Rather, they are about the ‘animal people’ or ‘animal persons,’ as English-speaking Indians refer to them today. These mythological beings lived on the earth when it was young, ‘when people had not come out yet.’ They had many of the characteristics of their smaller descendants in today’s world. Yet they could reason and talk, and they lived as the people telling the tales lived. In any story, a mythological character may change his appearance and his personality, so that at any point he seems human and at another point an animal” (Clark 1966:25).

The Klikitat “recognized a ‘former world’ when all living things were persons, which was followed by a ‘Great Change,’ resulting in the present world. Myths from the former world, including the events of the Transformation, are wat’i’t’ac; stories from the latter days are txa’nat, ‘happenings’ or ‘customs’” (Ramsey 1977: xxiv, footnote 8).

310 Interior Salish

Coeur d’Alene: “Teit in his short presentation of free translations gives a good cross-section of the types of [Coeur d’Alene] narrative. In this collection there are thirty-eight myths, that is, accounts of things as they happened before the world was as it is now; two tales or accounts of happenings in the historical period; and ten narratives of actual historical encounters which were remembered by living people or which happened not less than a hundred years ago” (Reichard 1947:5-6).

In Coeur d’Alene myth, “animals were people and people were animals. There was little differentiation, and animals had the good or bad characteristics which we now ascribe to people in addition to the characteristics now possessed by the animals themselves” (Reichard 1947:14).

Salish: “Long, long ago when the world was young, Old Man in the Sky drained off the earth which he had made. When he had it crowded down into the big salt holes, the land became dry. About the same time, Old Man Coyote became lonely and so went up into the Sky Land to talk to Old Man. Old Man questioned him. ‘Why are you unhappy and crying? Have I not made the much land for you to run about on? Are not Beaver, Otter, Bear, and Buffalo on the land to keep you company? [. . . ] Why do you come up here so often, just to talk?’ Old Coyote sat down and cried many more tears. Old Man became very cross and began to scold. ‘Foolish old Coyote, you must not drop so much water upon the land. Have I not worked many days to dry it? Soon you will have it all covered with water again. What is the trouble with you? What more do you want to make you happy?’ ‘I am very lonely because I have no one to talk to,’ Coyote answered. “Beaver, Otter, Bear, and Buffalo are busy with their families. They do not have time to visit with me. I want a people of my own, so that I may watch over them’” (Clark 1966:73).

311 Northern Plateau

Thompson: “At one time, very long ago, the earth was very different from what it is at present. There were no trees, and many kinds of bushes and plants were wanting; neither was there any salmon or other fish, nor any berries. The people who lived during this age were called spêtā’kl. They were mostly animals, who, nevertheless, had human form. They were gifted in magic; and their children used to reach maturity in a few months. There were among them many cannibals, and many mysterious persons. After a time certain men successively appeared on the earth, travelling here and there, working wonders, changing and modifying the existing order of things. Gradually many of the spêtā’kl who were bad were shorn of their powers, driven out of the country, or were transformed into birds, fishes, animals, and trees” (Teit 1898:19).

312 Kutenai

“Long ago, when the animals were the people of the world, a chief asked, ‘Who will be the Sun?’ All the animal people talked among themselves and decided that Raven should be the Sun. The chief agreed and told him what he should do. When Raven started on his journey, it became dark. Next morning the people watched for him to come up. But he was not bright enough, and the whole day was like evening. When Raven returned, the people said to him, ‘We do not want you for the Sun. You made everything black.’ [. . . ] The animal people held another council and talked the matter over again. Coyote said to them, ‘Let me be the Sun’” (Clark 1966:142).

314 Northeast Plains

The Teton-Dakota divide their stories into those that are true and those that are “not to be believed,” the latter of which “are a sort of hang-over . . . from a very, very remote past, from a different age, even from a different order of beings from ourselves” (Deloria 1932:ix).

315 Upper Missouri

“The Crow divided their tales into two principal groups corresponding roughly to what we should call myths and traditions. The latter are called . . . ‘something-tell-true’ and are supposed to be based on the direct experience of the Crow Indian. . . . The mythic tales are designated by a term slightly varying in form but always lacking the evidential suffix and presenting the stem for ‘to tell’ in reduplicated form” (Lowie 1918:13).

Crow: “In the old days wolves and coyotes had bows and arrows” (Lowie 1918:25).

316 Southern Plains

Kiowa: “Among older people, men and women, there are still many delightful story tellers, and there are old men who . . . will remark conversationally that ‘long time ago Dog he talk Kiowa’” (Parsons 1929:x).

“The widespread concept of animal-human transformation is common to Kiowa and Pueblos” (Parsons 1929:xv).

“Split Boys is undoubtedly a myth or ritual tale, ‘a true story,’ as the Kiowa put it, in distinction to the pulhæitekya, lie or joke story” (Parsons 1929:xvii).

“This young woman and her sister and a band of girls went down to the creek. After they got there, her sister proposed that they play a game of bear, one to act as the bear and the others to go near the den and pick some berries, and the bear would chase them until he caught one of them. . . . The woman with the bear hide played the part of the bear. She told her little sister to run back to the camp and hide. . . . The young woman placed the bearskin on her back in order to become a real bear. On the second and third trial of the skin on her back, she turned part bear. On the fourth trial she was all bear. She ran after the girls and caught them and killed them” (Parsons 1929:10).

319 Prairie Siouans

“Like most American Indian tribes, the Winnebago divided their prose narratives into two types: those that dealt with a past that was irretrievably gone and which belonged to the realm of things no longer possible or attainable by man or spirits; and those which dealt with the present workaday world. The first is called waikan, what-is-sacred, and the second worak, what-is-recounted” (Radin 1956:118).

320 Central Algonkians

“The folklore of the Menomini may be divided into five classes, four of which are recognized by the Indians themselves. First, are the sacred myths of Ma’nabus as the culture hero, which have to do principally with the cosmogony, and the origin of the medicine lodge; second, the minor myths of Man’nabus as trickster; third, fairy tales, so considered by the Indians, which relate the doings of imaginary heroes, somewhat after the manner of our own fairy tales; and fourth, ‘true stories,’ which are not always true by any means, being tales of the warpath, the chase, in love, supernatural adventures, dreams, conjuring, and exploits of animals and persons. The fifth class of narratives, which the Menomini seem to regard in the same light as fairy tales, is a small series of stories which are of undoubted European origin” (Skinner & Satterlee 1915:223).

Menomini: “True stories” are “for the most part, not sacred” and “range from simple narratives of daily life to supernatural experiences. The former are droll, exciting, or explanations of natural phenomena, as the case may be. They are told in public at any time when a propos, but generally around the fire in the evening” (Skinner & Satterlee 1915:235).

327 Apache

Lipan Apache: In the course of relating the Lipan story of the emergence of humans, one of Opler’s informants explained in an aside: “Here is the beginning. First there is nothing. Then there are tree people, then little animals, then humans. I don’t know when the great change came, when the animals lost their power of speech and became animals. It happened many years ago. I was not there nor was anyone who is living today” (Opler 1940:14).

Lipan Apache: “My father said that before a man can be a chief, he has to know all about the chief’s ways in the time when the birds and animals spoke. He has to know how they acted, he has to know all these stories of the chiefs among the animals and birds. Before he talks a great deal or gives orders he should know all about these stories and study them well” (Opler 1940:8).

Lipan Apache: Before narrating a Coyote story, a Lipan informant noted that, “In the beginning the trees and animals and grass used to talk. At that time Codi [Coyote] was going around” (Opler 1940:106).

Chiricahua Apache: “A close correspondence between the activities of the [animal] protagonists of the stories and the [Chiricahua] cultural round is almost predicated by the nature of Chiricahua ideology, for the birds, insects, and Coyote are thought to have been ‘people’ at one time, and mankind is but following in the footsteps of those who have gone before” (Opler 1942:ix).

364 Yąnomamö

“The Yanomami envision a universe consisting of four superimposed and disk-like tiers: two sky levels, the earth, and the underworld” (Wilbert & Simoneau 1990:10). In the distant past, “a cataclysmic event took place, when the cosmic plains each slipped one level: the upper sky fell on the lower sky, the lower sky fell on the earth, and the earth fell on the plain of the underworld. A new sky formed at the level where the uppermost sky had been before the slipping of the cosmic plains occurred. All the mountains and the forests of the earth were pushed into the world below, and only a few survivors of the ancient generation remained on earth, that is, on top of the fallen sky that now occupies the level at which the old earth had been. Under the impact of the falling sky the ancient people who were pushed from the earth into the underworld turned into cannibalistic spirits. The few that escaped from falling off the earth tunneled their way upward through the sky layer that had fallen on top of them. They dispersed throughout the new mountains and forests, propagated, and began to prepare gardens. However, these ancient people used to kill and eat each other; they were ignorant of proper human conduct and ignored the correct endocannibalistic funeral rites and practices. Eventually, they turned into animals of // this earth. . . . The Yanomami who presently live on this earth are a new race of people who were brought into this world by a demiurge called Omamë (Õmaw̓, Omao, Omaue, Omawỳ, Tohorá). . . . After propping up the sky to keep it from falling again, he created the present world and the modern Yanomami” (Wilbert & Simoneau 1990:10-11).

“That is how the people were long ago. They used to turn into animals, and simply did not know at all the way to behave. Those ancestors were Yanomam, as we are. They were not animals; they did not have wings! They were transforming because in those days the whole forest was transforming. All the ancestors kept turning into animals, and those ancestors are here now! Today we eat those ancestors from the early times, when we Yanomam did not exist! They are animals: toucans, spider monkeys, armadillos, tapirs, giant anteaters, and jaguars. . . . I know, and that is why I am saying it. They were Yanomam, and turned into animals. That is how it was” (Wilbert & Simoneau 1990:285).

“Tapir was sitting in a tree where he was trying to hide, along with Three-Toed Sloth. They were hiding for no reason, just not to be seen and eaten. . . . Three-Toed Sloth kept incessantly placing kahuusihi leaves all around him and never seemed to think he was sufficiently invisible….In fact, Three-Toed Sloth wanted to make Tapir climb down so that he himself would be alone hiding in that tree. . . . Exasperated, Tapir descended. . . . As he left he had said to his son-in-law [Antshrike]: ‘When you think that I’m well hidden, start following my trail!’ As agreed, Antshrike set out to search for his father-in-law. . . . Suddenly his father-in-law frightened him by noisily scampering off in the thicket just in front of him. . . . Antshrike set off after him . . . and shot him with an arrow. . . . Since then Antshrike mourns his father-in-law, lamenting: “Shoabe! Be be be!” That is why the call of this bird is constantly heard in the forest” (Wilbert & Simoneau 1990:306-308).

