Tzvetan Todorov (1939–2017)

Françoise Meltzer


Tzvetan Todorov—the literary theorist, historian, philosopher, structuralist and essayist—died in Paris at the age of seventy-seven in February of this year. His importance to every one of these disciplines and subjects to which he turned his attention is enormous. A Bulgarian born in 1939, Todorov emigrated to Paris to do graduate work and was the student of Roland Barthes. His Bulgarian experience under Soviet communism gave him a mistrust of “everything the state defends or that is related to the public sphere.”[1] But the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 changed that mistrust: “I felt like I was no longer conditioned by those childhood and teenage years living in a totalitarian world.” Thus it is unsurprising that Todorov’s intellectual trajectory took a strong turn toward ethics and politics beginning in the early eighties (as if sensing the end of Soviet communism) and continued until his death.


Todorov famously began as a structuralist, well-schooled in the Russian formalism of the twenties and the Prague School of Linguistics of the thirties. Early in his career, he translated the Russian formalists into French, Théorie de la littérature. Textes des formalistes russes (1965). One might say that his form of structuralism is politically “safe” to a certain extent, searching as it does for repetitive patterns and deep meanings that are frequently unrelated to their manifestations (plot events and narrative systems, for example) and certainly unconcerned—at least overtly—with the hegemony of the state. Literature and Signification (1969) continued in this vein and also put him on the map as the scholar who created a renaissance in rhetoric.

Todorov continued with structuralist analyses, which he combined with semiotics and a study of narrative systems (along with Gérard Genette, Barthes and the early Fredric Jameson). For this approach to narrative, in collaboration with Algirdas Julien Greimas and Barthes, Todorov coined the term narratology. All types of narrative, he wrote, “pertain less to poetics than to a discipline which seems to me to have solid claim to the right of existence, and which could be called narratology.[2] The sentence is taken from an article, “The 2 Principles of Narrative,” which analyzed what Vladimir Propp had called “functions” (in Russian fairy tales)— the succession of recurring plot elements that Propp showed could be mapped, or listed, in succession. Todorov added, contra Propp’s system, that the relationship between the units (or functions) cannot be only one of succession, but must “also be one of transformation.”[3] For example, a narrative may present events at the beginning of its récit, but the reader will see them differently if the same events return at the end. And yet even this syntactical power of transformations is not what is to be valued most in a narrative, adds Todorov. Narratives can be further broken down into the gnoseological type or of the mythological type; more layers need to be added to parsing any given plot events. Even in the early seventies, then, he was already drifting away from structuralism and its ancestors, the Russian formalists. Though Todorov continued in semiotics, structuralist approaches and narratology—for example, his 1971 The Poetics of Prose, which continues to analyze narrative (récit) on which the article in question draws— something else was brewing.

Well-known and much admired in France, by 1970 Todorov had authored many books and had helped to found, with Genette, the journal Poétique. In the same year, shortly before the Poetics of Prose, one of Todorov’s works was so immediately important and successful, that it was added to the French school curriculum the year after the book’s appearance, and is still there today. That book is The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. This is not the place to summarize Todorov’s famous argument. Suffice it to say that to this day, no student or scholar can write on the fantastic without alluding to Todorov’s seminal work on the subject.

But, to repeat, something else was brewing. Todorov’s early life under communism had profoundly marked him: “Today I believe,” he said in a late interview, “that my initial interest in questions of form and structure in literature . . . was closely linked to the fact that debating ideas was impossible in a totalitarian country.” If you wanted to say anything about literature in that context, he continued, you had the choice “between serving the purposes of official propaganda and focusing on the formal aspects of the text alone.” So he concentrated solely on the formal aspects of texts. By the early eighties, however, as Soviet communism was collapsing, Todorov was changing. In 1982 The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other appeared in France (the English translation two years later). The book, a type of echo and counter-response to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, examines the Mesoamerican Indian population confronting the Spanish conquistadors of the sixteenth century. Tocqueville, curiously enough, had written that while the Spanish had been horrible in their treatment of native populations, they were nonetheless unable to eradicate the native populations of North America. The United States succeeded in doing this, continues Tocqueville, “with felicity” and “without shedding any blood.” This appalling and absurd conclusion notwithstanding, Todorov writes his study with a different question: to what extent did the fact that the Aztecs had no notion of the Other, and that the Spaniards had a very clear and (let us say) xenophobic and racist one, contribute to the destruction of the pre-Columbian civilizations of Mexico and the Caribbean? Could it explain the Aztec passivity in the face of the brutal conquerors? Todorov mainly consulted the archives of Columbus and “then of his contemporaries and companions.” Todorov concludes his work with the following: “For Cortés, the conquest of knowledge leads to the conquest of power. I take the conquest of knowledge from his example, even if I do so in order to resist power.”

