March of the Coens: Propp’s Thirty One Narrative functions of a Fairy-Tale applied to Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

I cannot express my excitement enough about being able to write a post on my second favourite directing duo after Powell & Pressburger. I find the Coen Bros films hilarious, their narratives extremely interesting and wonderfully weird. Their distinctive film making style has made them auteurs in their own right. Loser, down-on-their-luck male protagonists, (Fargo (1996), A Serious Man (2009) and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)) and the representation of crime in America particularly in Southern America (Blood Simple (1984), Crimewave (1985), Raising Arizona (1987)).

Basically, most of their films involve serious/hilariously ridiculous criminal acts of some sort. And, they transform and adapt stilted genre conventions which range from Neo-noir, Western, Comedy, Dark comedy and Gangster with a bit of B-movie absurdity thrown in for good measure.

March of the Coens is all about the Coen Bros and I'm dissecting the narrative of Inside Llewyn Davis using Propp's 31 functions of a fairy-tale
Courtesy of French Toast Sunday

Yes, I consistently love the Coen Bros’ work. So what to focus on for one, tiny blog post? I wanted to pick something specific. Something that would really put emphasis on one area of the Coen Bros. And I wanted to do something fun. Something slightly obscure to honour the Coen Bros’ obscure and fresh way of film making.

Joel and Ethan Coen - March of the Coens is all about the Coen Bros and I'm dissecting the narrative of Inside Llewyn Davis using Propp's 31 functions of a fairy-tale
© 2000 – Touchstone Pictures / Universal Pictures

And then I had an idea, that couldn’t possibly be anything more than ‘for a bit of fun’ and would derive from no meaning, academic findings and would have absolutely no point to it what so ever. In fact, I could even start writing the post and it would turn so obscure and awful that it could completely fail spectacularly. Perfect.

Because usually the Coen Bros’ movies focus on one specific character’s rise and fall, or a specific ‘hero’ if you will, I thought it would be funny (in a geeky kind of way) to compare Inside Llewyn Davis to Vladimir Propp’s Thirty One Functions under his Model for the Study of Fairy-tales. Propp’s idea was that the hero in a fairy-tale goes through a series of ordeals that are basically replicated from story to story. Inside Llewyn Davis follows one ‘hero’ through a whole series of ordeals… To a very different finale, however. And it’s actually not failed as badly as I thought it would fail! Let’s see how Inside Llewyn Davis likens to a modern day fairy tale… shall we?

March of the Coens is all about the Coen Bros and I'm dissecting the narrative of Inside Llewyn Davis using Propp's 31 functions of a fairy-tale
© 2013 – CBS Films

0. Initial situation

Once Upon A Time… there was a man called Llewyn Davis, a folk singer in New York City in 1961 who spent his nights sleeping on people’s couches and his days trying to find a couch to sleep on, with a bit of strumming guitar in between.

1. One of the members of a family absents himself from home

Llewyn used to sing with a good pal of his, Mike, who sadly chose to leave the party early by throwing himself off the George Washington Bridge. This happens before the official narrative of the film but we learn this fact within the first five minutes. Arguably, the ginger cat running out of the Gorfein’s apartment (Llewyn’s abode for the evening) also counts because that darn cat is always absenting himself.

2. An interdiction is addressed to the hero

An ‘interdiction’ I think is some kind of banning or outlawing… In this case, he was thrown out of his management/record label’s office, modest though it was, for being ungrateful at his lack of royalties.

3. The interdiction is violated

Llewyn takes his manager’s winter coat on the way out, cheeky! I think later in the narrative Llewyn goes back to the office uninvited, so that definitely counts as a violation.

4. The villain makes an attempt at reconnaissance

Jeez… I’ve looked up that “reconnaissance” means to obtain information by visual observation… Erm… Well shucks, I haven’t the foggiest. Firstly, the one thing I can’t work out is who the villain is. I think that for the sake of the rest of this narrative, Llewyn is his own villain because him and his darn fatal flaws of entitlement and generally being a not-a-nice-guy ultimately ruin his own chances of obtaining his goals.

5. The villain receives information about his victim

Llewyn learns that Jean is pregnant which means that they have had previous relations (and Jean is married to a super nice guy!) and Jean suspects the child might be Llewyn’s.

6. The villain attempts to deceive his victim in order to take possession of him or of his belongings

Llewyn needs to pay for Jean to have an abortion, because she doesn’t want to have the baby with the chance that it might be Llewyn’s.

7. Victim submits to deception and thereby unwittingly helps his enemy

Jean isn’t really deceived… They’re helping each other out because they’ve both been silly billys.