390 Yamana (Yaghan)

The Yamana origin myth “tells of a protohuman gyneocratic era when women had supremacy over men. The primeval ancestors, among them Sun (senior and junior), Moon, and Rainbow, migrated to what became // known as Yamana country from a distant place in the East. They came on foot, as anthropomorph or zoomorph beings, and, after their various earthly adventures, ascended into the sky or stayed on earth in animal form” (Wilbert & Gusinde 1977:10-11).

394 Mataco

Makka: “The etiological narratives of Makka cosmogony go back to primordial times when birds still had human form. . . . crested birds came into existence at a time when people, like Flycatcher, had birds’ names but human bodies” (Wilbert et al. 1991:6-7).

Makka: “Birds living today, all of them, were once (in times long since past) turned into men like us, just as we are today. We, all the Makka, were created in those ancient times” (Wilbert et al. 1991:19).

396 Zamuco

“Chamacoco lore distinguishes between two major mythological ages. A primeval epoch extends from the very dawn of world history // to the appearance of the axnábsero gods. A second age, that of the ancestors, reaches from the annihilation of the axnábsero to just two or three generations before present times. The initial sections of the narrative corpus pertain in large part to the oldest mythical epoch at the beginning of which the sky and the earth still occupied places in the reverse order of their present positions. Once the now existing state had been established, the two worlds remained connected by means of a tree. . . .  It served the ancient ones as a ladder by which to reach the paradisiacal upper world where honey collected at the outside of tree trunks rather than within their interior hollows and where game was inexhaustibly plentiful. To punish her fellow beings for the cruelty of denying her food and torturing her children, a helpless widow transformed herself into a rodent-like insect, destroyed the world tree, and brought the time of carefree abundance to an end. In different contexts, it is a slighted shaman or a bat personage who causes the tree to fall. . . . After the collapse of the world tree, the people, mostly men, who had been hunting and gathering in the sky, were unable to return to earth. They were marooned there forever, and can be seen at night as stars. On earth, hunting and food collecting have become arduous tasks. Game is less abundant and honey difficult to collect from inside the trunks of trees” (Wilbert & Simoneau 1987:11-12).

Chamacoco: “Death suffered in primordial mythic times was only temporary. Those who died were dressed in funeral clothing, and left behind in the settlement for the vultures. But the next day they revived and rejoined their fellows” (Wilbert & Simoneau 1987:13).

Chamacoco: “At such early times . . . Carancho changed his form from hawk to man quite frequently” (Wilbert & Simoneau 1987:13).

“The hawk, who was also a Chamacoco, saw smoke on the horizon and wanted to bring fire” (Wilbert & Simoneau 1987:177). “Long ago the toucan was human” (Wilbert & Simoneau 1987:156). “Long ago the cavy [south American rodent sp.] was a girl” (Wilbert & Simoneau 1987:184).

Ayoreo: “Heaven and earth, say the Ayoreo, were created by a personified sun-god, the creator-transformer who later was to populate the earth with animals created from the transformed Ayoreo ancestors. . . . At first Sky and Earth lived amicably together on earth. Then Sky began to object to the way he was dirtied and abused by the people living on top of him, and so he traveled upward, taking with him some of the heavenly bodies now seen above the earth. All of these, in addition to the sun, are consistently referred to in the mythology as transformed human beings. . . . After angering Sun through their disobedience, the ancestors one by one approach him and ask to be transformed into specific animals or trees, each with its own characteristics and colors. The present-day Ayoreo are the descendants of those people who chose to remain human” (Wilbert et al. 1989:17-18).

Ayoreo: “Sky and Earth were once human. Sky was very beautiful. He said to Earth: ‘I don’t want my body to have any defect. I shall look for a place to live.’ When Sky came back after having been gone for four days he told Earth: ‘Beautiful child, I am back. I have found a place where I can go and live.’ Then Sky left with the stars. They were very happy to leave with Sky. Those who remained with Earth were also happy to have remained with Earth. Since then there has been a transformation of people and trees. It was at that time that everything changed” (Wilbert et al. 1989:29-30).

Ayoreo: “In the beginning all the animals were Ayoreo and could talk. Then they lost the power of speech. There are two reasons for this. Some swallowed embers, drank boiling water, and burned their throats when they went into the fire of the nightjar. Others, when they were transformed into animals, ate food that was so bad, raw, and decomposed that they lost the power of speech” (Wilbert et al. 1989:108).


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Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

We may look for storyworld universals in the sequence of events that comprise the story proper, in the characters that enact those events, or in the settings in which the characters or events are embedded. (For the first and second, see “Story.”) One aspect of setting where we find cross-cultural patterns is imagery. We may define imagery as features of setting that are not simply a function of the causal trajectory of the events, but serve other purposes as well. For example, insofar as seasons operate in a story to guide the characters’ planting and harvesting, they are not operating as imagery. In contrast, they are operating as imagery insofar as they have a function outside that causal sequence (e.g., to suggest thematic concerns, such as the association of sin with death, by way of winter). Note that this broad definition of imagery does not exclude metaphor; imagery may be metaphorical. In addition, by this definition, imagery is not particularly visual; indeed, it is sensory-mediated only to the extent that setting is sensory-mediated. Note also that lyric poems have events, characters, and/or settings, and thus are encompassed in this definition. (On the relation of lyric poems and story sequences, see chapter five of Hogan, The Mind.) Indeed, the relatively limited presence of causal (story) sequences in lyric poems suggests that imagery is likely to play a particularly important role in lyric poetry. Finally, setting includes persons and events; it is merely differentiated from persons and events considered as part of the causal sequence of a given story.

General Principles

Perhaps the most striking universal in this area is the most basic or general one–the existence of imagery. Some storytellers and poets in perhaps all traditions, and certainly in large written traditions, develop apparently incidental features of the setting in such a way as to make those features relevant to the reader’s experience of the work. The relevance may be a matter of non-causal story functions, as when an image suggests future events in the story through foreshadowing. Otherwise, the relevance of imagery commonly bears on the emotional impact of the work (e.g., by enhancing mood) or the thematic implications of the work. By “thematic implications,” I refer to the work’s consequences for the recipient’s relation to the real world in which he or she lives. These implications are most often ethical or political.

Here, as in most cases, there is no need to posit a specific, innate propensity in order to explain this cross-cultural tendency. General cognitive and social structures along with convergent development appear sufficient to explain the recurrence of imagery in general, and even the recurrence of particular image forms and categories. Storytellers only had to notice that imagery could be recruited to make a sad story sadder, a suspenseful story more suspenseful (e.g., through foreshadowing), a theme more effective or evident. Once one storyteller noticed this—which would presumably happen fairly quickly—his or her use of the technique could spread within that tradition, through its self-conscious or implicit imitation by other storytellers.

Another broad, cross-cultural pattern is the tendency of traditions to develop standardized sets of shared images. In the West, an obvious example of this sort is to be found in the Petrarchan lineage of love poetry. But the use of standardized images is a feature of many written and oral traditions (see Hogan “Literary Universals and Their Cultural Traditions”; note that the present essay outlines some of the main conclusions of research in the area, but cannot enter into all the details covered in the various works cited). This occurs in part due to the simple formation of associative connections and processes of “priming,” which make some associations more likely to be activated than others. (Since some readers have been confused by this, I should explain that the formation of associative connections enables activation to spread through networks via priming; association is of course not priming itself, just as highways are not traffic.) Once one poet associates lovers with birds, other poets familiar with this initial work will be more likely to associate lovers with birds also. In addition, the set of associations of lovers with birds will tend to make the image more emotionally effective, and in some cases more thematically consequential too.

There are other broad, recurring tendencies as well. For example, traditions of verbal art tend to select species for animal imagery, rather than relying on higher level categories. For example, in individual cases and in standardized imagery, writers appear likely to refer to nightingales in a particular context, rather the mere birds—though the latter is more likely than some still more general classification, such as vertebrates (an apparently rare choice, despite its comic possibilities; both points obviously bear further empirical investigation, as do all hypotheses about literary universals, here and elsewhere). Authors and traditions select particular species for reasons bearing on the species themselves, often due to their mating or other behaviors, the musicality of their calls, their appearance, and related matters, as well as their cultural resonances (e.g., their place in ritual). A less frequent, but perhaps more striking recurrent practice is the literalization of imagistic associations and related metaphors and similes. We find cases of this ranging from allegory to the motif of metamorphosis (in for example Ovid, Kafka, or the Chinese tale of the “butterfly lovers,” Zhu Yingtai and Liang Shanbo [see “Newly Compiled”]).

Of course, universals of imagery are not confined to these points. Imagery may be universal in manifesting the same formal relations or in sharing some concrete, perceptual features. Formal relations are types of connection that give imagery significance in a work. Concrete, perceptual features may be directly experiential, as in performing arts, or a matter of guided simulation, as in purely verbal art. (Guided simulation is the imagination of particulars in line with instructions, such as those given implicitly by literary descriptions [on verbal art as a set of instructions for imagination, see Scarry].) Universals of imagery, then, may be formal (in that they follow the same principles, though their particular features may differ) or substantive (in that their particular features are the same or similar). The division is not absolute and rigid, since shared features may be very general, and even apparently idiosyncratic (formally defined) images often share some category with more commonly recurring concrete images. Moreover, recurring concrete features must enter into the usual formal relations if they are to count as imagery at all. But it is a practically useful division for examining universals of imagery. We may consider such universals in connection with each category. (For more elaborate discussion of imagery universals, as well as cross-cultural evidence, see Hogan “Literary Universals and Their Cultural Traditions,” “Beauty,” and “Shakespeare.”)

Formal Relations

Imagery may enter into at least two formal relations (there may be others as well). First, there is parallelism. Since readers have greatly misunderstood my point here, I should explain that imagery and parallelism are not the same; there are many forms of parallelism (e.g., in syntax) that have no bearing on the concerns of this essay. Moreover, imagery does not serve to establish parallelism. Rather, the point is that a range of genetically and areally unrelated traditions appear to make use of parallelism to give images thematic, emotional, anticipatory, or other import outside causal (story) sequences. That universality holds even when the precise images differ.

