What does Kurt Vonnegut’s master’s thesis and Anacyclosis have in common?

What does Kurt Vonnegut’s master’s thesis and Anacyclosis have in common?

They both represent the effort to abstract a few general rules out of an infinity of particulars.


After serving in the European theatre in World War II – a tour of duty that included being captured by German forces at the Battle of the Bulge – Kurt Vonnegut returned home to pursue a masters’ degree in Anthropology at the University of Chicago.

The central theme of his thesis, named “The Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tasks”, was that all stories have shapes. That is, the main plot lines, or skeletons, of all stories could be illustrated according to one or another of just a handful of diagrams. Man in a hole, boy gets girl, and the favorite – Cinderella – are examples of perhaps the most famous archetypal story shapes.

His thesis was rejected in 1947 on the basis that it was not really anthropology. Needing to earn a living, he moved on, though he did revisit this idea later in life. Including in this lecture (less than 5 minutes long, so watch it). In his autobiography, Vonnegut himself described this idea as one of if not his most important contribution to literature.

The really interesting part: Almost a decade after his death, researchers at the University of Vermont and the University of Adelaide proved he was right. Feeding almost 2,000 stories through a computer, they showed that all these stories did indeed adhere to one of only six different archetypes, characterized primarily by whether the plot trajectory started good or bad, ended good or bad, and turned for better or worse. The researchers then classified these plots as follows:

Rise (example: rags to riches)

Fall (example: riches to rags)

Rise, Fall (example: Icarus)

Fall, Rise (example: man in a hole)

Rise, Fall, Rise (example: Cinderella)

Fall, Rise, Fall (example: Oedipus)

So, from thousands of particulars Vonnegut abstracted a handful of generalities. Just like Polybius.


Kurt Vonnegut’s master’s thesis more or less did for the shapes of stories what the ancient Greek writers did for political regime archetypes over the course of three centuries. In the 2nd Pythian Ode, 85 Pindar provided an eearly classification of regimes (tyranny, raucous masses, and men of skill). In Histories, III.80-82 Herodotus elaborated the primary archetypes of kingship, aristocracy, and democracy. In the Republic, Book VIII) and Statesman, 291-303, Nichomachean EthicsVIII.x.1-3, Eudemian Ethics, 1241b, and Politics, 1279a-1280a (inter alia), Plato and Aristotle elaborated and refined the regimes (variously characterizing them as kingship, tyranny, aristocracy, oligarchy, timocracy, democracy, and constitutional government. Finally, in the Histories, VI.3 looking at history and contemporary events from the highest hosueholds of the Roman Republic, Polybius synthesized centuries of prior analysis into the matrix we use today:

One ruler, public benefit (Kingship)

One ruler, private benefit (Tyranny)

Few rulers, public benefit (Aristocracy)

Few rulers, private benefit (Oligarchy)

Many rulers, public benefit (Democracy)

Many rulers, private benefit (Ochlocracy/mob-rule)


One Comment

Ronald Libby
May 15, 2024 1:50 pm

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