The Seven Basic Plots: why we tell stories
By Christopher Booker (Continuum)
As the giant ape climbs to his doom in Peter Jackson’s new King Kong, a friend who doesn’t normally cry at movies was sobbing his heart out beside me. And he wasn’t the only one. What is it about this story that has touched audiences for seventy years? Is there something, moreover, which echoes other, older stories? I can imagine – probably there is, somewhere – a cod-Marxist reading: Kong represents the proletariat, its exploitation highlighted by the Depression, murdered by capitalist greed. But I don’t think that would be why my friend was crying. Not that he’s unmoved by the horrors of capitalist greed; but the purely symbolic death of revolutionary hope wouldn’t, I think, be so moving. He (okay, my eyes were moist, too) was touched by something deeper.
Christopher Booker, in his massive work, The Seven Basic Plots, which took him thirty five years to write, has an answer. “Denham and his all-male crew represent the ego-consciousness of modern American civilisation, cut off from the instinctive world of nature... all the limitations of one-sided masculinity... The small inhabited peninsula of consciousness is cut off by a mighty barrier from the dark interior of the unconscious... and now the feminine value, the anima, has passed into that unconscious realm, in the clutches of the shadow of the dark masculine... Despite seemingly being a monster [Kong] reveals he is open to the femininity the heroine represents...” Back in New York, “America’s ego-consciousness hits back... Again and again, these anonymous little representatives of modern man, his pride inflated by the power of his technology, zoom down on the helpless monster... [T]he monster was by no means wholly a monster; in some respects less so than those little modern men.” (pp 377-379)
These thoughts sum up everything which is insightful and interesting but simultaneously annoying, one-sided, ideologically warped or simply banal about Booker’s conclusions. His framework is entirely that of the psychological theorist Carl Jung – and one of the irritating aspects of the book is his refusal anywhere to argue the case for this framework, rather than simply assert it (though, to be fair, it’s nearly 700 pages already). In this he follows another theorist of storytelling, Joseph Campbell (The Hero With a Thousand Faces), whose work was a direct influence, for instance, on Star Wars. (Booker detests Star Wars, along with almost everything else written in the last 200 years, when the ego started to cut loose from the Self. Though he does rather like Terminator 2.) Puzzlingly, he says nothing at all about the large number of books published over the past couple of decades intended as guides to would-be storytellers, like the best-selling Story by Robert McKee. I had hoped Booker’s study might go deeper than these more popular attempts. Well, he certainly tries.
The seven basic plots are Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, the Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth. Many stories, Booker explains, combine these plots. Some – Hamlet, Oedipus – subvert them. But in fact he is more interested in the Jungian archetypes which underline all of them, and in how storytelling in the last couple of centuries has slipped its moorings, producing purely egotist literature which ‘loses the plot’ because it doesn’t understand its own archetypes.
It is of course true that King Kong is the story in which, it turns out, the monster is not the gorilla, but (modern, capitalist) ‘Man’ himself. Humankind has become monstrous because of a warped relationship with and connection to nature: what moves us is the image of this beautiful, gentle, even loving, majestic beast, innocent of any crime, being murdered by our civilisation, which is more brutal than he is. There’s an obvious environmentalist reading, too: it makes me think of actual gorillas, driven close to extinction by deforestation and hunting. But somehow, Booker is right, what moves us is a sense of loss, something we as human beings have lost, or have destroyed. That the monster is so nearly human – in form, in expression, in emotion – emphasises the point. There are almost identical plots to movies – in The Valley of the Gwangi a captured dinosaur is killed in a burning building. But a dinosaur isn’t as touching as an ape, and not only, I think, because it isn’t as furry.
But what I find less persuasive is the Jungian paraphernalia about masculine and feminine values, ego and Self, Dark Mothers, Dark Fathers, and so on. There isn’t space in a short review to unravel these concepts. But after a while, as Booker ploughs through more and more stories, applying his categories – pretty much every heroine represents the anima, apart from those who play an active role in stories who are usually prisoners of the dark masculine (like Anna Karenina, for instance); obviously Darth Vader is a Dark Father (like, duh); King Lear is a Dark Father imprisoned by ego-consciousness who moves towards being a Light Father (but it’s tragedy, so the liberation isn’t complete)... the easy applicability becomes the problem. It’s too neat. Boxing all these stories into these concepts ceases to be an exercise in understanding their appeal. Instead, one starts to think – if that’s all there is to it, if stories are so similar, why do we continue to like them, continue to be riveted to the twists and turns, care about what happens?