Parallelism itself takes two forms, internal and external. Internal parallelism involves congruity between two or more storyworld structures within a work. (This point has confused readers, so I should perhaps re-emphasize that imagery can be part of a story sequence. It is distinguished by having a non-story operation–emotional, thematic, and so on.) Internal parallelism is prominent among the cross-culturally recurring strata of what we might call “existential embedment,” the different levels of social and biological constituency: the individual body and mind or person, the family, society, and nature. In other words, two complexes of events and/or conditions may be causally unrelated, but still bear on one another—again, emotionally, thematically, or whatever. Thus chaos in society may be parallel to a storm in nature; the separation of a family may be parallel to the division of the land (e.g., by a river). The social chaos does not cause the storm, and the river does not cause the separation of the family (or vice-versa); however, the two networks of events and conditions are not simply irrelevant to one another.

Internal parallelism may also operate within a single stratum. Circularity, beginning and ending a work in the same place or type of place, the same situation or type of situation, and so on, is a cross-cultural feature of this sort. So too is foreshadowing (as already noted), a temporally directed form of parallelism in which images operate to suggest subsequent events (e.g., in a Sanskrit work, the appearance of separating cakravāka birds may parallel and foreshadow the separation of lovers).

External parallelism involves mapping a structure in the work at hand onto a structure in a precursor work or real situation. Examples would include a modern story about a political figure whose life and death may be linked with the Biblical story of Jesus or the narrative of a contemporary couple that recalls the story of Rāma and Sītā. A minimal case of external parallelism is found in allusion. Again, parallelism need not be a matter of imagery; in other words, not all parallelism is imagery-based. However, in many cases, parallelism is imagery-based. In those cases, parallelism defines the non-causal function of the image (i.e., makes an element of setting into an image). A simple example is the conflagration at the end of Deepa Mehta’s film, Fire. This alludes to the fire ordeal of Sītā and contributes to the work’s thematic development in that way. Here, as in other cases, parallels may be direct, or they may involve inversion or some other systematic alteration.

A second formal relation commonly bearing on imagery is that between foreground and background (or, alternatively, source and target). Literary works tend to involve the development of at least two of the standard levels of human existence (mind, family, society, and nature). Nonetheless, one of these levels is typically the object of primary attentional focus (the target), thus the foreground, while the other is the background, which is to say, it is perceived and understood, but it is not the object of attentional focus, except perhaps intermittently. The background (or source) may provide imagery for internal parallelism, as when the storm provides a background for the social chaos in Lear’s kingdom and the emotional chaos in Lear’s mind. The point holds, in a slightly altered form, for external parallelism as well. In that case, the precursor work is most often the background (source) work in that it is not the object of attentional focus (target). At least it is not the initial object of such focus. In some cases, the thematic point of a later work may be to comment on the earlier work, as when an Indian film or drama revises the Rāmāyana in order to provoke the viewer to reconsider some ethical norms presupposed by that revered poem. (This is in part the case with Mehta’s film.) But this too involves a background/foreground or source/target distinction.

With internal parallelism, the foreground figures tend to be those most deeply embedded in the list of standard strata—thus those that are constituent elements–and the background figures tend to be those that are more encompassing. For example, nature (e.g., the weather) is more likely to serve as background for society than the reverse. It is not clear whether this is true in the case of external parallelism, since the two works tend to focus attention on the same stratum (e.g., family relations). However, in external parallelism there is a further pattern as the background text tends to be one with equal or greater social or spiritual authority. In this case, the most relevant categorization seems to bear on types of text, rather than types of existence. Specifically, a distinction among, say, individual, communal, and divine texts—or perhaps a simpler division between individual and socially authoritative texts–appears to recur cross-culturally. In external parallelism, foreground or target texts tend to come earlier in this list. Put simply, understanding individual or personal texts (such as a particular novel or drama) may rely on external parallelism with divine texts (e.g., the Gospels), but understanding divine texts is less likely to rely on parallelism with individual or personal texts texts (with the qualifications already noted).

Concrete Particulars

Again, image patterns may recur in particular forms (for cases, see Hogan “Literary”). Many recurrent concrete particulars derive directly from the parallelism of mind, etc., as in the examples cited above. Some further, instances may be divided into those bearing on character and those bearing on events. Regarding character, heroes tend to be paralleled with creatures from the natural world. For example, military heroes may be paralleled with predatory land animals. Lovers tend to be paralleled with birds or similar creatures, though they too may be paralleled with predators if their sexual appetites are emphasized. Regarding events, sunset tends to be associated with death, separation, etc. (again, sunset does not cause death, etc., in these cases). Sunrise is more likely to be linked with renewal, birth or rebirth, reunion, and so forth. The season of natural rebirth (e.g., spring) tends to be associated with renewal, birth, and the reunion of lovers. The season of barrenness (e.g., winter) appears to be more commonly associated with despair, death, the separation of lovers, military loss, and so on. Water is often connected with new life. In keeping with these points, Pandit has argued that urban societies often establish a contrast between a partially degraded or corrupt place of civilization and a semi-idyllic green world (103).

Future Research

The most obvious tasks for future work in this area are the isolation of additional universals of imagery and their systematic organization. The former task includes the isolation of further types of formal relation as well as further sorts of concrete particulars. As to systematic organization, it would be valuable to see what patterns there may be across concrete particulars, beyond the division into character-related and event-related. It would also be valuable to know more about which images recur with the greatest frequency, which are limited in their appearance, and what cultural or other variables may govern such differences. Another potentially consequential task is elaborating on the consequences of internal and external parallelism (e.g., the ways in which they produce emotional effects in a reader or just what consequences they have for the communication of themes). Finally, it is important to integrate research on imagery with research on narrative and metaphor, and to consider the relation of foreground-background relations to non-directional integration (e.g., in conceptual blending theory).

(An earlier version of this article was published on the website of the original Literary Universals Project in 2002. That earlier version appeared in a Turkish translation, “Imgenin Evrenselleri,” trans. Özgen Felek, Bizim Külliye: Üç Aylik Kültür Sanat Dergisi 21 [September 2004]: 11-12. I have limited revisions of the article in order to preserve continuity with that earlier version.)

Works Cited

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Beauty, Politics and Cultural Otherness: India in the Study of Comparative Literature.” In Hogan and Pandit 3-43.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Literary Universals and their Cultural Traditions: The Case of Poetic Imagery.” Consciousness, Literature, and the Arts 6.2 (August 2005).

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Shakespeare, Eastern Theatre, and Literary Universals: Drama in the Context of Cognitive Science.”  In Shakespeare East and West. Ed. Minoru Fujita and Leonard Pronko. Richmond, Surrey: Japan Library, 1996, 164-80, 189-90.

Hogan, Patrick Colm and Lalita Pandit, eds. Literary India: Comparative Studies in Aesthetics, Colonialism, and Culture. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995.

Mehta, Deepa, dir. Fire. Screenplay by Deepa Mehta. New Delhi, India: Kaleidoscope Entertainment, 1996.

“The Newly Compiled Tale of the Golden Butterflies,” trans. Wilt Idema, in The Columbia Anthology of Chinese Folk and Popular Literature, ed. Victor Mair and Mark Bender (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 505-551.

Pandit, Lalita. “Patriarchy and Paranoia: Imaginary Indfidelity in Uttararāmacarita and The Winter’s Tale.” In Hogan and Pandit, 103-133

Scarry, Elaine. Dreaming by the Book (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1999).


By: Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut


Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

There are numerous story universals. These may be divided first into event universals and character universals. (On universals of setting, see “Imagery.”) Event universals may be further divided into motifs, on the one hand, and broad story arcs or story genres, on the other.

Character and Motif

The basic character universals are unsurprising as they derive from the common structure of stories as sequences of events in which a main character pursues a goal. That main character, which is to say the primary agent in pursuit of the goal (e.g., the lover in a romantic story or the central warrior in military conflict), is the hero. Other universal characters divide primarily into those who help the hero and those who block the hero’s achievement of the goal. On the other hand, some universal character types are more particular. The older confidant to the female lover, the friend who acts as go-between, the domineering father, the inept ruler, are all candidates for universality. Perhaps more interestingly, different literary traditions have a character who manipulates the other characters and the events of the story to produce the particular result he or she desires. The character is hardly plausible realistically and is therefore particularly striking. Presumably, the origin of this character is in the author’s own manipulation of characters and events. At some point, it occurs to authors to put a character with their own authorial powers into the story. (On this final type, see Hogan “Shakespeare.”)

Motifs are limited narrative sequences that may be embedded in different story arcs or genres. Several important motifs have been isolated by pre-cognitive researchers. A prominent example of a motif is the quest, the long and dangerous journey to acquire some particularly valuable object. (Campbell’s treatment of the quest is probably the most famous.) The birth of the hero  is also a cross-cultural motif (see Rank). Lalita Pandit has suggested that the inclusion of staging–in effect, a play within a play—may be a universal of theater (“Patriarchy” 103). This is an inclusion of the same general type as found in the manipulator character mentioned above, a projection of the author’s relation to the story into the story itself. It is also an instance of a discourse universal–the embedding on one narrative within another, as in flashbacks or prophecies. Pandit has suggested further that the false imagination of a wife’s infidelity is a cross-cultural motif in patriarchal societies (“Patriarchy”). Raducanu has taken up and extended Pandit’s argument, indicating that a test or trial of a woman’s chastity—in connection with imagined infidelity–is a consequential cross-cultural motif (see Trials of Women’s Chastity).

Prototypical Stories

As to the larger sequences of events or genres, I have argued that there are several cross-cultural story arcs, three or four of which are particularly prominent (see The Mind and Its Stories). Fundamental to my argument is the idea that the generation and reception of stories are guided primarily by prototypes, which is to say standard or average cases, rather than more abstract, necessary and sufficient conditions. In each case, the prototype is a matter of categorization processes. When authors begin to imagine a love story or a heroic story—whether they self-consciously apply a particular label to the topic or not—they necessarily link some structure with that topic; the structure is, after all, what makes it a love story or a heroic story, rather than something else. My contention is that, in keeping with ordinary semantic processes (see Rosch), that structure is provided by prototypes.

