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Shrek and Narratology

Updated on May 9, 2020

Any particular text be it a novel, poem, film, song or a photograph has a plot and a narrative structure. To expand and not to limit narratives to the arts, any particular sign has a structure. The literary critic, Frank Kermode suggests that even the ticking of the clock has a begging and an end. That is, the tick and the tock. (Kermode quoted by Culler, p83) However, this concise and humble essay puts the focus on the 2001 animated movie of Shrek by the co-directors Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson. Since, theories of narratives are not applicable to all the kinds of media, Shrek is a very unique film in the sense that it resembles a fairytale thus it includes almost all the elements of narratology, which is about theorsing narratives. The theories of narration are uncountable just like stories themselves. Therefore, throughout this essay, I will deal only with those of Tzvetan Todorov, Roland Barthes, Greimas and Vladimir Propp. In this way, the essay will be a comparative study for the reason that it aims at finding a common point between the four aforementioned theorists and thinkers bearing in mind how every single theorist sees the narrative structure of Shrek.

In an attempt to find out the link between Barthes, Todorov, Greimas and Propp, first it is worth noting that Greimas, Barthes and Todorov were structuralists. Propp is an exception because he is a Russian Formalist. In any case, Russian Formalism is not wholly different from structuralism since both of them are based on the aesthetic dimension of any text particularly how language conveys meaning in terms of structures. To start with, Roland Barthes is a key figure in literary theory and criticism mainly structuralism and later on post structuralism tough this shift must not be seen as self-contradiction because writing for Barthes is like filling in the gap rather than the establishment of a particular theory or a school of criticism. Barthes’ theory of the five codes appeared first in in his S/Z. This book discusses Balzac’s short story, Sarrasine, in more than two hundred pages. On one hand, the hermeneutic code of Barthes lies in the way the writer of a narrative formulate a question or delaying the answer to a later stage (Barthes quoted by Graham, p86). In this way, one of the greatest instances in the animated film of Shrek is the fact the donkey did not tell Shrek, the ogre, that by night, Fiona becomes an ogress. Therefore, this secret remains unfold until the end of the film where the donkey is going to tell Shrek that Fiona was not talking about him that night but about herself because she is no longer at ease with her shape and thus he will bring them together again. Second, the proairetic code is about actions and their effects (Graham, p87). The catalyst event of the film that will give rise to a series of enigmas and actions in motion is the deal made between Shrek and Lord Farquaad in order to look for the Princess Fiona as a reward the king will give back the swamp to the fairytales creators. The three remaining codes tackle mainly the problematic of meaning inside the text. The symbolic code highlights all the oppositional and antithetical items including themes and characterization. The semic code is concerned with connotations and the development of characters and ultimately comes the cultural code, which evokes the cultural background of all what is a common knowledge. (Graham; 87). The connotative message of the movie is that true love goes beyond one’s shape and appearances and that it is worthy to sacrifice oneself for the right people by loving them back. Moreover, as long as the semic code is about binaries there are many conflictual themes as well as characters. First, true love on the one hand and fake love on the other. Concerning characters, the donkey and all the fairytales creators take the side of Shrek to make him prevail over his antagonist, Lord Farquaad. Finally, the cultural code lies in the fact that the narrative makes allusion to the idea that true love always win as well as the conquest of good over evil.

Although some critics states that narratology is a branch of structuralism, it is as old as history itself. It dates back to the Greek philosopher and the first literary critic, Aristotle, who set up the main foundations of the dramatic plot in his seminal book, Poetics. According to Aristotle, “a good writer of tragedy ensures that the central protagonist is a person of high social status who suffers a fall from grace as a consequence of some act they have made” (Sedgwick and Andrew, p11). This will lead us to one of the earliest Russian narratologists, Vladimir Propp. Russian Formalism is a literary school of criticism, which appeared in Russia. It came as a reaction against other schools of criticism such as Marxism, which focuses mainly on the biographical and socioeconomic background of the text. Thus, just like structuralism, Russian Formalist theorists shed light on literariness that is what makes a literary text a piece of literature. Vladimir Propp was neglected for a long time. However, Claude Levi Strauss is going to rediscover Propp particularly his book, The Morphology of the Folktale, in which Propp breaks down Russian folktales into thirty-one functions and seven spheres of action as the following: The villain, the donor, the helper, the princess, the dispatcher, the hero and the false hero. (Barry, p: 226-28). In fact, Propp’s theory is quite clear and simple as well, in the sense that any story can be divided into two halves. Those who help the protagonist to achieve his aims and the other way round for his antagonist. Concerning the film of Shrek. Lord Farquaad as well as the dragon (in the beginning of the movie) epitomize the villains of the story since they are interrupting the hero who is the ogre from finding his way to obtain the princess, Fiona. The helpers and donors can be held together for the reason that they are motives that push the hero of Shrek to carry on his long journey here I highlight the characters of the donkey, the fairytales creators of the swamp, the dragon (in the end of the movie) and we have also the abstract donor of true love. These items gave hand to Shrek to put an end to the false hero, lord Farquaad and other characters who claim themselves to be the suitable lovers of Princess Fiona.

