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Cambridge University Press 2002




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Masterplots



There are stories that we tell over and over in myriad forms and that connect vitally with our deepest values, wishes, and fears. Cinderella is one of them. Its variants can be found frequently in European and American cultures. Its constituent events elaborate a thread of neglect, injustice, rebirth, and reward that responds to deeply held anxieties and desires. As such, the Cinderella masterplot has an enormous emotional capital that can be drawn on in constructing a narrative. But it is only one of many masterplots. We seem to connect our thinking about life, and particularly about our own lives, to a number of masterplots that we may or may not be fully aware of. To the extent that our values and identity are linked to a masterplot, that masterplot can have strong rhetorical impact. We tend to give credibility to narratives that are structured by it.

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The term "masterplot"



There have been many terms used for what I am calling a masterplot. One currently in favor is "master narrative." But if you take seriously the important distinction between story and narrative, it should be obvious why "master narrative" would not work for this concept. A narrative is a particular rendering of a story. Works like War and Peace or Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire are narratives. The masterplots that undergird these narratives are much more skeletal and adaptable, and they can recur in narrative after narrative. Roger Shank actually proposed the term "story skeleton" for something like masterplots (147-88). The term is a good one, but it does not convey the rhetorical power that accompanies a masterplot. Stephen Jay Gould's term "canonical story" catches something of that power by alluding to the concept of a "canon" with its connotation of official sanction (as in a culture's recognized canonical works).7 But this suggests stories that are somehow certified, whereas masterplots often work in secret, influencing us without our wholly realizing it. Finally, the term "archetype," which used to enjoy more currency than it does now, comes quite close to the concept of a masterplot. The problem with "archetype" is its Jungian baggage, particularly the implication that these stories are warehoused in a collective memory that is part of our biological or spiritual inheritance. For all these reasons, I prefer "masterplot." It is not perfect. The term "plot," for example, is frequently used to mean "narrative discourse," especially among European narratologists. But "plot" very commonly means "story" in English, and I have drawn on that meaning, while "master" conveys something of the power of the particular stories that I am calling "masterplots."


There are some masterplots, very loosely conceived, that would appear to be universal: the quest, the story of revenge, seasonal myths of death and regeneration. But the more culturally specific the masterplot, the greater its practical force in everyday life. All national cultures have their masterplots, some of which are local variations on universal masterplots. The Horatio Alger story, for example, is a variation on the quest masterplot that speaks directly to cherished values in broad swathes of US culture. It takes its name from Horatio Alger, an enormously popular nineteenth-century novelist who published over 120 books. Most of these books narrativize the same masterplot featuring a youth (Ragged Dick, Tattered Tom), who, though born in poverty, rises by his own hard work and clean living to the highest level of social standing and often great wealth. The Horatio Alger story has been told and retold throughout American history. It is the story of such diverse figures as Andrew Carnegie and Abe Lincoln and it expresses in its shape convictions about life that are dear to many Americans. It is tempting to see these masterplots as a kind of cultural glue that holds societies together. They constitute, to quote Kermode again, "the mythological structure of a society from which we derive comfort, and which it may be uncomfortable to dispute" (113).

But no culture can be summed up in one masterplot. There are many other masterplots in American culture beside the Horatio Alger story. Some of them are not so dear to some Americans, but carry just as much affective power. When the black motorist Rodney King was caught and beaten by Los Angeles policemen in 1991, the incident activated a very different American masterplot from the Horatio Alger story. Yet this masterplot is equally American, and for many black citizens it expresses a feature of life in America that goes further and deeper than Horatio Alger. Looked at from the perspective of narrative, then, national culture is a complex weave of numerous, often conflicting, masterplots.

Skilled lawyers arguing before a jury, or politicians addressing their con­stituencies, or advertisers seeking to create a market can gain rhetorical leverage by handling the narratives they use in such a way as to activate cherished masterplots of their audience. The sharp differences in the reac­tions to the Simpson verdict and the intensity with which they were (and still are) held owe much to the fact that Simpson's "story" was bonded during the trial to several powerful, yet sharply divergent, masterplots in American culture. One that worked powerfully in Simpson's favor is the story of the black man who is unjustly punished for stepping "out of his place." In this masterplot, the blackness of the victim facilitates the punishment by allow­ing him easily to be tagged as a criminal. It is a story that has been told in many versions from the slave narratives of the nineteenth century to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952). Another powerful masterplot that came into play throughout the trial is the story of the battered wife. This masterplot was deployed frequently by the prosecution, with Nicole Simpson cast in the central role. A third is the story of unjust privilege accorded to celebrity and wealth, with Simpson back in the central role. This again is a frequent masterplot in American cultural life, though it is one that can be found in most cultures. In the Simpson trial, one of the more delicate challenges for the prosecution was figuring out how to cast as the central figure in this masterplot of unjust privilege a black man who grew up in a San Francisco ghetto.

Much of the power of these particular masterplots, as with so many, is their moral force. They 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. During the trial, lawyers for the defense and for the prosecution variously invoked these (and other) masterplots as they shaped their narrative renderings of this story of murder. To the degree that one or another of these masterplots tends to shape our view of the world, we may find it difficult to weigh the evidence dispassionately. Some would argue that our identities are so invested in our personal masterplots, that when these masterplots are activated it is impossible to break out of the vision they create. But, then, others argue that there are too many cases of people changing their minds in the face of the evidence to believe that we are quite so imprisoned.

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