More precisely, when creating a narrative, authors may choose any topic they like and they may develop that topic in any way they wish. But they will most often begin with a standard genre category (again, this need not be a matter of self-conscious labeling). They will then follow the prototypical story structure and deviate from it only insofar as deviation is required by their specification of the prototype (e.g., in the personality traits they simulate for the main characters) or their sense of what will best fulfill the emotional and thematic (e.g., political or ethical) purposes of the story. Similarly, when interpreting and responding to a narrative, readers will begin by tacitly presupposing the prototypical structure and deviate from it only when that is necessary.

As is usual with cognitive explanations of literary patterns, this merely extends ordinary processes to the case of literature. When setting up a restaurant, an entrepreneur will begin with a genre prototype (e.g., fast food restaurant or family style restaurant), following the prototype (customers ordering at the counter for a fast food restaurant, customers being seated by a host or hostess at a family style restaurant) and deviating from that prototype only insofar as this seems to enhance the success of the restaurant or is a function of prototype specification (e.g., bringing tortilla chips with salsa in a Mexican family style restaurant). Narrative production operates similarly, though with perhaps more emphasis on innovative prototype deviations in the service of the main aims of the literary production. As usual, those main aims are producing an emotional effect and conveying thematic—usually political or ethical—concerns; in other words, authors seek to produce works that are both sweet and useful, as Horace famously put it (75).

Almost all stories involve general, story prototypical elements. A prototypical story, no matter what the genre, begins by establishing a particular goal for a hero or heroes. The unfolding of the story involves a hero or heroes seeking that goal. This hero is frustrated in his or her goal pursuit, usually due to the actions of a blocking character. That blocking character is typically a villain, thus a malicious and intentional opponent, and may be a family member. Moreover, the internal norms of the story indicate that the villain’s actions are not simply disagreeable, but more objectively wrong. The hero and the villain are often in conflict for reasons having to do with identity categories, the social in-group versus out-group divisions that organize their societies. The hero passes through a series of experiences that are non-ordinary and emotionally engaging. Ordinariness is of course defined relative to social expectations of the target audience; in other words, it is an indexical universal. For example, flying in an airplane is extraordinary for some audiences (e.g., those in the early days of aviation), but not for others. The hero’s experiences are frequently drawn from motifs, such as the quest motif. Moreover, these experiences often involve exile or some related removal from home. The hero may receive the aid of some helper, sometimes a figure with unusual social authority (e.g., a highly respected figure from the enemy side in a heroic plot). The hero’s exile is regularly part of a “tragic” middle, in which the protagonist seems furthest away from achieving his or her goal.

The story finally resolves when there is no longer any possibility of goal pursuit. In the majority of cases, there is a comic resolution, making the entire work into a tragi-comedy. In this case, the hero achieves the goal, often in an idealized way that assures it cannot be lost (as in the formulaic ending of a romantic story, “they lived happily ever after”). This idealization commonly involves social reconciliation, at least among those who are crucial to the wellbeing of the hero, such as his or her family. This may require that the blocking characters form two sets, those who are corrigible and those who are incorrigible. The former may undergo a sort of conversion, which allows their incorporation into the comic society, whereas the latter may be excluded from that society. In tragic cases, the conclusion still involves the necessary end of goal pursuit. However, in the tragic case that end results from the achievement of the goal being rendered impossible—for example, by the death of the hero. Sometimes that tragic resolution is preceded by a moment of (comic) hope, making these into what might be called “comi-tragedies.”

It is important to emphasize here that this is a prototype, not a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. There are plenty of sequences of events that we would count as stories, but that do not conform very closely to this outline. For example, if I recount my day to my wife, that is a sort of story, but it may have few of these features. That is what makes this a prototype-based account. On the other hand, it does indicate that some stories should feel like better cases of the category “story,” precisely because they are more prototypical. Thus Romeo and Juliet is a better case of a story than my rambling tale of the day’s events—or, for that matter, a work such as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Of course, I might shape the events of my day by for example elevating minor frustrations into conflicts with the covert machinations of villains in my department. But that would make my tale a better case of being a story precisely by making it more prototypical. Similarly, I may interpret a work by Beckett in a way that makes it more story-like, thus more prototypical. (Note that this does not in any way suggest that a story is better because it is more prototypical. For example, a banal Hollywood romance may be highly prototypical; that does not mean that it is better than Waiting for Godot.)

Here, as with most literary universals, the prototypical story structure may be explained by reference to common cognitive processes along with—probably rather quick—convergent development across traditions. Emotion is particularly important here, as it is in the definition of particular genres. Specifically, we all understand trajectories of human action by way of our intuitive psychology, the set of psychological principles for which we are innately prepared (see, for example, Boyer 100). This intuitive psychology includes dispositions, circumstances, beliefs, and goals. We first of all understand the hero’s initiation of actions as a matter of emotionally engaged goal pursuit. That goal pursuit is directed by beliefs—for example, beliefs about enemy nations in heroic plots. The trajectory itself is qualified and specified by the hero’s dispositions and circumstances—thus character and setting in the simulation of a fiction. In this way, the basic elements of a prototypical story are provided by intuitive psychology.

The “outcome emotion” of a story is the emotion provoked by the conclusion of the story. Goal pursuit aims at happiness. In the usual or default (prototypical) case, recipients identify with the protagonist. Thus they generally experience emotions parallel with those of the protagonist—for example, empathic love in relation to the protagonists in a romantic story. That parallel emotion is a form of happiness when the protagonist achieves his or her goal at the end of the work (in comedy). It is a form of sadness when that goal becomes unachievable (in tragedy). Thus the outcome emotion of a work is most often happiness (as comedies are more frequent cross-culturally), but may also be a form of sadness. (There are rarer cases where it is something else, such as anger.)

Emotional response, including outcome emotions, may be intensified in a number of ways. One obvious way in which an outcome emotion may be altered is by changes in the preceding emotions. Consider a simple example. If I go to the doctor expecting to be told that I have a chronic, degenerative disease (e.g., Parkinson’s disease), I will be relieved to be told that I have Lyme disease. However, if I go to the doctor expecting to be told that I’ve just been working too hard and need some rest and relaxation, I will be distressed to be told that I have Lyme disease. The outcome state (having Lyme disease) is the same in both cases. However, the outcome emotion differs radically. In each case, this is due to the contrast with the prior emotion, as I experienced it in anticipation of the outcome. This contingency of the outcome emotion on prior emotions gives rise to the tragic middle of tragi-comedies. Authors quickly recognize that it is perfectly nice to hear of two people falling in love, then getting married. However, listeners and readers are much happier at the outcome when the lovers are united after being separated, exiled, and nearly killed. The same process accounts for cases of comi-tragedy when this occurs.

The “familialization” of conflict—making the blocking characters into family members—is a matter of intensification as well. We expect or at least hope for more thorough loyalty and support from family members than from strangers. The attachment bonds one feels with family make conflict more painful—directly for the (simulated) hero, empathically for the (simulating) reader. This pain is relieved by the social reconciliation that often accompanies the hero’s achievement of his or her goal.

The motif of exile fits here as well. Our emotional organization of space divides the world fundamentally into home and not home. Home is cognitively familiar, but more importantly it is “where the heart is”—where we feel “place attachment.” Place attachment is related to person attachment (see Panksepp 407n.93) and our separation from home can be painful in precisely the way separation from a loved one is painful (and of course the two are often interrelated). Thus, for reasons of emotion intensification, we would expect different literary traditions to organize space into home and exile and to separate the hero from home in the tragic middle.

The tragic middle of course includes events other than exile. It generally involves the hero facing obstacles to achieving his or her goal. The nature of that goal is determined in part by the social quality of human cognition and emotion. Even our most basic, physical needs are inseparable from social interaction, cooperative and competitive. For example, even our acquisition of food is bound up with coordinated practices of hunting, gathering, or farming, as well as competition for resources. It is certainly possible for us to face purely physical obstacles in goal pursuit, and some stories treat such obstacles. But our social nature tends to make the goals themselves highly social (e.g., romantic union) and the main forms of help and hindrance social as well. This would lead us to expect to find blocking and helping characters. The principle of emotional intensification enhances this expectation in that our emotional response to people is more vigorous and sustained than our emotional response to things. I may be temporarily irritated with a door that flies open and hits me, but my anger is far greater in strength and duration if a person hits me. Moreover, my response to a person hitting me is commonly stronger to the extent that the act was intentional and malicious. If someone trips and smacks me accidentally, that is different from punching me—as is intending a playful jab that happens to be a tad too battering for my wispy frame. Thus we would anticipate the elaboration of blocking figures into plotting, malicious villains.

The implications for helping characters are parallel, but generally less consequential. This is true in part for the simple reason that it is more difficult to give inadvertent help than to do inadvertent harm. But it is also due to the fact that generally our emotional response to hedonic experiences is much less analytic and demanding than to aversive experiences. It appears that we are willing to accept benefits produced by chance, but we feel the need to understand the reasons for harm—presumably so that we can avoid similar harms in the future. Thus we may be perfectly willing to accept a hero succeeding by dumb luck. However, as Aristotle pointed out, we tend to recoil from stories in which a hero fails through no fault of his or her own (XIII.2; 1452b). This is one aspect of “hedonic asymmetry,” the non-parallelism of negative and positive emotions (on the general idea of hedonic asymmetry, see Frijda 323).

It is important to dwell for a moment on our different attitudes toward intentional and unintentional harms, as they tell us something important about emotional response. We may initially respond with anger in both intentional and unintentional cases. However, we quickly modulate our response to unintentional harms. One of the most important forms of modulation is ethical. We might inhibit or enhance our emotional response to a given action depending on whether we view it as ethical or unethical. Thus it generally becomes important that our preferences in a literary work broadly align with our ethical evaluations. If we consider the blocking character morally justified and the hero unjustified, that will constrain our emotional response. Of course, stories of this sort occur—and many of us may even prefer them, in part for their intellectual stimulation, in part for their non-habitual quality. However, we would not expect this to be the default or prototypical case.

The evaluative concerns of a story—and thus its thematic point–are often bound up with social identity categories. These categories are a fundamental means of organizing intra- and inter-societal relations in real life. They have profound psychological consequences, affecting one’s understanding of and emotional response to other people (on some of these consequences, see chapter one of Hogan Understanding Nationalism). For example, it appears to be the case that we tend to respond to in-group members with parallel emotion (e.g., sharing their mirth), but often respond to out-group members with a complementary or opposed emotion (e.g., resenting their mirth). (On parallel and complementary emotions in identity categorization, see Gazzaniga 164 and Hain and colleagues 155.) It is thus unsurprising that identity categories figure prominently in prototypical stories.

