Fantasy Theme Analysis

by Virginia Kidd
Department of Communication Studies
California State University, Sacramento

"There are no truths--only stories" --Head Office

Technical Vocabulary

Fantasy theme
Insider cue
Fantasy type
Archetypal shared fantasies
Central persona (protagonist)
Negative persona (antagonist)/opposing force
Supporting characters
Victim (sometimes)
Ridiculed person (sometimes)
Scenario (plot)
Reality links
Chaining out
Rhetorical community
Rhetorical vision
Life-style rhetorical vision
Ultimate legitimizer
Symbolic convergence

Suggestion that Ties in with Our Dreams:

Fantasy Theme Analysis

A current magazine ad features a handsome man in a white linen suit, a light straw hat tipped rakishly across his brow, leaning casually against a palm tree, holding a cold drink. Above him lush green palm fronds bend to frame his debonoir pose, behind him the brilliant blue sea pounds golden sands. In the shadows a binkini-clad blonde awaits. Below, ad copy touts the advertiser's product. This happens to be rum but it could be an airline, a clothing manufacturer, a bank charge card, an investment counseler, or the U.S. Army. Nothing in the full page photograph discusses qualities of rum. No logical arguments explain the benefits of one brand of rum over another or of drinking rum rather than, say, Hawaiian punch. But if you are hot and tired and trapped at a desk by long rows of numbers that don't balance, it may stir in you a great longing for cool breezes and empty hours, a longing that, oddly enough, you may satisfy with rum and Coca-cola in a fat glass with a pineapple chunk on the rim. The ad is operating on a principle elucidated by Ernest G. Bormann: "We are not necessarily persuaded by reason. We are often persuaded by suggestion that ties in with our dreams" (Ernest Bormann and Nancy Bormann. (Speech Communication 171).

Such messages are increasingly influential in contemporary life. As Neil Postman points out in Amusing Ourselves to Death:

Most commercials use the literary device of the pseudo-parable as a means of doing their work. Such "parables" as The Ring Around the Collar, The Lost Traveler's Checks and The Phone Call from the Son Far Away not only have irrefutable emotional power but, like Biblical parables, are unambiguously didactic. (131)

Clearly such messages are not expressed in traditional logical format, as Postman explains in "Critical Thinking in the Electronic Era":

A McDonald's commercial, for example, is not a series of testable, logically ordered assertions. It is a drama, a mythology, if you will, of handsome people selling, buying, and eating hamburgers, and being driven to near ecstasy by their good fortune. Is this a claim? (5)

Postman believes such images are not limited to advertising alone:

In the age of television, the ideas of political leaders are not expressed as subjects and predicates. They are not subjectable to logical analysis and refutation any more than is a McDonald's commercial. (qtd. in Benderson 14)

Images, whether verbal or visual, are powerful. In the television-magazine era, visual impressions take on special power, but they could as well be told in words. Consider an example. The night is dark, cold, threatening; but in the house, safety and warmth prevail. A warm golden lamp throws soft light on the child's bed. Beside it, Mother stands, smiling with love. This is an image you may recognize, either because you have seen it before or because you long for it. In either case, if I can connect it in your mind with my product, my product can represent mother-love and safety too. All an advertiser has to do is put the right words below the picture or into the story: "At three in the morning when my son has a fever I give him Children's Tylenol." "Ethan Allen Galleries. A good home lasts a lifetime." "Feather soft pillows. For the one you love." "Bill Gardner knows your home is important to you. Vote Gardner for City Council. For a city your family can love in."

Fantasy theme analysis is a methodology designed to examine such messages. It helps you unearth the force of stories and dramatic elements which operate like stories, such as the escapism suggested in the rum ad, and determine how these influence you. The method presumes that inherent in every drama are values and that through the stories people tell, we get a glimpse of their values. Our response to their stories can be a key to our beliefs; if we cheer a hero's action, for example, we support that action; if we laugh at a character's antics, we define his behaviors as deserving laughter. Typically we do this without giving it much thought; analysis involves bringing the process into conscious awareness.

The words "drama" and "story" may be misleading at this point. Many people have a tendency to equate drama with theater or television shows and to equate stories with long stretches of speech beginning "Once upon a time." Story is used in the fantasy theme context in a much broader sense. In essence it refers to how individuals cast events when recounting them to another or to themselves.

