Tzvetan Todorov's Theory of the Fantastic: A Brief Overview
Tzvetan Todorov was a French and Bulgarian literary theorist and cultural critic who is best known for his contribution to literary theory in the form of his definition of the Fantastic in literature. In this article, we will summarize his main ideas and provide some examples of fantastic literature.
What is the Fantastic
According to Todorov, the Fantastic is a very specific and fragile literary genre that stands between two other genres: the Uncanny and the Marvelous. The Uncanny is when something seemingly supernatural or impossible is eventually explained by natural or rational causes. The Marvelous is when something supernatural or impossible is accepted as such without any attempt to explain it. The Fantastic, on the other hand, is when there is a moment of hesitation or uncertainty between believing and disbelieving the supernatural or impossible event. This hesitation can be experienced by the characters, the readers, or both.
How does the Fantastic work
Todorov argues that the Fantastic works by creating a sense of ambiguity and doubt in the reader's mind. The reader is confronted with an apparently supernatural event that violates the laws of nature, but is also given some clues or hints that suggest a possible natural or rational explanation. The reader then has to decide whether to accept the supernatural event as real or to reject it as an illusion. The Fantastic occupies this duration of uncertainty and suspense. Once the reader chooses one answer or the other, the Fantastic disappears and gives way to either the Uncanny or the Marvelous.
What are some examples of Fantastic literature
Todorov mainly uses examples from 19th century Gothic and Romantic literature, such as Edgar Allan Poe, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Henry James, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Some of their stories that can be considered Fantastic are:
The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe: Is Madeline really buried alive and returns from the grave, or is she a hallucination of her brother Roderick
The Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffmann: Is Nathanael really pursued by a sinister figure who wants to steal his eyes, or is he suffering from a mental disorder
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James: Are the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel real and haunting the children, or are they imagined by the governess
The Birthmark by Nathaniel Hawthorne: Is Aylmer's attempt to remove his wife's birthmark a scientific experiment or a demonic act
What are some limitations of Todorov's theory
While Todorov's theory is influential and useful for analyzing some literary works, it also has some limitations and criticisms. Some of them are:
Todorov's theory is too narrow and rigid, as it excludes many works that can be considered fantastic but do not fit his criteria.
Todorov's theory is too subjective and dependent on the reader's interpretation and response, which can vary widely depending on their cultural background, personal beliefs, and expectations.
Todorov's theory is too outdated and ignores many contemporary works that challenge or subvert his categories of the Uncanny, the Marvelous, and the Fantastic.
Tzvetan Todorov's theory of the Fantastic is an important contribution to literary theory that offers a way of understanding how some literary works create a sense of wonder, mystery, and ambiguity in the reader's mind. However, it is also a limited and contested theory that needs to be revised and expanded to account for more diverse and complex forms of fantastic literature. 061ffe29dd