As of Conquest, Todorov will deeply engage in the issues of ethics in the political realm. He does not believe that history obeys a system, he writes in conclusion, but believes rather that “to become conscious of the relativity . . . of any feature of our culture is already to shift it a little, and that history (not the science but its object) is nothing other than a series of such imperceptible shifts.”[4] If Michel Foucault explored the tectonic shifts that occurred and caused changes in varying power structures in varying eras and discourses, Todorov is more optimistic; he believes that uncovering historical “shifts” can create a shift in itself, such that an event can be wrested from its underpinnings and historical behaviors can be somewhat modified in turn. “I myself,” says Todorov in another interview, “aspire less today than in the past to produce a text reducible to its theses; I try to enrich it with stories, other people’s or my own, and, as we know, stories give rise to interpretations, not refutations.” As one reader of Todorov puts it, he teaches us to eradicate, or deeply to question, the binary of “them and us.” What will follow will be rooted in ethics: On Human Diversity: Nationalism, Racism and Exoticism in French Thought (1989); Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps (on the “social schizophrenia specific to totalitarian regimes,” 1991); A French Tragedy: Scenes of Civil War, Summer ’44 (on the French Resistance’s killing of thirteen pro-Nazi militia and the Nazi revenge murder of thirty-eight Jews in Saint-Armand, 1994); The Fragility of Goodness (on the rescue of Bulgarian Jews, 1999); A New World Disorder: Reflections of a European (2003, two years after September 11 and on the eve of the Iraq war); Duties and Delights: The Life of a Go-Between (his intellectual autobiography, 2002)—and too many other books and articles to mention here.[5] “Only totalitarianism,” writes Todorov, “makes it obligatory to love one’s country” (a statement we would do well, at present in the United States, to keep in mind).

“From now on,” writes Todorov in 2007, “I will stick by and large to the humanist family. This unique perspective prohibits me from any claim to an evenhanded clarification of the other families: I shall systematically privilege one of the voices in the dialogue of the past.”

This, from a man who had, in the first half of his career, carefully avoided polemics. The same year, he published Literature in Danger, a manifesto that argues that current trends in criticism have made it an “object of closed, self-sufficient, absolute language,” a “smothering corset” enclosed by “factual formal games, nihilistic whining and solipsistic egotism.” Literature must be freed from the “formalist ghetto that is of interest only to other critics.” Formalism, nihilism and solipsism are endangering the literary enterprise, he wrote.

Todorov’s greatest influence was Raymond Aron, but also, again just to name a few, Michel de Montaigne, Benjamin Constant, Jean-JacquesRousseau, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Rainer Maria Rilke, Mikhail Bakhtin, the poet Marina Tsvetaeva (whom Todorov translated), and Edward Said. Human rights, Islam, the question of Europe, economic conditions, racism, genocide, the Holocaust, humanism, colonization, fanaticism, ethics and moral philosophy—these were, to name the most salient, Todorov’s passionate concerns as of the early eighties. Rather than attacking other critics, “who are not there to contradict you and you can ridicule the person to your heart’s delight,” Todorov came to prefer a more measured and solitary approach: “Asserting your conception of the world without worrying too much about other people’s conceptions seems to me at once more difficult and more interesting.” As his friend Thomas Pavel put it recently, what Todorov wished to express above all in his writings was “his simple and sincere friendship for humanity and its cultures.”

After the murder of a French priest last year in France, Todorov remarked, “To systematically bomb a town in the Middle East is no less barbaric than to slit somebody’s throat in a French church. Actually, it destroys more lives.” He was against all forms of fanaticism, from the left or the right: “Certain ideological stances could be defined as the simple refusal to recognize this or that boundary,” he wrote, as if anticipating contemporary arguments about borders. His approach to history was ethical; his concern was with how to treat the representation of other cultures; he believed that self-knowledge develops through knowledge of the Other; and he held that goodness can exist even in the evilest of contexts.

In his eulogy to his teacher, “The Last Barthes,” Todorov noted that he owed his mentor a great deal. And now, after Barthes’s death, writes Todorov, “I will owe him more every day.” Todorov opened his Barthes encomium with these words: “He belonged, in France, to that small group at the top of the intellectual pyramid; he was one of those writers whose books you were always supposed to have read, books which could become the subject of conversation among strangers.”[6] The same may be said of Todorov, and a great many of us will continue to owe him more every day.


[1] Sewell Chan, “Tzvetan Todorov, Literary Theorist and Historian of Evil, Dies at 77,” New York Times, 7 Feb. 2017,

[2] Tzvetan Todorov, “The 2 Principles of Narrative,” Diacritics 1 (Autumn 1971): p.44.

[3] Ibid., p. 39.

[4] Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, trans. Richard Howard (Norman, Okla., 1999), p. 254.

[5] All dates refer to the original French publication.

[6] Todorov, “The Last Barthes,” trans. Howard, Critical Inquiry 7 (Spring 1981): 454, 449.



The following essays (and interview) by Todorov were published in past issues of the journal.

“The Verbal Age,” trans. Patricia Martin Gibby, Critical Inquiry 4 (Winter 1977): 351-71.

“The Last Barthes,” trans. Howard, Critical Inquiry 7 (Spring 1981): 449-54.

“Critical Response: ‘Race,’ Writing, and Culture,” trans. Loulou Mack, Critical Inquiry 13 (Autumn 1986): 171-81.

Interview with Danny Postel, “Moving Targets,” trans. Gila Walker, Critical Inquiry 34 (Winter 2008): 249-73

(Danny Postel’s interview is available to read for free on our website


1 Comment

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One response to “Tzvetan Todorov (1939–2017)

  1. Ra

    “Todorov writes his study with a different question: to what extent did the fact that the Aztecs had no notion of the Other, and that the Spaniards had a very clear and (let us say) xenophobic and racist one, contribute to the destruction of the pre-Columbian civilizations of Mexico and the Caribbean? Could it explain the Aztec passivity in the face of the brutal conquerors?”

    Oh, those poor, innocent, peace-loving Aztecs!

    “There were two main objectives in Aztec warfare. The first objective was political: the subjugation of enemy city states (Altepetl) in order to exact tribute and expand Aztec political hegemony. The second objective was religious and socioeconomic: the taking of captives to be sacrificed in religious ceremonies.”

    Oh, the indignity, to be so maligned by Wikipedia!

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