The preceding observations perhaps suggest one reason why ethical and political themes are of such importance in literature, and why that importance is found across traditions. That importance is, to some extent, a by-product of the emotional function of literature. Ethical and political concerns engage our modulatory processes and thus become consequential for our emotional response. Of course, other factors enter as well, such as who is paying for the production or preservation of stories and what ethical or political concerns he or she might have. Moreover, once present, ethical and political concerns may be developed systematically and autonomously.

Before going on to specific genres, it is important to remark on two points raised but not answered by the preceding reflections. The first concerns tragedy. Again, it appears that tragedy occurs less frequently than comedy across cultures. Why might that be? In part, this is a topic requiring further research. On the other hand, some points seem clear enough given what we know presently. First, sadness is an aversive emotion, while happiness is hedonic. Thus we would expect people in general to prefer comedies to tragedies, leading to the predominance of the former. Indeed, the problem is not so much why there are fewer tragedies than comedies. It is why there are tragedies at all.

One possible explanation for the existence of tragedy derives from the fact that compassion activates the reward system (see Kim and colleagues; the reward system is the system that governs “wanting” and “liking” [see Chatterjee 309]). Our experience of compassion is therefore not wholly aversive, but ambivalent, with a hedonic component. Understanding the operation of tragedy, then, should require a good understanding of ambivalence and the ways in which simulation may shape or direct ambivalence. It seems likely that the structure of prototypical tragedy will be explained most fully by such an understanding of ambivalence. For example, it may be the case that comi-tragic enhancement occurs principally in works that we consider melodramatic or that we criticize as emotionally manipulative, and that this is a matter of just how ambivalence is developed. An ambivalence-based account of tragedy would include reference not only to sorrow and compassionate reward response, but also modulatory processes, particularly bearing on the former, where ethical and thus thematic issues are likely to enter again. For example, Aristotle’s idea of a tragic error is a way of considering modulatory ambivalence (see Aristotle XIII.3; 1453a). We feel sorrow for the hero’s fate, but we also recognize that he or she is in some degree responsible for that fate, which modulates our response. Unfortunately, the nature of empirical research, with its necessary concern for isolating variables, has given us much less knowledge about ambivalence than more unequivocal emotion states—despite the fact that most of our real emotional experience is probably ambivalent to some degree.

The second issue worth commenting on is the case of non-identification with the hero. The default or prototypical case appears to be one in which the recipient of the work empathically hopes that the hero will achieve his or her goal. However, it does happen that we disagree with the hero’s goals and hope that he or she changes those goals in the course of the story. This is not necessarily a problem as the point of a cross-cultural pattern is that it recurs across traditions, not that it characterizes every work. Moreover, one point of tying genres to prototypes (not necessary and sufficient conditions) is that individual narratives will converge only approximately and in varying degrees, not wholly. However, it is still worth remarking that the non-identification story is commonly of two sorts. In the simpler version, we hope for the happiness of the protagonist. However, we think that the protagonist is mistaken about what will make him or her happy. In the more complex case, there are two or more protagonists and we hope for a reconciliation of the happiness achievements of these different protagonists. The two types of non-identification may occur together, as in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night where audience members are likely to feel that Orsino should give up on Olivia and that his happiness goal should be reconciled with that of Viola. The same point applies to Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park with respect to Edmund, Mary, and Fanny. Thus we are usually dealing with a complication of identification in these cases, not a repudiation of it.

Story Genres: Romantic Tragi-Comedy

But, again, the full prototypical forms of stories are not confined to this general structure. They divide into more specific genres as well. In isolating these genres, I began by more or less accidentally noticing the recurrence of certain story types across literary traditions, suggesting genre prototypes. From here, I saw that the story types themselves had certain features in common, suggesting the story prototype just discussed. I then sought to explain these features by reference to emotion. I found that I could explain the story prototype by general features of emotion operation, with the differentiating characteristics of the genres explained principally by reference to differentiating features of specific emotion systems.

Romantic stories start with some prefatory material that introduces the protagonists. The main action begins when the protagonists fall in love. This establishes their goal of romantic union. The lovers face obstacles. Often, these obstacles involve identity categories such that the lovers fall into non-intermarrying groups. There is usually opposition to the union coming from some social authority, typically parents. The parents often prefer another spouse for one of the lovers. This links the socially separated lovers sequence with a love triangle sequence involving a rival. That love triangle may be the main story sequence or subsidiary to the story of the lovers’ social separation. (Both the romantic and heroic prototypes have two partially separable sequences, though the reasons are different in the two cases.) The lovers are separated, with one often exiled. Sometimes the separation is associated with imagery of death or rumors of death. The lovers are often helped in their union, sometimes by a character with some sort of authority (either through social position or some merit, such as intellect, as with the wily slave of Roman New Comedy). The efforts of the helper and the lovers alter the situation so that the lovers are able to be reunited. This may involve the discovery that the identity opposition was mistaken (e.g., the beloved is not actually a slave, but a patrician kidnapped in infancy), the hero’s achievement of social prestige, the disgrace of the rival (sometimes involving defeat by the hero), or something else. The lovers are united and reconciled with society, including their parents; however, the rival may be excluded from the reconciliation.

Once again, it is important to stress that this is prototypical, not necessary. Individual stories will approximate the prototype to a greater or lesser degree. Specific elements of the prototypical sequence may be missing or altered. The point is simply that there appear to be tendencies of this general sort.

As should be clear, many features of the romantic plot are explained by the principles governing the general story prototype. The meeting and falling in love are simply versions of establishing the goal. The centrality of identity categories is part of the story prototype and explicable in the same way. The obstacles are a matter of intensifying the outcome happiness. We see familialization in the establishment of parents as blocking figures, and the emotion-intensifying organization of space in exile. The imagery of death is a straightforward instance of creating a tragic middle. The existence of a helper character—enabled by status or skill–fits the general social nature of goal pursuit. The comic achievement of romantic union is typically idealized in the usual manner, with social reconciliation completing the intensification of the outcome happiness. The common incorporation of the family into the comic society obviously functions as part of this idealization. The place of the rival is complicated by the fact that his or her presence in the society may pose a lingering threat to the happiness of the lovers. It seems to be the case that the rival is most likely to be incorporated into the comic society when events have excluded the possibility of such a threat—for example, if it is discovered that the rival is a close relative of the beloved (as in The Marriage of Figaro), thus precluding their romantic union.

Only a few elements of the romantic prototype are not explained by the story prototype. Some of these are a straightforward result of other developments in the story. For example, social authorities (e.g., the beloved’s parents) may object to the lover on the basis of his or her identity category. In tragic versions of the story, this objection may never be overcome. In comic versions without social reconciliation, it may also not be overcome. However, in intensified, comic versions, the conflict should be overcome. There are two obvious ways that this may occur. First, the identity opposition may itself be overcome. This may involve a broad change in society and may run contrary to dominant beliefs in the real society in which the story occurs. This version of reconciliation may be more common in modern works that set out to criticize social taboos (e.g., on interracial, gay, or lesbian romance). On the other hand, these may also be more frequently tragic, pursuing their thematic point through the cultivation of compassion. In any case, the other obvious way in which identity conflict may be reconciled is through the discovery that one of the lovers has been mis-categorized. Alternatively, the objection of parents or the social limitations on the lovers may be a matter of achievement, rather than identity. A simple case of this occurs in stories where a lover simply does not have the financial means to establish a household. In this case, there is one obvious solution—the lover achieves the sort of success that was previously lacking. One or the other form of social inhibition—that bearing on identity categorization or that bearing on achievement—seems likely to predominate in one or another social milieu (e.g., feudal society may foster the former, while capitalist society is more consistent with the latter). This introduces a typological element into romantic prototyping. Finally, the blocking characters may not object to the lover himself or herself, but may merely consider the rival superior. In that case, the obvious means of reconciliation is to alter the relative status of the hero and rival, either through the achievement of the former or the disgrace of the latter. Thus the most prototypical versions of the romantic story seem clearly explicable regarding the means of goal attainment.

The existence of a rival, and thus the love triangle plot, is not predicted by the general story prototype. However, it is hardly anomalous. To some extent, it derives from social factors that recur cross-culturally. The main factor is the assumption of that men and women will marry.  In other words, the main cultural alternative to marrying one person is not remaining single, but marrying another person. Given general cultural imperatives to marry, one would expect that social opposition to a character’s marital choice would involve an alternative.

On the other hand, the love triangle plot may develop independently of any social disapproval of the main lovers. In other words, the rival may not be a socially approved alternative. Indeed, it may even be unclear whether there are or are not primary lovers, thus whether or not the beloved does or does not reciprocate the feelings of the hero or heroine. As the phrasing of this point suggests, in cases of this sort, we commonly have a single rather than a dual protagonist. In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, for example, the lovers are Anne Elliot and Wentworth. However, the protagonist in the novel is clearly Anne; she does not share this role with Wentworth. It is also not clear until the end of the novel that Wentworth actually loves Anne. Moreover, the development of Wentworth’s relationship with Louisa—the rival—is not socially preferred. (There is a love triangle of the socially preferred sort as well. Lady Russell has disapproved of Wentworth and favors William Elliot as a spouse for Anne.) Cases of this sort seem best explained as part of the intensified emotional development of the focal lover’s goal pursuit.

The most obvious unexplained feature of the romantic plot is of course that it concerns romance, with the specific goal of union of the lovers. The general prototype says nothing about the definition of goals. Differentiation of goals is precisely what distinguishes narrative genres in this sense. The goals of all these genres involve the pursuit of happiness. However, that happiness is of a different sort in each case. Again, a fundamental claim of this account of story genre is that particular happiness goals are defined by emotion systems, individually or in interaction. The happiness goal of the romantic genre is defined by romantic love. Romantic love does not seem to be a single human emotion system. It is, rather, the result of several emotion systems interacting, with cumulative effects resulting from their mutual enhancement. These emotion systems are attachment (the bonding that occurs most obviously between parents and small children), sexual desire, and reward (for discussion of this analysis of romantic love, see chapter three of Hogan What). Again, the reward system is the system that governs wanting and liking. It is also the system involved in addiction. What occurs in drug addiction may be understood as a specific form of what we might call “reward dependency.” Reward dependency is the narrowing of wanting and liking such that any enjoyment becomes reduced to or at least contingent on one sort of enjoyment–the drug in addiction or the beloved in romantic love. The romance-specific features of the romantic prototype are, first of all, a matter of the protagonists’ goals being defined by the particular complex of emotion systems involved in romantic love.