7a. Preliminary misfortune caused by a deceitful agreement

Llewyn tells his sister to throw out a box of his old stuff… With big repercussions later…

8. The villain causes harm or injury to a member of a family

Granted, it’s inadvertently, but he tells Jim that his Dear, Mr President song is shit. Jim’s a nice guy and he gives Llewyn a recording gig, and Llewyn doesn’t even seem to care that his mate’s wife might be pregnant with his kid! Llewyn can be a real self-important dick sometimes and he pretty much deserves a lot of what he gets.

March of the Coens is all about the Coen Bros and I'm dissecting the narrative of Inside Llewyn Davis using Propp's 31 functions of a fairy-tale
© 2013 – CBS Films

8a. A member of a family lacks something or desires to have something

The next thing that happens is that Llewyn learns that the woman he paid for to have an abortion a couple of years ago (Jeez, Llewyn) decided to have the baby and moved away. This does not connect to the story at all but it’s the next thing that happens… Maybe this lady ‘desired’ to have the baby?

9. Misfortune or lack is made known; the hero is approached with a request or command; he is allowed to go or he is dispatched

Llewyn is asked by Mrs Gorfein to sing Fare Thee Well which he performed with his old partner Mike, the one who committed suicide. He is clearly so uncomfortable singing the song but does so anyway.

10. The hero agrees to or decides upon counteraction

Llewyn snaps at Mrs Gorfein when she starts to sing Mike’s harmony and therefore leaves the dinner party.

11. The hero leaves home

Llewyn decides to try his hand in Chicago with a big shot management guy when some friends of a friend of his happen to be driving there one Tuesday afternoon.

12. The hero is tested, interrogated, attacked etc., which prepares the way for his receiving either a magical agent or a helper

The car journey is a less than pleasant experience. Fellow musician, Roland Turner, is a just a tad annoying and majorly addicted to heroin. A short break to get some shut eye also ends with a cop arresting Roland’s driver while he’s asleep and Llewyn finishes the rest of the journey himself, hitch-hiking.

13. The hero reacts to the actions of the future Donor

In this particular narrative, the magical agent or the Donor is either Mike Grossman (the big shot manager in Chicago that Llewyn wants to work with) or the cat. Either or. I think the cat is probably the magical agent. So the Donor doesn’t like his music and therefore doesn’t sign him, and that is his action. Llewyn reacts like the spoilt brat he is, but to be fair the song isn’t any good.

14. The hero acquires the use of a magical agent

This should actually be No. 13, and it would be the opposite because Llewyn DID have a magical agent in the cat but leaves the cat in the abandoned car just outside of Chicago! DICK!

15. Hero is led to the whereabouts of an object of search

Just after the interview Llewyn is left without a ride or warmth (I do not envy him being in Chicago in winter), but luckily for him a guy driving to New Jersey picks him up.

16. The hero and the villain join in direct combat

Since I’ve given Llewyn the role of both hero and villain, this is tough. Plus, there isn’t really a big altercation of any kind when Llewyn is ‘away from home’, just what I’ve stated above. This is probably the biggest discrepancy between Propp’s 31 functions and this movie.

17. The hero is branded

Llewyn picks up the cat again for a bit, at least that’s kind of nice.

18. The villain is defeated

Llewyn has some redeeming features after all?

19. The initial misfortune or lack is liquidated 

The initial misfortune or lack was Llewyn not having Mike and snapping at Mrs Goldfein. We’ve basically forgotten all about that at this point… it has been liquidated you might say… (you probably wouldn’t).

20. The hero returns

Llewyn goes back to New York to stay with his sister, until he acts like a dick (I genuinely don’t mind Llewyn as a character but I still find the profanities acceptable to his behaviour… the true anti-hero!)

21. The hero is pursued

The Merchant Marine Union is getting up in Llewyn’s grill to pay his dues that he didn’t pay upon leaving the Union all them years ago when he decided to rest on his laurels.

22. Rescue of the hero from pursuit

He pays his dues, reluctantly. He is selling out to the Marines to get some dough. Times are bad, man.

23. Unrecognised, he arrives home or in another country

This hilariously matches up with the point in the narrative where some guy running the Merchant Marine’s office asks him if he’s some random guy Hugh Davis’ son, Llewyn replies with “sure, why not.” But then he goes and visits his real dad in a home and sings to him. So it’s like he’s arriving home because he’s going to see his dad, and he is unrecognised because this guy doesn’t say anything to Llewyn or acknowledge him as his son because he’s so old.

24. A false hero presents unfounded claims

Llewyn tells Jean he loves her, I don’t really believe this, do you? I mean, c’mon, that cheatin’ hussy?

