Masterplots!

In an effort to get myself blogging again, I’m posting here a short response paper for my Elements of Narrative class in which I was asked to ruminate on the idea of masterplots and the way they are utilized in all types of stories. A basic definition of masterplots: “stories that we [as a culture] tell over and over in myriad forms and that connect vitally with our deepest values, wishes, and fears” – H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, 46.

Some examples? How about Cinderella? Or any story of an underprivileged youth pulling his or herself up from her bootstraps and making it in society? Both of these go to the heart of American values and are constantly employed in various narratives.

I chose to look at the way masterplots are used in the interpretation of news stories:

April 12, 2010
What is most fascinating about masterplots is the way in which they are utilized in day-to-day political and informational discourses. It is through these structures that we come to interpret even basic events. For example, today a story broke in the news about how Israel is enacting new provisions that could lead to the expulsion of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank. The Arab-Israeli conflict has lasted so long that the narratives of both sides have been engrained into American cultural consciousness. The masterplot of colonialism and foreign occupation is evoked from the Palestinian side while the pro-Israeli narrative focuses on the past persecution of Jews and the need for security. Every ‘news’ story that comes out of this conflict seems to be interpreted through one of these masterplots. Concerning the story mentioned above, I found both narratives in play and contestation online.
While the story itself was represented somewhat objectively on CNN, the comments on the website highlight the tension between the two masterplots. One user writes, “This is what the Israelis need to do to protect their country. If the rocket attacks from Gaza and the West Bank would just stop, there would be peace.” This user, in the face of an event that seems to be an egregious violation of human rights, interprets the story through the masterplot of Israeli security and thus, in her mind, justifies the action. As Abbott writes, “[Masterplots] create an image of the world in which good and evil are clearly identifiable, and in which blame can fall squarely on one party or another” (48). The CNN user, by reading the story through her preconceived interpretations, has already distinguished the good and bad guy and quickly reverts to a masterplot in order to justify her viewpoint.
Illustrating the pro-Palestinian masterplot is a blog post by Juan Cole, who frames his interpretation through the colonizer-colonized story that became such a powerful masterplot throughout the twentieth century. He writes,
The Israeli right has long favored “transfer” (i.e. ethnic cleansing) as a means of dealing both with Palestinian-Israelis and with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza…It is no cause for wonder that practical steps are now being taken toward expulsions and deportations of anyone who even peacefully opposes the government’s systematic colonization of the West Bank.
Here Cole utilizes not only the familiar colonial masterplot, but also a discourse of oppression that conjures up images of Nazi Germany (words like “cleansing” and “systematic”) and thus interprets the story through an even more powerful masterplot of Western culture: the

holocaust. By framing the news story in this way, Cole is attempting to rhetorically influence his readers into recognizing what he sees as the basic hypocrisy of the Israeli government as it seeks to gain security by inflicting the same wounds it faced only decades ago on another ethnic group. This Nazi masterplot (one of the more popular in our spectacle-driven political discourse) is also seen on the comments section of the previously mentioned CNN article.
I suppose this news story illustrates both the way in which masterplots are frequently wielded as a justification for ideology and the way opposing masterplots contend for the interpretation of ‘actual’ events. Abbott writes that “national culture is a complex weave of numerous, often conflicting, masterplots,” and this all too apparent in our basic sources of news and information.
One other aspect of masterplots that I’ve recently come across is the way that postmodern narratives gain their rhetorical power by deconstructing and subverting common masterplots. The novel White Castle by Orhan Pamuk for example, employs an Orientalist masterplot: white European is captured by Easterners and is enslaved for years only to return and write an account of his exotic adventures. The novel sets up this common story only to gradually dismantle it as the European comes to realize he is no different from a Turk, but is in fact the same. There is a purposeful absence of the exotic and other common oriental stereotypes and it is from this subversive lack that the true power of Pamuk’s narrative comes. So it seems masterplots can be useful for narratives either in the way they are employed or otherwise deconstructed and reemployed in a new way. In both instances, the rhetorical function of the masterplot comes from the way in which it is engrained in the collective memory of a given culture.
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9 responses to “Masterplots!

  1. Joelle

    Echoes of my discourse analysis class … interesting stuff! It seems that what you’re calling masterplots is a type of “frame” (from a cognitive science and metaphor theory … see George Lakoff). I would say that this tendency to see the world through masterplots or frames is a fundamental part of the way that we as humans interact with the world around us. We categorize new information based upon these frames that we already know and utilize.

