theatlantic | “My prettiest contribution to my culture,” the writer Kurt Vonnegut mused in his 1981 autobiography Palm Sunday, “was a master’s thesis in anthropology which was rejected by the University of Chicago a long time ago.”
That explanation comes from a lecture he gave, and which you can still watch on YouTube, that involves Vonnegut mapping the narrative arc of popular storylines along a simple graph. The X-axis represents the chronology of the story, from beginning to end, while the Y-axis represents the experience of the protagonist, on a spectrum of ill fortune to good fortune. “This is an exercise in relativity, really,” Vonnegut explains. “The shape of the curve is what matters.”
The most interesting shape to him, it turned out, was the one that reflected the tale of Cinderella, of all stories. Vonnegut visualizes its arc as a staircase-like climb in good fortune representing the arrival of Cinderella’s fairy godmother, leading all the way to a high point at the ball, followed by a sudden plummet back to ill fortune at the stroke of midnight. Before too long, though, the Cinderella graph is marked by a sharp leap back to good fortune, what with the whole business of (spoiler alert) the glass slipper fitting and the happily ever after.
This may not seem like anything special, Vonnegut says—his actual words are, “it certainly looks like trash”—until he notices another well known story that shares this shape. “Those steps at the beginning look like the creation myth of virtually every society on earth. And then I saw that the stroke of midnight looked exactly like the unique creation myth in the Old Testament.” Cinderella’s curfew was, if you look at it on Vonnegut’s chart, a mirror-image downfall to Adam and Eve’s ejection from the Garden of Eden. “And then I saw the rise to bliss at the end was identical with the expectation of redemption as expressed in primitive Christianity. The tales were identical.”