Attachment in romantic love, enhanced by reward dependency, tends to make happiness fragile. There are two primary sources of that fragility. The first is the world, especially the social world, outside of the couple. That is the source of the socially separated lovers sequence. But there is another source of insecurity in such relationships. That is the inscrutability of the beloved. However much we may think that we understand and sympathize with another person, we do not know their thoughts and feelings directly and with certainty. There is always a possibility of doubt. The contingency of our happiness on someone else—not only his or her presence and behavior, but his or her love as well—makes that doubt consequential, sometimes deeply so. This is the reason that jealousy may become so important in romantic love. When not the result of social preference, the love triangle plot may be understood as a development from this aspect of insecurity in the emotional profile of romantic love. Moreover, the possibility of doubt helps to explain why the final resolution of the romantic plot is apparently more likely to incorporate socially disapproving figures (such as parents) than rivals—except in cases where the rival has been rendered innocuous (e.g., by the discovery that he is the long lost sibling of the beloved).

Thus we see that the cross-cultural recurrence of the romantic prototype can be readily explained, largely by reference to emotional factors. The point extends to other cross-culturally recurring genres. Those too are explicable by reference to happiness goals defined by emotion systems or combinations of emotion systems. Conversely, this account suggests that we should find cross-cultural genres that derive from other systems or combinations of systems. We cannot consider all these genres and their explanations in detail. However, it is worth sketching their outlines.

Story Genres: Heroic and Sacrificial

Romantic tragi-comedy may be the most common genre in written traditions. The heroic genre is very frequent as well. It too involves two separable, but usually interrelated sequences. These are the usurpation story and the invasion story. The usurpation story concerns a legitimate leader of some social identity group, such as a nation. His or her legitimacy is usually connected with both moral right and competence. Sometimes complications occur and there are problems with his or her rectitude or capacity. Indeed, there are cases in which even the political legitimacy of the leader is not entirely straightforward. In other words, heroic plots often involve some degree of ambiguity and ambivalence. When a heroic story has social authority, however, both the ambiguity and ambivalence may be widely denied—or, rather, excluded without comment. A good example of this is the Mahābhārata in India. The superiority of the Pāṇḍavas over the Kauravas usually goes unquestioned. But the text itself is much more equivocal—a point recognized in literary reworkings of the poem (e.g., in the representations of the character Karṇa, from Bhāsa to Tagore). Another complication of the heroic plot is that the story may not concern the leader himself or herself, but a loyal soldier or advisor. (This might result in part from an attempt to avoid offending rulers in the real world—for example, the monarch of a nation in which a play is enacted.)

The main action of the usurpation story begins when the legitimate leader (or related authority, such as a particularly loyal and brave soldier or a wise and benevolent advisor) is dislodged from his or her position and replaced by a rival. That rival is typically villainous (it is difficult to usurp a kingship by accident). Moreover, he or she is often a family member and the displacement commonly entails exile, as we would expect. During this period, the legitimate leader may be linked with imagery or rumors of death; indeed, he or she may literally die, being replaced in the remainder of the story by a son or daughter. In exile, the leader (or his or her son or daughter) gains the support of helpers and often manages to accomplish some remarkable feat that leads to his or her restoration. The restoration is partially idealized in that the peace and stability of the society appear to be established even into the distant future.

The remarkable accomplishment of the leader is often connected with the invasion (alternatively, threat and defense) sequence. The invasion sequence begins with a peaceful, autonomous society defined by some social identity category (e.g., a nation). That society is overrun by an antagonistic out-group, which ends the in-group autonomy. That invasion is often facilitated by an in-group collaborator, who may in turn serve as the usurper in the usurpation sequence. For example, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Antonio joins with Alonso to enable the latter’s invasion of Milan, which in turn allows Antonio to usurp his brother’s position as Duke of Milan. When the usurper does not collaborate with the enemy, he or she may prove to be incompetent or cowardly in the defense of the home society. Despite the failings of the usurper, the home society struggles against the invaders, with much death and destruction in the tragic middle. It may recruit a helper, specifically a collaborator, from the enemy camp. This is often a character with moral authority who rejects the practices of his or her own group, condemning them as immoral, thus further legitimating the in-group of the main hero or heroes. More importantly, the usurped, legitimate ruler may return and successfully oppose the enemy. In the full, comic version, the home society eventually expels the invader, establishing a sort of utopia.

Here, as with the romantic genre, most points follow from the general story prototype, along with some common social phenomena bearing on social authority. The specificity of the genre derives principally from the emotion systems defining the hero’s goals. The main emotion involved in the heroic story is pride, both a sense of accomplishment (a matter of satisfying standards) and a sense of social status (a matter of inspiring esteem). The usurpation sequence concerns individual pride. The threat and defense sequence concerns in-group pride for some social identity category (such as a nation). Indeed, the psychological importance of both individual and social pride makes the duality of the heroic story, if not predictable, then at least unsurprising in retrospect. Like the romantic genre, the heroic plot commonly involves not only an affirmation of positive goals, but also a response to the emotional pains associated with those goals. Again, romantic love may be disturbed by insecurity, including jealousy. Pride is undermined most fully by (private) shame or (public) humiliation. Indeed, these are related disturbances as jealousy is often associated with shame, and public knowledge of a lover’s infidelity is probably the prototypical case of romantic humiliation. In heroic narratives, the shame and humiliation come in the tragic middle with the deposing of the leader and the defeat of the home society. They are overcome in the idealized conclusion.

Two things are particularly worth noting about the heroic genre. First, it is the predominant genre defining and organizing group identity, particularly national identity. As such, it is widely and deeply consequential for politics (a point I have discussed at length in Understanding Nationalism). At the same time, it is a highly ambivalent and ambiguous genre, as already indicated. Romantic plots are almost always straightforward. We want the lovers to be united, full stop. But things are messy in heroic stories. People are killed, mutilated, deprived of loved ones. Even when the suffering is experienced by the out-group, authors and readers typically do not feel good about this, or they do not only feel good about it.

One striking result of the ambiguity and ambivalence of heroic plots is the recurrence of what may be called an epilogue of suffering. We would expect a heroic story to stop with the restoration of the legitimate leader and the decisive defeat of the enemy. But often this is not the case. Rather, something frequently happens after the expected ending. This epilogue may take one of two forms. In its simple form, it is merely a lament, a sort of threnody for the dead. Surprisingly, the lament may focus on the defeated enemy, exposing us to the pain of the out-group and evoking sympathy for people that the entire work seemed designed to oppose. The more complex form is even more surprising. This is a mini-narrative of guilt and reparation, often involving a second degradation of the hero, where he or she goes through a sort of punishment for the cruelties of the war. The punishment may be divine, but it may also be self-inflicted, an expression of piercing remorse. The reparation implied by this epilogue serves in principle to make the idealized community possible, freeing it from the sins that are inevitable in warfare. But it is not that simple and there is often something disturbing about the conclusion of heroic stories. Again, this is surprising in that it runs counter to the in-group jingoism that is so often a central part of heroic narrative. But, considered from another angle, it becomes less surprising, indeed perfectly explicable. The very nature of literary simulation encourages us to imagine the subjectivity of other people in detail. That makes it difficult to accept their suffering, even when they are enemies. This operation of simulation is perhaps the main reason that literature is thought to have humanizing effects.

The introduction of guilt brings us to our third “major” genre—sacrificial tragi-comedy. The goal in sacrificial tragi-comedy is physical well-being generally, but most prototypically the acquisition of food. This goal is defined by the hunger system. In an age of supermarkets and widespread obesity, it may seem that acquiring food does not constitute much of a goal. But, for most of human history, satisfying hunger was a pressing task virtually every day. Such satisfaction was continually threatened by environmental dangers, prominently drought and ensuing famine. (Parallel points hold for general health and ravaging diseases, such as smallpox.) When famine came, it was not easy to explain. When an enemy invades one’s territory, the cause of one’s suffering is clear—the greed of the invaders. When society prevents the union of lovers, the source of pain is straightforward—commonly, the identity categories of the lovers. But famine seemed explicable only by reference to divine displeasure at social violation. It was thus a matter of guilt. The sacrificial story begins with some violation of divine precepts. That violation may be widespread within the society or it may have been committed by one or more members of the society who may be seen as representing the society as a whole—for example, the ruler. In either case, the violation is commonly understood as resulting not from spontaneous faults of the in-group, but from the seductive manipulations of some internal enemy, some out-group member within the society. The violation leads to divine punishment of the group—the tragic middle in which we find the opposite of the goal (thus here famine rather than the satiation of hunger).

The devastation found in the tragic middle can be reversed by placating the offended deity. That can be done only by reparation, some reversal of the original sin. Since sin involves self-indulgence, reparation is often understood as a matter of self-sacrifice. (I do not find the cognitive and emotional reasons for this to be entirely transparent. It is a topic for further study.) In this case, the sacrifice is social rather than individual. There are two ways in which such sacrifice commonly proceeds. In the “purgative” version of the story, it is the guilty parties who are punished—often purged from society through exile or death. In contrast, the “penitential” version commonly presents the sacrifice of an innocent scapegoat, someone who is pointedly not guilty of this or any other sin. The suggestion in this case seems to be that this is a pure self-sacrifice, since it is not required as reparation for any individual sins. The sacrifice leads to the restoration of natural well-being, usually in an idealized form of abundance.

Many elements of the sacrificial plot are well explained by the story prototype—for example, the contrast between devastation in the tragic middle and plenty in the idealized conclusion. Others, including the specification of the devastation as famine, are a function of the motivation system of hunger. Still others are a matter of overcoming the aversive emotion of guilt. Finally, there are contributions from cognitive processes of causal inference. On the other hand, there appear to be more features of the sacrificial plot that call out for further study, such as the precise relation between the sacrifice of innocents and the overcoming of collective guilt—or for that matter the relation between the emotion of remorseful guilt and other emotions connected with being “guilty” (i.e., being responsible for a moral violation), but not necessarily feeling guilt.

