*The following is an excerpt from Kurt Vonnegut’s “Palm Sunday” in which he discusses the shapes of stories.
What has been my prettiest contribution to my culture? I would say it was a master’s thesis in anthropology which was rejected by the University of Chicago a long time ago. It was rejected because it was so simple and looked like too much fun. One must not be too playful.
The thesis has vanished, but I carry an abstract in my head, which I will here set down. The fundamental idea is that stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads.
In the thesis, I collected popular stories from fantastically various societies, not excluding the one which used to read Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post. I graphed each one.
Anyone can graph a simple story if he or she will crucify it, so to speak, on the intersecting axes I here depict:
“G” stands for good fortune. “I” stands for ill fortune. “B” stands for the beginning of a story. “E” stands for its end.
The late Nelson Rockefeller, for example, would be very close to the top of the G-I scale on his wedding day. A shopping-bag lady waking up on a doorstep this morning would be somewhere nearer the middle, but not at the bottom, since the day is balmy and clear.
A much beloved story in our society is about a person who is leading a bearable life, who experiences misfortune, who overcomes misfortune, and who is happier afterward for having demonstrated resourcefulness and strength. As a graph, that story looks like this:
Another story of which Americans never seem to tire is about a person who becomes happier upon finding something he or she likes a lot. The person loses whatever it is, and then gets it back forever. As a graph, it looks like this:
An American Indian creation myth, in which a god of some sort gives the people the sun and then the moon and then the bow and arrow and then the corn and so on, is essentially a staircase, a tale of accumulation:
Almost all creation myths are staircases like that. Our own creation myth, taken from the Old Testament, is unique, so far as I could discover, in looking like this:
The sudden drop in fortune, of course, is the ejection of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.
Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” in which an already hopelessly unhappy man turns into a cockroach, looks like this:
But could my graphs, when all was said and done, be useful as anything more than little visual comedies, cartoons of a sort? The University of Chicago asked me that, and I had to ask myself that, and I say again what I said at the beginning: that the graphs were at least as suggestive as pots or spearheads.
But then I had another look at a graph I had drawn of Western civilization’s most enthusiastically received story, which is “Cinderella.” At this very moment, a thousand writers must be telling that story again in one form or another. This very book is a Cinderella story of a kind.
I confessed that I was daunted by the graph of “Cinderella,” and was tempted to leave it out of my thesis, since it seemed to prove that I was full of shit. It seemed too complicated and arbitrary to be a representative artifact—lacked the simple grace of a pot or a spearhead. Have a look:
The steps, you see, are all the presents the fairy godmother gave to Cinderella, the ball gown, the slippers, the carriage, and so on. The sudden drop is the stroke of midnight at the ball. Cinderella is in rags again. All the presents have been repossessed. But then the prince finds her and marries her, and she is infinitely happy ever after. She gets all the stuff back, and then some. A lot of people think the story is trash, and, on graph paper, it certainly looks like trash.
But then I said to myself, Wait a minute—those steps at the beginning look like the creation myth of virtually every society on earth. And then I saw that the stroke of midnight looked exactly like the unique creation myth in the Old Testament. And then I saw that the rise to bliss at the end was identical with the expectation of redemption as expressed in primitive Christianity.
The tales were identical.
I was thrilled to discover that years ago, and I am just as thrilled today. The apathy of the University of Chicago is repulsive to me.