A Brief Overview of Tzvetan Todorov's Theory of the Fantastic

Updated on August 1, 2016

Tzvetan Todorov is 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. As an important note, when Todorov discusses the fantastic, he is not discussing fantasy literature. Though fantasy critics, theorists, novelists and fans will often refer to fantasy tropes as fantastic, Todorov adopts the word as a term explicitly separate from fantasy. Instead, Todorov’s theory of the fantastic refers to a much smaller canon of literary works.

In his book The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, Todorov sets out to define what he calls “the fantastic.” For Todorov, the fantastic is a subjective term referring to a very small canon of literary works. It is a very specific term which stands between two other literary genres: the uncanny and the marvelous. The uncanny is a term originating from the German das unheimlich. In English, given that there is no clear English equivalent for the German, is instead referred to as “the uncanny.” The uncanny is experienced upon encountering something that is at once both strange and familiar. The marvelous, by contrast, is the more traditional view of fantasy. Todorov argues that the uncanny is characterized by a character’s response – often fear – towards something seemingly inexplicable, or impossible. He argues that the marvelous does not require a response from a character, only that the fantastic event occurs.

The fantastic is defined as a moment of hesitation between belief and disbelief of the supernatural. It is a very fragile literary form, as it can all to easily swing from one side to the other. Only that suspension between the two makes the literature fantastic. As Todorov says

“The fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty. Once we choose one answer or the other, we leave the fantastic for a neighboring genre, the uncanny or the marvelous. The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event” (Todorov 25).

Essentially, to Todorov, the uncanny is the supernatural explained, and the marvelous is the supernatural accepted as supernatural. Only in the hesitation between deciding which of those two applies can the fantastic be found. To put it differently,

‘I nearly reached the point of believing’: that is the formula which sums up the spirit of the fantastic. Either total faith or total incredulity would lead us beyond the fantastic: it is hesitation which sustains its life” (Todorov 31).

Fragility and specificity are the primary indicators of the fantastic.

Conclusions

One of the main weaknesses of Todorov’s argument is that he makes no reference to any literary works published after Edgar Allan Poe. Which is a real weakness, as this approach not only seems painfully incomplete, but suggests that there has been no fantastic literature produced after Poe. Obviously, this is false. Furthermore, his choice to utilize a term which was already – and often still is – used to refer to fantasy literature is problematic on a number of levels, not the least of which is the resultant confusion over terminological distinctions and specifications. When someone refers to an event as “fantastic” or “fantastical,” chances are that they are referring not to Todorov’s fantastic, but to fantasy in general. If anything, rather than enlightening, Todorov’s theory has done little more than obfuscate. Nevertheless, his contributions to the development of genre theory and methodology are vital, despite the work's shortcomings.

Works Cited

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Ithaca, New York: Cornell UP, 1975. Print.

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • bruxabrvxa profile image

      Iana 

      10 months ago from Brazil

      Thank you, that was very insightful! I was wondering if you consider worthwhile reading Todorov's book or just reading people who read him? From what you said, his text is not necessarily enlightening for the present moment.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)