Minor Genres: Familial, Seduction, Revenge, and Criminal Investigation

In The Mind and Its Stories, I identified only these three genres—romantic, heroic, and sacrificial. In connection with this, I argued that prototypes are context sensitive and that there are three important contexts for happiness goals: physical, personal (or inter-personal), and social. Drawing on empirical research, as well as the literary data, I argued that the prototype for physical happiness is plenty, abundance of food; the prototype for personal or inter-personal happiness is romantic union; and the prototype for social happiness is domination or authority within the in-group and domination of out-groups by the in-group. This helped to account for the place of these genres in distinct literary traditions.

However, this did not imply that there would be no other cross-cultural genres. Indeed, the explanations for these genres seemed to suggest that there would be further patterns, though perhaps with less frequency. For example, the fact that romantic stories combine attachment goals with sexual goals might lead us to expect that there would be stories with attachment goals or sexual goals alone. Similarly, we might expect stories of individual pride, shame, and humiliation to occur, dissociated from national government or warfare.

In Affective Narratology, I took up these theoretical issues and also expanded my study of literary traditions, considering further story patterns. I argued that there are other cross-cultural genres. However, they do not appear to recur with the same frequency or prominence in different traditions. By frequency, I mean the number of occurrences of a given genre within the larger body of literature. By prominence, I mean the social importance of instances of the genre. The sacrificial genre, for example, has enormous prominence in the Judeo-Christian tradition due to the story of Jesus; it also has great frequency, in part due to retellings of that story. The minor genres also appear to be less autonomous. In other words, when they do appear, they are more likely to form subplots, dependent on heroic, romantic, or sacrificial main stories. The minor genres also seem to be more diffuse, with greater variability in elements, and fewer standard characteristics. A possible exception to these limitations is the family separation and reunion genre, which may belong in the major genre category. It appears to occur frequently, though it does not seem to have the prominence of the other genres, and its autonomy seems less clear. (This is a point for future research.)

The family separation and reunion genre involves just what the name suggests. A family is together. Parents and children or siblings are separated in the tragic middle. This may be due to the actions of one or the other party (e.g., the parents may abandon the children, sometimes in the belief that this will benefit the children). Alternatively, this may be the result of some villainous behavior, such as kidnapping, by a blocking figure. The separation may be quite enduring, extending over the children’s growth to adulthood. It may be associated with imagery of death or rumors of death. It clearly involves the displacement of some characters from home, even if we would not necessarily refer to this as “exile.” Commonly, one party seeks the other and, often with the aid of some helping figure, the family is reunited. An interesting twist in this story occurs when the final reunion is preceded by misidentification of the parent or child (e.g., when the child takes someone unrelated to be his or her long-lost father).

Most features of this genre are explained by the story prototype plus the specific features of the attachment system—its relation to family bonds, its goal of proximity to and accessibility of the attachment object, and so on. The negative emotion treated by the genre is simple and straightforward—attachment insecurity. Again, such insecurity has two sources, the attachment object and the world. This difference accounts for the division of familial narratives into those where one of the parties (e.g., a parent) is responsible for the separation and those where some third party (or a force of nature, such as a shipwreck) is responsible. Moreover, the resolution of the aversive emotion is achieved not only by the final reunion, but also by sometimes making parental love and self-sacrifice the motivation for the initial separation.

The motif of mistaken identification may be related to a developmental fact. Specifically, it may derive from our propensity to find substitutes for our parents in other people—for example, teachers or political leaders—whom we idealize. On the other hand, “misrecognition” occurs in many cases of the minor genres. This suggests some more general explanation. The obvious candidate is emotion intensification. Misrecognition may make it seem that the final goal of the hero is less likely to be achieved. But if this is the case, one might wonder why misrecognition does not appear to be an important motif in the major genres. But that might simply be a matter of how misrecognition would work its way into the narrative. Shakespeare uses misrecognition in partially romantic sequences in All’s Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure, as well as The Comedy of Errors. It may simply be that some sequences make such misrecognition plausible while others do not. Even so, it seems that the motif is less common in the major genres than one might expect. It is yet another topic for further research.

A final point to make about family separation and reunion stories is that the idealization of their conclusions is often limited or absent. This is in part a matter of the family genre itself. Parents and children are, obviously, not the same age. Especially after years of separation, they cannot necessarily anticipate many years together. The attachment insecurity imposed by the span of human life is not readily erased. On the other hand, there is a degree of ambivalence in most genres. In this way, it seems that most goal achievement involves ambivalence—due either to the nature of the achievement itself (e.g., the late reunion with parents in familial narratives) or the way in which the goal is achieved (e.g., through violence in heroic narratives). In this way, the question is rather why the romantic genre especially seems so rarely affected by ambivalence and why the sacrificial genre may involve less than the usual ambivalence as well.

As noted above, along with an attachment-based genre, we might expect a genre based on sexual motivations. We find this in seduction narratives. Seduction narratives prototypically involve a man deceitfully seducing a woman, often misidentifying himself in the process. The woman may agree for reasons of sexual pleasure. However, it seems more common that she agrees in order to have a child (sometimes as a means of achieving power or status in a patriarchal society). In other words, the genre based on the sexual desire system involves both hedonistic and fertility concerns. The seducer abandons the woman, who pursues him. One or both may die, or they may be united in a marriage that is likely to leave readers troubled—though pregnancy tends to make the marriage resolution less disturbing, if hardly unambivalent. One unusual aspect of the seduction genre is that the sexual goal is achieved relatively early in the story and what follows treats only the associated aversive emotions. Specifically, death often punishes one or both parties for their guilt, while marriage resolves the woman’s social humiliation and sexual shame. This development is hardly surprising, given the nature of sexual desire, its resolution, and its consequences. Again, it seems that the main features of the genre are explained by the interaction of the specific emotion systems (especially sexual desire, in this case) along with the common features of the story prototype.

The reference to shame or humiliation and guilt reminds us that stories treating these concerns are hardly confined to large social problems such as mutinies and famines. They occur at a more personal level all the time. As such, we would expect them to encourage the creation of other genres—and they do. Revenge narratives occur in different times and places, though again not with the frequency or prominence of the major genres. There are two common versions of the revenge story. One involves sexual violation; the other, murder. Both are highly ambivalent and commonly suggest that the actions of the revenger are, at best, only slightly less heinous than those he or she is revenging. This ambivalence is enhanced by the fact that the revenge often leads to the deaths of innocent bystanders as well, sometimes through misrecognition. In the sexual betrayal version, one spouse’s infidelity humiliates the other spouse, who takes revenge often by murdering the offending parties. In the murder version, someone has murdered an attachment figure of the hero (e.g., his or her spouse or father). The revenge is then a reciprocation of the murder—often following the killing of others due to confusion or accident. The outcome in both cases is typically far from idealized. Even in the best case, the protagonist finds himself or herself alone, still deprived of the attachment figure (e.g., the adulterous wife or murdered parent). He or she has not restored his or her own wellbeing, but merely extended the pain of grief to others in the society (e.g., the families of his or her victims, whether guilty or innocent). Here, again, we see elements of the story prototype integrated with particular emotion systems. The revenge plot is related to the heroic plot, but it is not underwritten by social ideology supporting the in-group’s hierarchy of authority or its autonomy (e.g., national integrity). Indeed, revenge is more appropriately set against the social necessity of law—a point made particularly clear in Aeschylus’s Eumenides. In this way, one would expect that revenge narratives would often be highly ambivalent, or even tragic.

A further, minor genre is that of criminal investigation. In some ways, this could be seen as a version of the revenge narrative, except that the offense and revenge are both understood as public or collective. The crime is against society, not an individual, and the punishment is enacted by society. This entails other differences. Emotionally, the action is not linked with attachment loss or betrayal, or with shame or humiliation. One problem with both the heroic and revenge narratives is that they involve action sustained by anger or rage, a standard response to shame or humiliation, and rage may lead to precipitate violence, thus the harming of innocents (see Walker and Knauer 725 on shame and violence; see also Scheff, and Scheff and Retzinger). This tendency is reduced in criminal investigation narratives, which may involve more deliberate and painstaking attempts to establish guilt. The principle emotion in these cases is something along the lines of indignation at antisocial behavior. This is not to say that there is no ambivalence in the criminal investigation narrative, though there is usually less ambivalence than in the other minor genres. One source of ambivalence comes with the possibility of corruption on the part of investigators—a recurring concern in this genre. This problem is compounded when the wrong person is punished for the crime, in this genre’s version of the mistaken identity motif. Another source of ambivalence is found in the recurring distinction between the hired henchmen, who are caught and punished, and the criminal masterminds, who often remain beyond the reach of the law. My inclination is to explain these recurring patterns simply by reference to things that happen cross-culturally in the real world when legal systems develop. Corruption occurs; false convictions take place; criminal bosses live in luxury while their hirelings languish in prison or die on the scaffold.

Future Research

Story genre is probably the most thoroughly investigated area in the study of literary universals. We have detailed and extensive hypotheses regarding a range of genres and the relation of these genres to one another. We also have considerable evidence for their cross-cultural recurrence. Finally, we have plausible explanations of these universals, based on—and at the same time partially extending—work in affective science, cognitive science, social psychology, and related fields. (For further discussion, see Hogan The Mind and Affective.) But this hardly means there is nothing more to be done.

First, the preceding analyses are undoubtedly mistaken in at least some respects. Even insofar as they are correct, all the preceding descriptions and explanations may be developed and extended by further research. Moreover, many of the specific claims are vague and should be made more precise. For example, what exactly is the relative frequency of the different genres, and their relative prominence? What is a good way of defining these concepts? A published work with few readers should presumably not weigh equally—even in frequency counts–with a work that is widely and repeatedly read. In connection with this, the distinction between major and minor genres should be made more precise and systematic. The study of both major and minor genres would also benefit from greater precision in determining what traditions do and do not have which genres and which versions of genres—and which do and do not have tragedy. We also need to consider what should constitute a tradition. In addition, we have treated some cross-cultural narrative motifs—types of narrative sequence that may be embedded in different genres. But clearly there are others. What are they? The same point holds for character types. Perhaps more significantly, we need to consider whether there are other cross-culturally recurring genres.

As indicated in the foregoing discussion, there are many specific questions that have arisen in relation to analyses that we have already undertaken. For example, we need to look more carefully at the relation of helping characters to social authority, to ascertain the strength of that relation, reasons for it, any variance it may have with genre, and so on. We need a better understanding of the psychology of sacrifice and reparation, both within and outside literature. Our current understanding of the motif of misrecognition seems too limited, and our explanations appear to fall short in accounting for its relation to genre. The list could be greatly extended.

