Aristotle on the Complete Plot: Stories Have Beginnings, Middles, and Ends!

I’ve had this bit of Aristotle bouncing in my head about the frustration caused by a tale without an end since I recently read Daniel Mendelsohn’s clever analysis of the “plottiness” of television shows like Downton Abbey after they have passed their natural end.

Poetics 1450b-1451a

“After the elements have been distinguished, let us comment on what sort of organization is needed for the events of the plot, since this is the foremost and greatest feature of tragedy. Our proposal is that tragedy is the imitation of a complete and whole deed, and one that has some kind of magnitude (since it is possible for a thing to be whole and to lack magnitude). A story that is whole has a beginning, middle and an end. The beginning is the very thing which does not necessarily follow something else but after which something else naturally follows or happens. The end, in contrast, is the very thing that happens after something else either as a necessary result or, is most common companion, but after which nothing else occurs. A middle is that thing which comes after something else and has something follow it. It is necessary that a well-constructed tale does not begin or just end anywhere but will apply the conditions I have described.”

Διωρισμένων δὲ τούτων, λέγωμεν μετὰ ταῦτα ποίαν τινὰ δεῖ τὴν σύστασιν εἶναι τῶν πραγμάτων, ἐπειδὴ τοῦτο καὶ πρῶτον καὶ μέγιστον τῆς τραγῳδίας ἐστίν. κεῖται δὴ ἡμῖν τὴν τραγῳδίαν τελείας καὶ ὅλης πράξεως εἶναι μίμησιν ἐχούσης τι μέγεθος• ἔστιν γὰρ ὅλον καὶ μηδὲν ἔχον μέγεθος. ὅλον δέ ἐστιν τὸ ἔχον ἀρχὴν καὶ μέσον καὶ τελευτήν. ἀρχὴ δέ ἐστιν ὃ αὐτὸ μὲν μὴ ἐξ ἀνάγκης μετ’ ἄλλο ἐστίν, μετ’ ἐκεῖνο δ’ ἕτερον πέφυκεν εἶναι ἢ γίνεσθαι• τελευτὴ δὲ τοὐναντίον ὃ αὐτὸ μὲν μετ’ ἄλλο πέφυκεν εἶναι ἢ ἐξ ἀνάγκης ἢ ὡς ἐπὶ τὸ πολύ, μετὰ δὲ τοῦτο ἄλλο οὐδέν• μέσον δὲ ὃ καὶ αὐτὸ μετ’ ἄλλο καὶ μετ’ ἐκεῖνο ἕτερον. δεῖ ἄρα τοὺς συνεστῶτας εὖ μύθους μήθ’ ὁπόθεν ἔτυχεν ἄρχεσθαι μήθ’ ὅπου ἔτυχε τελευτᾶν, ἀλλὰ κεχρῆσθαι ταῖς εἰρημέναις ἰδέαις.

Later on, Aristotle takes the Odyssey to task because it combines comedic and tragic arcs. He thinks only a lesser audience would be pleased by this. I can only imagine how he would feel about Downton (1453a)

“Second is the plot which is preferred by some, the story that has a double structure like that of the Odyssey which terminates in opposite ways for the better and worse men. It seems to be first it is due to the feebleness of the audience. For poets follow the audience in crafting a tale according to their wishes. For there it is not the same pleasure that comes from tragedy, but that which is properly suited to comedy, since in that genre the most opposed men in myth, like Orestes and Aigisthus, depart at the end after becoming friends and no one is killed by anyone.”

δευτέρα δ’ ἡ πρώτη λεγομένη ὑπὸ τινῶν ἐστιν σύστασις, ἡ διπλῆν τε τὴν σύστασιν ἔχουσα καθάπερ ἡ ᾿Οδύσσεια καὶ τελευτῶσα ἐξ ἐναντίας τοῖς βελτίοσι καὶ χείροσιν. δοκεῖ δὲ εἶναι πρώτη διὰ τὴν τῶν θεάτρων ἀσθένειαν• ἀκολουθοῦσι γὰρ οἱ ποιηταὶ κατ’ εὐχὴν ποιοῦντες τοῖς θεαταῖς. ἔστιν δὲ οὐχ αὕτη ἀπὸ τραγῳδίας ἡδονὴ ἀλλὰ μᾶλλον τῆς κωμῳδίας οἰκεία• ἐκεῖ γὰρ οἳ ἂν ἔχθιστοι ὦσιν ἐν τῷ μύθῳ, οἷον ᾿Ορέστης καὶ Αἴγισθος, φίλοι γενόμενοι ἐπὶ τελευτῆς ἐξέρχονται, καὶ ἀποθνῄσκει οὐδεὶς ὑπ’ οὐδενός.