I have already stated that narratolgy is a branch of structuralism devoted to the analysis of narratives. Structuralism itself is highly indebted to the Swiss linguist Ferdinard De Saussure who made the study of language an academic field of study. It is a common knowledge that Saussure has never published any book in his lifetime. His students made a book out of his lectures under the title of Course in General Linguistics. Saussure is the pioneer of semiology, which is a part of linguistics. He perceives signs as a mixture of a signifier and a signified. The signifier is what language refers to and the signifier is the mental image of that thing. Furthermore, the relationship between the two is arbitrary, relational and constitutive. That is, it must be based an agreement and convention and through this multiplicity of signs, we constitute a better understanding of the world. This relational connection between the signifier and the signified triggers off the idea of binary oppositions. For instance, we cannot grasp the idea of death if we do not know what life means in the first place. At any rate, the ideas of Saussure have a huge impact in the development of narratology especially in the understanding of Barthes, Greimas, and Todorov.

Propp and Barthes focused on the analysis of only one literary genre for instance Barthes dealt with Balzac’s short story Sarrasine whereas Propp tackled the analysis of a myriad of Russian fairytales. In this way, they are reductionists in the sense that they have limited the structure of narratives only to one particular genre. That is why, like Chomsky, Greimas came with a universal grammar of narratives. In his Sémantique Structurale, Greimas suggests three kinds of polarities, which are made up of six actors: Subject/Object, Sender/Receiver and the Helper/Opponent polarity. Moreover, the relationship between the first binary is desire and search. The second is about communication, and the last binary deals with hindrance. (Selden et all, p69). Starting from this quotation, we can trace the influence of Saussure ideas upon Greimas thinking especially the binarism of each component. If we want to apply Greimas theory to Shrek, we will have the ogre and Fiona in the first binary, Subject/Object since Shrek aim in the whole film is to save his object, Fiona, from the dragon. In the second axis, there is a kind of communication between the hero and the anti-hero simultaneously. In other words, Lord Farquaad is the sender because he was the one who told Shrek to go and seek Fiona but in the end, there is an exchange of roles for the reason that Shrek becomes the receiver of the object herself. Then, we have the donkey and Lord Farquaad in the last axis as a helper and opponent.

I will conclude with Tzvetan Todorov who was highly influenced by Roland Barthes along with Julia Kristiva. For Todorov,

Barthes is precisely not a master, who can be emulated, imitated, followed methodically… [Barthes] created a role for himself, which consisted in subverting the mastery inherent in discourse, and in assuming that role … he made himself irreplaceable. Julia Kristeva, looking back on Barthes’s work and its influence, supports Todorov’s point that Barthes is not a master to be imitated but an irreplaceable writer: ‘there are not Barthes “disciples,” only epigones, as is often the case with writers’ (Todorov and Krestiva quoted by Graham, p36)

As any theorist, Todorov did not came out of the blue. Theorists and thinkers build on their predecessors in order to create something new. In this way, the process of theorizing narratives resembles Hegel’s idea of dialectics, thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis. Like Claude Levi Strauss, Todorov follows a structural study of telling stories in the sense that characters of a particular story are linked to each other. However, the most intriguing theory of Todorov is the sequence of narratives in form of five propositions: Equilibrium (peace), Force (Enemy invades), Disequilibrium (War), Force (Enemy is defeated) and Equilibrium once again. (Seldon et al, p70). In our case study, the first proposition appears in the very beginning of the film where Shrek is portrayed spending another normal day of his ordinary life. He enjoys everything he does by cooking his own food, taking a refreshing bath in the river and so on. Soon, there is a disruption by the coming of the fairytales creators particularly the donkey who tell him that the king of Duloc took their swamp by force asking him to take it back. Disequilibrium lies in the fact that Shrek gets out of his comfort zone and embarks on a journey to save the princess Fiona from the dragon in order to get back the swamp in accordance with the deal made between Shrek and Lord Farquaad. Later on and through the character of the donkey, Shrek figures out that Fiona was not talking about his appearance but she was unsatisfied with her ugly shape as she claims it to be because when the sun sinks down, Fiona becomes an ogress just like Shrek. Thus, there is something in common between both characters, which will motivate Shrek to overcome his enemy Lord Farquaad with the assistance of the donkey as well as the dragon therefore they stand against the marriage ceremony of Farquaad and Fiona and then they defeat the army of the king. Consequently, the fairytales creators return to their swamp. Besides, Fiona and Shrek reunite again and thus creates a new equilibrium that gives the film its happy ending.


Adamson and Jenson. Shrek. Disney. 2001

Barry Peter, Beginning Theory. Manchester university press. 2002

Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. 1997.

Graham Allen. Roland Barthes. Routledge. 2003

Seldon, Raman et al. A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory. Pearson Longman. 1997

Sedgwick and Andrew. Cultural Theory: The Key Thinkers. Routledge. 2002

© 2020 Issam El Masmodi


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