Works Cited

Aristotle. The Poetics. Trans. S. H. Butcher. In Aristotle’s Theory of Poetry and Fine Art. Ed. Sh. H. Butcher. 4th ed. New York: Dover, 1951, 6-111.

Bhasa. Karna’s Burden. In The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays. Trans. A. Haksar. Gurgaon, India: Penguin, 2013.

Boyer, Pascal. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 2nd ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1972.

Chatterjee, Anjan. “Neuroaesthetics: Growing Pains of a New Discipline.” In Shimamura and Palmer, 299–317.

Frijda, Nico. The Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

Gazzaniga, Michael. Who’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain. New York: Ecco, 2011.

Hain, G., G. Silani, K. Preuschoff, C. D. Batson, and T. Singer. “Neural Responses to Ingroup and Outgroup Members’ Suffering Predict Individual Differences in Costly Helping.” Neuron 68 (2010): 149-160.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Affective Narratology: The Emotional Structure of Stories. Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska P, 2011.

Hogan, Patrick Colm, ed. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Language Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge UP and Paris: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 2003.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Shakespeare, Eastern Theatre, and Literary Universals: Drama in the Context of Cognitive Science.”  In Shakespeare East and West. Ed. Minoru Fujita and Leonard Pronko. Richmond, Surrey: Japan Library, 1996, 164-80, 189-90.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Understanding Nationalism: On Narrative, Identity, and Cognitive Science. Columbus, OH: Ohio State UP, 2009.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. What Literature Teaches Us About Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011.

Hogan, Patrick Colm and Lalita Pandit, eds. Literary India: Comparative Studies in Aesthetics, Colonialism, and Culture. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, 1995.

Horace. “The Art of Poetry.” Trans., Burton Raffel. In Richter, 68-77.

Kim, Ji-Woong, S.-E. Kim, J.-J. Kim, B. Jeong, C.-H. Park, A. Son, J. Song, and S. Ki. “Compassionate Attitude toward Others’ Suffering Activates the Mesolimbic Neural System.” Neuropsychologia 47 (2009): 2073– 2081.

Pandit, Lalita. “Patriarchy and Paranoia: Imaginary Indfidelity in Uttararāmacarita and The Winter’s Tale.” In Hogan and Pandit 103-133.

Panksepp, Jaak. Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.

Raducanu, Adriana. “The Earth, the Pillar and the Stone: Does Testing the Female Mean Empowering the Female in Valmiki’s Ramayana, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and the Turkish Tale Sitti Nusret?” Gender Studies (Romania) 11 (2012): 35-54.

Rank, Otto. The Myth of the Birth of the Hero: A Psychological Interpretation of Mythology. New York: Grove P, 2015.

Richter, David, ed. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Boston, MA: Bedford Books, 1989.

Rosch, Eleanor. “Prototypes.” In Hogan, Cambridge, 680– 682.

Scheff, Thomas. “Social-Emotional Origins of Violence: A Theory of Multiple Killing.” Aggression and Violent Behavior 16 (2011): 453-460.

Scheff, Thomas and Suzanne Retzinger. Emotions and Violence: Shame and Rage in Destructive Conflicts. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1991.

Shimamura, Arthur and Stephen Palmer, eds. Aesthetic Science: Connecting Minds, Brains, and Experience. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014.

Tagore, Rabindranath. “Dialogue Between Karna and Kunti.” Trans. Ketaki Kushari Dyson. Available online at .

Walker, Julian and Victoria Knauer. “Humiliation, Self-Esteem, and Violence.” The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology 22 (2011): 724–741.


By: Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

Rhythm Requires Poetic Sections

Nigel Fabb, University of Strathclyde

This is a proposed as an absolute (implicational) universal, and comes from Fabb and Halle (Meter): Where a text has a sustained regular rhythm, it is also divided into sections of determinate length.

Texts with a regular rhythm (sustained over a long stretch of the text) are called metrical.  The rhythm need not be periodic, and can vary; it is regular in the sense that it includes a range of variations which are overall subject to a set of rules.  In other words, metres are found in poems, defined as texts which are divided into poetic sections.  The following definition is from Fabb.

A poem is a text made of language, divided into sections which are not determined by syntactic or prosodic structure.   Such sections are called “poetic sections.”

The universal means that there is no metrical prose.  Meter depends on the division of a text into poetic sections – that is, meter depends on the text being poetry.  The fact that meter depends on sectioning can be seen also in the fact that metricality is locally sensitive to the edges of sections; the beginnings of lines tend to be metrically looser, the ends of lines metrically stricter.  Note that this is unconnected with how the text is written on the page. If we wrote out Paradise Lost as prose, the division into sections would still exist (it would still be a poem as defined above), as demonstrated by the fact that a generalization holds that every tenth syllable is word-final.

The universal also distinguishes regular rhythms in language from regular rhythms in music.  In music, regular rhythms can be sustained indefinitely over musical sequences which are not divided into sections; in other words, music can be a kind of “metrical prose” (Fabb and Halle “Grouping”).

The explanation of the universal is provided in the Fabb and Halle theory of meter, and is basically that regular rhythms are derived from counting.  In this theory, a regular rhythm is produced by rules which control the prosodic structure of the text relative to an abstract representation which is a periodic multi-level grid.  The grid is constructed by rules which build the grid from one end of a sequence of syllables (or morae) to the other end of the sequence; each meter is governed by rules which will build a well-formed grid only if the number of metrical syllables or morae fits within a specified range (e.g., for iambic pentameter, the grid can be built for a line of 9, 10 or 11 metrical syllables).  Thus in order to produce a regular rhythm, the text must be divided into sections which are of the right length to have a grid constructed from them, i.e., the text must be divided into sections (such as lines) of a determinate length, hence must be poetry and cannot be prose.

This universal combines with the universal controlling the length of the poetic line (Fabb), to produce a derived combined universal: Where a text has a regular rhythm, it is also divided into sections of determinate length which are short enough to fit into working memory capacity.

Future Research

There are some cases of what appear to be prose but have forms such as rhyme (e.g., Arabic rhymed prose or saj’).  The organization of these types of prose is underexplored; it is worth looking for examples of ‘metrical’ prose in which a regular rhythm is sustained over a long sequence where there is no evidence that the sequence is divided into subsections.

[See also Geoffrey Russom, “Comments on Fabb, ‘Rhythm,’” and Nigel Fabb, “Response to Russom.”]


Works Cited

Fabb, Nigel. What is Poetry?  Language and Memory in the Poems of the World. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015.

Fabb, Nigel and Morris Halle. “Grouping in the Stressing of Words, in Metrical Verse, and in Music.” In Language and Music as Cognitive Systems. Ed. Patrick Rebuschat, Martin Rohrmeier, John A. Hawkins, and Ian Cross. Oxford:  Oxford UP, 2012, 4–21.

Fabb, Nigel and Morris Halle. Meter in Poetry: a New Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.



By: Nigel Fabb, Strathclyde University, U.K.

Alliteration Requires Adjacency

Nigel Fabb, University of Strathclyde

This is a proposed as an absolute universal in Fabb (“Verse”): When regular alliteration holds between poetic sections, the poetic sections must be adjacent.

Regular alliteration is alliteration which conforms to a particular pattern for a large part of a text or for all of the text. Regular alliteration is quite a rare poetic form. A poetic section is defined as follows (from Fabb, “Verse”): in effect poems are differentiated formally from non-poems (prose) by having some kind of additional sectioning.  (Note that if this were not true, then all language would be poetry.)

A poem is a text made of language, divided into sections which are not determined by syntactic or prosodic structure (see Fabb, What is Poetry?).   Such sections are called “poetic sections.”

For the purposes of regular alliteration, the relevant poetic section which contins the the alliterating word can usually be called a half-line or a line.  In Old English (e.g., Beowulf), alliteration holds between words in adjacent half-lines (verses) in the long-line.  In Somali gabay songs, every half-line in the poem has a word which repeats the same alliteration throughout.  In Mongolian poetry, adjacent lines begin with the same alliteration, in pairs or longer sequences; alliteration is more regular in stanzaic verse, where every line in a stanza may alliterate, and less regular in strophic verse, where alliteration can continue for variable numbers of lines.

What is ruled out by this universal is a tradition in which alliteration holds between poetic sections in an ABAB pattern or any other intersecting pattern.  Such patterns are common with rhyme.

It is worth noting that in some Irish meters alliterating words cannot be separated by a stressed word (a rule which can sometimes hold across lines), which is another kind of adjacency requirement (Knott 13-22).

An apparent but not real counterexample comes from Welsh poetic patterns of repeated sounds (types of cynghanedd) where a sequence of sounds in the first half of the line is repeated in the second half (Rowlands).   This is a parallelism of sound-sequences and not alliteration.

Another apparent counterexample is “A Kodiak Poem,” by William Meredith (suggested by a reviewer of this article), in which the final stanza has alternating alliteration on l and r.  On the one hand we might see this as an isolated innovation characteristic of modern poetry (perhaps deliberately breaking a rule), but on the other hand it is worth noting that l and r are closely related sounds (both are in the class of liquid consonants).

Alliteration is sometimes wholly within a single undivided poetic section, as for example the line-internal alliteration which is found in the Kalevala meter or within the lines of some of the classical Irish metres.  These alliterative patterns are irrelevant to the universal (though they do not violate it).

Why might the universal arise?  One possibility is that intersecting patterns are more demanding to create, and require the relevant sounds to be at the end of a section such as the end of a half-line or line, in positions which enable them to be more easily remembered.  Section-final positioning is possible only for rhyme which can be word-final, and not for alliteration which cannot be section-final because it is word-initial.

Future Research

Look for more traditions with regular alliteration, to see whether universal holds.


Works Cited

Fabb, Nigel. “Verse Constituency and the Locality of Alliteration.”  Lingua 108 (1999): 223–245.

Fabb, Nigel.  What is Poetry?  Language and Memory in the Poems of the World. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015.

Knott, Eleanor. An Introduction to Irish Syllabic Poetry of the Period 1200-1600. 2nd ed. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1994.

Rowlands, Eurys I., ed. Poems of the Cywyddwyr. A Selection of Cywyddau c. 1375–1525.  Oxford: The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1976.


By: Nigel Fabb, Strathclyde University, U.K.