The Short Story and the Fairy Tale: An Analysis of the Folkloric Dimensions of Tat′jana Tolstaja’s Short Stories

While Tat′jana Tolstaja’s stories incorporate elements from various branches of the folkloric heritage, they have most in common with fairy tales, sharing their ultimate purpose and exhibiting parallel artistic goals. They participate in the moral and didactic aims of the fairy tale and in its aesthetic and poetic substance. Her writing draws on a folkloric collective understanding and ancient wisdom, which she incorporates into her contemporary, distinctive style. Folklore not only treats the fundamental concerns of life, including human relationships, needs, and experiences, but it provides constancy in its archetypal structure—themes and devices Tolstaja makes her own. By incorporating elements of folklore in her writing, she represents her perception of the multifacetedness of life in today’s Russia, with all its mysteries and complexities.

In fact, the profound influence of fairy tales on the structure, plot, and characterization of Tolstaja’s stories merits a thorough investigation. One unconventional, yet highly fruitful, approach is to apply Vladimir Propp’s morphological categories to Tolstaja’s short stories. Propp, the prominent Russian folklorist, has formulated a canonical morphological definition of the fairy tale. While on the surface Tolstaja’s stories do not conform to Vladimir Propp’s schema, they do incorporate some of the most essential and expressive elements of the fairy tale as defined by Propp. These include: a search for justice, or redress for inflicted wrong; a quest to satisfy human need or desire; an assessment of inter-personal relationships and human relationships with nature; the commitment of the story line to the main action of the narrative, that is, the hero’s journey; the subjective perception of the world by human beings, which appears mythical in its lack of spatial and temporal coordinates; a common idealization of the “lowly hero” or “fool” as possessing an inherent purity and wisdom; and shared elements of linguistic stylization. Tat′jana Tolstaja’s uses of fairy tale techniques can be grouped under three broad rubrics: 1) a mythological setting and representation of the world (time, space, surroundings), which in Tolstaja’s oeuvre is evoked by her verbal style; 2) the focus on the hero’s physical or psychological journey, which transforms him or her and either constitutes or determines the course of the hero’s life; 3) a common characterization in which the “lowly hero” is idealized.

In examining Tat′jana Tolstaja’s work, Propp’s schematized definition of the fairy tale is a very useful tool. Using his schema, we can isolate and name various aspects of the folkloric heritage which influence Tolstaja’s writing. We can do more than just note that Tolstaja effectively blends antiquity and modernism; we can point to her invocation of specific folkloric devices as outlined by Propp. Thus, we are taking Propp’s theory out of its original folkloric confines, and we are using it to examine the literary genre of short stories. This approach is interesting and useful insofar as it can validate Propp’s theory for contemporary scholarship, where folklore-inspired literature is common while folklore, sensu stricto, exists only as a historical fact.