    I’d never thought to apply it out on a larger scale though … hmmmm

  2. I suppose you could call it a frame, but more specifically it is an actual story that is retold time and again in a given community; it is the universal story that touches deep ethical and moral strands throughout a given culture.
    One popular masterplot is the “Christ-figure” and other stories of redemption and self-sacrifice. This one also kind of ties in with the “Star Wars” masterplot, i.e. the chosen one comes to claim his destiny and save the universe!
    Its fun to see the way these reoccurring narratives pop up in the creative output of our culture.

  3. Scott, this is a really cogent thesis you’ve assembled here, and well presented. Being aware of the stories that other cultures have at their centers and that other individuals have in their heads goes a long way to empathizing with people and understanding the motives for the things they do, individually and as groups. That’s always what’s at stake, as I see it. But most people, even in America, “can’t see the dragon that has swallowed them.” Is it the luxury of academics and middle-class Westerners to be able to perceive the masterplots that inform our own and others’ thinking? Thanks for this post.

  4. Kendall

    The whole time I was reading this, jj’s song “Master Plan” was playing in my head.
    I think the idea of masterplots is really interesting; and now that I think about it, kind of disturbing in a feminist context, especially when considering “damsel in distress” stories in popular folklore. There aren’t any (to my knowledge) folk stories of strong women rescuing men who fall prey to trouble, but only men who rescue women. And it always seems to be either from another woman (witch, evil stepmother, etc.) who has a lot of power, or a man whose intentions with the woman are lecherous and will rob the woman of her virtue (and sadly, the only stories that immediately come to mind are pirate stories). Which just reinforces the idea that women should be weak and submissive, and that their worth is in their virginity. Hate it.
    Also, the continuously repetitive nature of masterplots reminds me of Shakespeare’s claim that there is nothing new under the sun. Every story has already been told, and masterplots seem to be the living proof.

    • @Kendall – You said there aren’t any folk stories of females rescuing males. Well, they may not (yet) be folk tales, but my five-year-old daughter Mara has heard about a story a night for her entire life. My wife and I make them up on the spot, and she doesn’t like reruns. For precisely the reasons you discuss, our stories frequently involve the Brave Knight Mara, who has a prince friend who gets himself locked up in towers occasionally, or chained up in dragons’ caves. She always “gets her man”, and without violence, and then they eat cake. (In less gender-focused dramas, she and a female buddy may rescue a cat. In one recent story, she went on a quest to get the stars back from a giant who had been pulling down from the sky and keeping them in a glass jar by his bed, and who made her retrieve a precious gem from the mouth of a dragon before he would give them to her). We want the ubermasterplot in our daughter’s head to be that she is capable and kind and fearless.

      • Kendall

        That’s wonderful! And so encouraging. If more parents would create that kind of masterplot for their daughters, I’m convinced the world would be a better place.

    • Kendall,
      I agree entirely that our cultural masterplots are rather sexist. This is a large part of the reason I enjoyed Marilynne Robinson’s “Housekeeping”. It basically takes the Biblical story of Ruth (a classic weak Women gains worth and security through Male rescue story) and subverts it. Maybe this is what Scott means when he talks about the rhetorical power of post-modern narratives, though I would never have called Housekeeping post-modern before. Robinson doesn’t even bother to invert the story, she pretty much just cuts men out all together. Love it.

      • …and yet if Boaz is the Savior with a capital “s”, then Ruth is not just a woman. The Ruth story as written may have been about “a woman” (I don’t see her as weak in any sense, merely disenfranchised by social norms of her time), but I think the larger story is that we are all Ruth, and Ruth is we. She’s Everyman. I am willing to reframe masterplots for my daughter, but I don’t see the Ruth story as the insidious patriarchal masterplot that BrandontheWeaver does. For one thing, it takes great strength to be willing to agree with God that one is in need of rescue. Even as a male, I identify with Ruth, not with Boaz.

  5. And Brandon the reason Housekeeping is so powerful, i think, is because we pick up (whether subconsciously or not) on these common narratives and thus we feel the declarative absence of the masculine characters quite strongly. Its an extremely powerful rhetorical device.
    Also makes sense then that politicians play with these masterplots (Joe the plumber anyone?)

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