There were many questions after class about masterplots, so I thought I’d give some examples. Basically, though, masterplots are just “skeletal” stories that recur again and again (by skeletal I mean that a given structure is what recurs, rather than its content). Jesse in class was right to call masterplots “cliche plots.” Note that masterplots are often culturally specific, though some are more or less universal. Indeed, it is culturally specific masterplots that are most persuasive, because they touch on what makes us belong to our culture rather than others. This can be positive but also negative, depending on how people make use them.
Here is a small list of masterplots that we often encounter in the media, in literature, in political discourse, etc. There are many, many more. (I put related variations in parentheses.)
Coming-of-Age (initiation; awakening), e.g., Great Expectations, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, the Harry Potter series, Confessions (St. Augustine)
Rags-to-Riches (pursuit of happiness)
Rise and Fall (tragedy, vice punished, pride before the fall), e.g., the Fall of Lucifer, Oedipus Rex, Scarface, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Galapagos (Vonnegut’s novel), the theory of the entropic heat-death of the universe
Virtue Rewarded (Cinderella story)
Origins (family saga, creation story, epic), e.g., Paradise Lost, The Epic of Gilgamesh
Self-sacrifice plot (hero’s martyrdom), the Passion of the Christ, The Guard (film)
Underdog plot (struggle against impossible odds, forbidden love), e.g., Erin Brockovich, The Matrix, the fall of Lucifer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Brokeback Mountain
Picaresque (road narrative, quest, adventure story/romance), e.g., La Morte Darthur, On the Road, Don Quixote, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Big Lebowski
Faustian plot (temptation plot, bargain with the devil).
Exile/survival/banishment (stranger in a strange land), e.g., Robinson Crusoe, Castaway, Gulliver’s Travels
Life lived (old fool), e.g, The Sense of an Ending
Orphic Journey (descent into hell), e.g., Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now, Argo, many CSI episodes, The Divine Comedy: Inferno
I’ll stop there, partly because the latter is exemplary. The recent Oscar-winning film Argo is very clearly playing on the Orphic Journey masterplot in the form of a CIA agent’s infiltration of Tehran and escape home with six Americans. This is a powerful masterplot (myths, parables and fairy tales give us many of our most persuasive masterplots), which helps account for the success of the movie–especially at this time of renewed tensions between Iran and much of the West. Thinking of this movie in terms of masterplots, it’s also easier to see how the film sets American values and lives against those of the Iranians: that is, once we are aware of how the movie uses the Orphic Journey masterplot, effectively likening Tehran in 1979 to the underworld and its people to the damned, it becomes clearer how this film might function as propaganda. One of the reasons it’s important to be aware of masterplots, then, is that the awareness helps us be more critical of them. We can never be free from the lure of masterplots, but being able to recognize them and their workings can make us less susceptible to their subliminal attractions.