Booker is right that there are universal – as in, not historically or culturally specific – themes which are what make stories work. If there wasn’t something universal about Oedipus, for example – about the shock of discovering he has killed his father and produced children with his mother – we wouldn’t understand it at all. He is probably right that often, if not always, these themes are simply to do with the ‘story’ of life, and our wish to make sense of it. We are born, have parents, maybe meet someone we love, maybe have children, face ‘monsters’ both interior and exterior, try to deal with other people around us, try to be happy, and eventually face up to the fact we will die. And very many stories are about these things.
Some are about other things, though – or things not simply reducible to the story of life. One of my favourite movies is Spartacus. Of course to work, be moving, engage us, make us care what happens, it has to be populated by ‘real’, believable people. Maybe Crassus is a Dark Father; maybe Varinia is the anima; maybe Spartacus triumphs over death by being able to ‘see whole’. But surely what moves us, among other things, is a story about freedom, and about humanity’s refusal to be enslaved without a fight, which can’t be defined in Booker’s terms – or it can, perhaps, but only by missing the point.
Booker doesn’t mention Spartacus. To take an example which he does: he loathes Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, made into a film by Milos Forman. “[T]he central figure, Mozart, [is] shockingly presented as a giggling and ridiculous little dirty minded grotesque... [Shaffer turns] the composer into this embarrassing travesty to gratify some obscure purpose of his own psyche... Thus, instead of recognising the human Mozart as all of a piece with music which is one of the supreme expressions in history of the values of the Self, the story sought to degrade him into an infantile caricature. By doing dirt on Mozart, it was unconsciously violating the Self.” (p 387). The Self, it should be understood, for Jung is distinct from the ego, and represents, basically, oneness with nature.
One shudders to imagine the play which would have resulted from treating Mozart in the way Booker recommends. Shaffer’s ‘obscure purpose’ was to deal with something far more interesting: the story is told by Mozart’s contemporary, Salieri, who is not only confronted by Mozart’s genius, but also by his own fundamental mediocrity. That Mozart is a childish brat only makes this worse. It’s a marvellous study of a man realising he will never be as good as he wants to be, and faced with a rival who is effortlessly brilliant. This is a human story: this is about something most of us have to deal with in our lives – that other people are cleverer, more talented, more interesting, or whatever it might be, than we are. Maybe Booker’s never had that experience.
It has to be said that this is the most casually sexist and homophobic book I have read in many years. Masculine and feminine principles/values, etc, are apparently not meant to be literally masculine or feminine (though why call them that, then?). But throughout, Booker treats ‘feminine’ as equalling intuitive, nurturing, etc, while ‘masculine’ is strong, disciplined... (‘Right wing’ is more masculine, and ‘left wing’ more feminine, by the way – and both, therefore, one-sided and insufficiently at one with the Self).
Worse, one of the expressions of the increasing ego-consciousness of western civilisation is an obsession with bad and ugly things: “certain themes continually reappear: the sexual act; nudity; a small number of four letter words, relating to bodily functions, either sexual or excretory; masturbation; homosexuality; sexual perversions; madness; drug-taking; acts of cruelty and violence; rape; cannibalism; finally violent murder or suicide.” (p 478). These, clearly, are all things of which he disapproves and signs of literary decadence. He (if only implicitly) doesn’t like homosexuality because the proper resolution of a good story requires the joining together of the masculine and feminine – in order for a new stage in the cycle of life to begin. Aside from anything else, such an approach makes the appeal of stories which deal with these subjects hard to explain. If Brokeback Mountain is just about egotism, how come people are moved by it?
Part of Booker’s purpose is to sum up the psychological state – and deficiency – of contemporary culture. (One assumes he has managed to be at one with his Self. He really ought to tell us who his shrink is). He tries to trace the evolution of storytelling along with the evolution of the species from a ‘state of nature’ – by which he appears to mean hunter-gatherer societies. There’s a sort of New Age-ish flavour to this image of ‘Man’ gradually losing touch with instinct as ‘he’ develops agriculture, cities, and so on which is for sure not his intention. And little of his account seems to have much basis in evolutionary theory, anthropology, archaeology, or anything else. But, I suppose, it makes for a good story.
Booker’s framework ends up less a source of enlightenment than a straitjacket, leaving whole areas of literature and storytelling fundamentally either inexplicable, or reduced to an uninteresting ‘essence’. There are useful things about the book – it’s a great crib for classic stories you might not have read (though not always reliable: a man who thinks Star Wars is “set in the distant future, when... our galaxy is ruled by one government” (p 42) is obviously not to be trusted). For sure he has read and tried to digest a huge amount of literature – though most, if not all of it, Western.
And he’s asking a profound and important question. It seems to be a very basic aspect of our humanity that we ‘tell stories’: every culture has its myths and legends and tradition of storytelling. Why do we do that? But Booker’s thirty five year labour has resulted only in a partial answer, and one which ultimately impoverishes a good deal of what it sets out to reveal.