25. A difficult task is proposed to the hero

Llewyn’s sister accidentally throws out Llewyn’s sea papers (remember the box he tells her she could throw out earlier in the film? In point 7?) so he has to buy a new one for $85. He doesn’t have this money so can’t go in the Merchant Marines again, but can’t get his money back from paying his dues because they were a debt he should have paid anyway. The most difficult of difficult tasks.

26. The task is resolved

It’s not really resolved, he’s got no choice but to let the money go.

27. The hero is recognized

We’re back at the Gaslight Cafe. The Cafe owner wants Llewyn to play the next day. Despite everything, Llewyn is a good musician and we do recognise this despite his flaws.

28. The false hero or villain is exposed

The Cafe owner tells Llewyn that he too previously had relations with Jean. Definite false hero-ing going on somewhere there, most likely Jean’s. Goddamit Jean.

29. The hero is given a new appearance

Can EVEN MORE OF A DICK count as a new appearance? Llewyn starts heckling this nice woman from Arkansas for no reason and gets chucked out of Gaslight. Maybe a black eye will count as a new appearance.

30. The villain is punished

Llewyn, as the villain and the hero, has been punished enough, punished throughout the whole film. It’s been a shit week for the poor lad. The Gorfein’s forgave him like the good people they are and he’s allowed to play Gaslight. Things aren’t looking up though, he’s in exactly the same position as he was at the start of the movie. Except he seems to have learned some humility. Well done, Llewyn.

March of the Coens is all about the Coen Bros and I'm dissecting the narrative of Inside Llewyn Davis using Propp's 31 functions of a fairy-tale

31. The hero is married and ascends the throne

Unsurprisingly, no female in this movie would touch Llewyn with a barge pole (except Jean, of course, though her extra-marital affairs with various night club owners and folk singers don’t lay the foundations for a happy relationship).

In fact, the grand finale in this case is the image of a young, 20/21 year old Bob Dylan taking the stage and ready to blow the New York folk scene wide open. Llewyn? He gets punched in the face by a randomer. Now that’s what I call restoring the balance.

Did you like Inside Llewyn Davis? Do you think it qualifies as a fairy-tale at all?

This feature is a series of posts run by French Toast Sunday. If you want to read last month’s entry on Edgar Wright click here.

Want MORE?

Why I Love Adam Driver and Why You Will Soon

FEBgar Wright: The Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy Reviewed

APRILfonso Cuaron: 5 Reasons Prisoner of Azkaban (2003) was the Best Harry Potter Film

Sofia CoppolMAY: Close Scene Analysis of Lost In Translation (2003)

Terry Jilliune: Tideland (2005) and The Nature of Fantasy

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March of the Coens is all about the Coen Bros and I'm dissecting the narrative of Inside Llewyn Davis using Propp's 31 functions of a fairy-tale
Courtesy of French Toast Sunday


I'm the human and hair behind Almost Ginger. I'm a cinephile travel obsessive vegetarian currently residing in Manchester.

6 thoughts on “March of the Coens: Propp’s Thirty One Narrative functions of a Fairy-Tale applied to Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

  • 12/03/2015 at 7:43 pm

    Wow, this was such a great idea! It worked out so well too. So many of the steps really do line up – especially the part where he visits his dad. And you’re totally right, Llewyn is a dick!

    • 12/03/2015 at 8:31 pm

      I was surprised at how well the narratives lined up, considering there is huuuge scope for narrative, attempting to apply Propp’s 31 functions of a fairy-tale to Pulp Fiction might have been a tall order…

  • 24/03/2015 at 5:40 pm

    Well, I wasn’t going to watch this movie – partly because I have a big backlog of recent films, and partly because I’m way behind on Coen films (I think I haven’t seen one since Fargo) – but this post has changed my mind a bit. I’ll try to fasttrack Llewyn and watch it with what you wrote in mind.

    Very nicely done, and congrats on your site’s first anniversary!

    • 24/03/2015 at 8:01 pm

      Aw thank you! It is a good movie – I think if I were to recommend a Coen Bros film since Fargo it would be True Grit above this one, but that’s just me! It is interesting watching films charting the rise and fall of one particular character as they often mirror classic fairy tale narratives, Mr Smith Goes to Washington is another one that springs to mind!

      • 01/04/2015 at 10:35 pm

        Oh, you’re right – True Grit! Damn, they generally make such fine and fun movies that I will have a very long marathon before me…

        I’m going to have to read up on all of this, as I’ve recently become very interested in fairy tales.

        In any case, greetings from New York, and kudos for all your hard work and insight!

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