Using Aristotle’s Four Causes to Analyze Literature

When Aristotle looked at, say, a tree and asked what caused it, his answer began with matter and form: a tree is a product of the raw matter it is made of (water and wood fibers) channeled through a very particular form (roots, trunk and branches). These are the tree’s material and formal causes.  To matter and form, Aristotle offered two other causes: the efficient (or triggering) cause of a particular tree may have been a seed dropped by a bird thirty years previous. And the seed’s telos (design, purpose, nature)—what we might call today its genetic blueprint—was the ultimate or final cause of the tree’s manifestation. The seed, like desire and purpose in humans, is what makes the tree go.

Aristotle’s ideas about causation can be interesting to apply to stories because stories are a lot like trees: a story writer takes the matter of words (not wood) and shapes them into the form of a tale (not a tree). The trigger for writing the story (its efficient or proximate cause) may be little more than an odor wafting from a kitchen that evokes in the author a childhood memory. The story then manifests on paper by nature of the author’s “inner seed”: her compulsion, design, purpose, desire to write it. The author is the story’s ultimate or final cause.

Aristotle’s ideas about causation can also be applied to the internal working of a story by asking what proved to be the material cause, the formal cause, the efficient cause, and the final cause for how it came out. More specifically, here are four Aristotelian questions to raise with regard to a story:

  • In the vast library of material possibilities for how the story might have turned out (based on its beginning), what actually did materialize at the end?
  • What form or process was passed through that brought about that specific materialization? In a story, the form or process consists of the plot points the author maps out for the reader: “This happened, then this happened, then this happened—and then everything arrived at this or that conclusion”.
  • What was the proximate trigger that set the end process in motion?
  • What telos, design, purpose, compulsion, or longing did the lead character have in the first place that made the story go?

Here’s an example for applying Aristotle’s notion of causation to a piece of literature: in Kate Chopin’s well known short story, “The Story of an Hour”, we can say that Mrs. Mallard died for four reasons:

  • Mrs. Mallard died because of a heart condition. This ended up being an important material cause for Mrs. Mallard’s death, and it was foreshadowed in the first sentence of the story; it set a limiting condition on where the story was likely to go (Mrs. Mallard, given her heart condition, was never going to be a track star). In the library of material possibilities, death by heart attack was something that could have happened to her, and at the end of the story it was realized. Here’s the first sentence of “The Story of an Hour”: Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death.
  • The form (the formal cause) or process by which she wound her way to this materialization was via the following plot points: (a) at the beginning of the story she received news of her husband’s death; (b) midway through the story she concluded that she was gloriously free of him, and was deluded with joy; (c) toward the end of the story she discovered that, in fact, her husband was not dead after all. Moving through this process—this rollercoaster—of shock, hope, and despair killed her. 
  • What specifically triggered her heart attack (the efficient cause) was seeing her husband arrive at the door of their house, not dead.
  • The purpose that Mrs. Mallard set out with, and that made the story go at all, was her desire, as a nineteenth century woman embedded in a deeply chauvinist culture, to get free of an unwanted marriage. Unfortunately for her, that aspiration was frustrated and the chain of events turned out badly. From an Aristotelian vantage, this represents the “final cause” for how the story turned out: Mrs. Mallard’s telos (her design, her purpose) was to move toward greater freedom from male control, but it led to her death.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to Using Aristotle’s Four Causes to Analyze Literature

  1. This was really helpful! Thanks for posting 🙂

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