Let me give you an example from the Sacramento Bee which describes a situation undoubtedly familiar to you--the junior high school classroom. The Bee ran a series on public school teaching. In the course of the discussion one teacher described her view of teaching. The following week several people responded to her. These people were not "telling stories" in any entertaining sense. They were attempting to describe a very important situation so that others could sense what it was like. However, in order to convey those images, each created his or her own drama--describing a setting, putting characters into it, and giving them action.

The first description was written by an author using the pseudonymn Christine Stanton. She reported fearing to use her own name. This is her report of the daily life of a teacher:

I am supposed to be at school at 7:30, a half hour before class, in case a parent wants to drop by. I think one did, once. In December and January, the temperature in my room at 7:30 varied between 50 and 57 degrees. It reached 68 by lunch--on good days.

I always go to the restroom before my first class. Women have one stall, one sink, one mirror and no heat. In December and January the temperature does not rise to 68 by noon--or at any time during the day. There is no hot water, but we do have some soap to go with the cold.

My class walks, runs, jumps and stumbles (these are junior high kids) into the room. All four walls and the ceiling are composed of glass and other equally hard surfaces. We have glaring florescent lighting. The floor is asphalt tile over concrete. The desks that scrape on it have metal legs. . . .

I stand or sit at my desk. It is metal with a battered plastic top. It has two drawers. My chair is metal; it has no arms. I made a cushion that I use on it to avoid further deterioration of my varicose veins.

I call for the history homework. I get between a 20-percent and 50-percent return. Some students have not turned in a single homework assignment this year. This is an "average" class, no remedial.

I start a history discussion with a brief review of history already covered. I ask for the significance of 1492. Silence. A voice finally offers, "The Civil War?" Another voice then says, "Columbus."

I give a quiz on the assigned chapter in the novel the class is reading. Four to eight students immediately put their names on the papers and hand them in for their Fs, smiling as other students laugh indulgently. . . .

Lunchtime comes. Lunch is 11:15 to 12:15. . . . When the bell rings, the students who lag and question are eating into my lunchtime. . . . I usually find I have to take my sandwich on yard duty with me--I am to be there at 11:45. . . .

Pursuing such complaints is not always wise. In education, one wave can easily wash away a reputation for 12 years of superior teaching service. Would you recommend that your daughter or son be a teacher? I didn't. (Forum 1, 6)

The responses to Christine Stanton's letter show vastly different views of the classroom, cast into very different dramas. Three were printed--one from another teacher, one from a parent, and one from a principal. The letter from R. Chris Fenstermaker, also a junior high social studies teacher, was the most supportive of Stanton's views. However, it included elements not present in her description, primarily the drama of teachers banding together to solve their own problems:

Two years ago our staff began to work on school-wide expectations and rules. . . . The simple act of coming together to admit that we needed and would benefit by each other's support meant a great deal. Most of the rules and expectations that we agreed on, and which are now posted in every classroom, are basic things. . . .

Amazing as it seems, compared to four years ago, the vast majority [of students] meet those expectations every day. (Forum 6)

Parent Ann Meggs was considerably less sympathetic. Her drama changed the character of Christine Stanton from a dedicated teacher calling for reform to a self-pitying whiner:

I chose to stay home with my children just as the pseudonymed Christine Stanton chose to teach school. Sometimes I am depressed by my choice. . . . But unlike Christine Staton, I will not succumb to this attitude. I made the choice, so I will not let the woes override the benefits--benefits to me as well as to my children. I will do my best to enrich the experience instead of wallowing in the lagoon of self-pity.

I'm sure most of her complaints are true and unexaggerated. And if those compaints are so great in her mind, I hope Christine Stanton gets out of teaching before my child is unlucky enough to enter her classroom. (Forum 1)

Principal Alan Shuttleworth chose to focus on very different elements in his school, still telling the story of the life of a teacher:

While threading my way among the children's desks in Bonnie's second grade, a child [sic] stopped me to show off his writing for the day. The illustrated writing was mature and joyful. His zest for prose was tremendous. Bonnie worked with a small group of children in a corner of the class. . . . Everything going smoothly here. On to another class.

In Mike's sixth grade, the children are busily writing pen pal letters to a school in Wisconsin. Mike circulates among the children to check their progress and provide help and guidance. Plenty of motivated kids here.

Last on my classroom tour is Bruce's eighth grade. Thirty kids are knee-deep in schematic drawings and balsa wood.

My thoughts drifted to the pseudonymed eighth-grade teacher who described her classroom in the Forum. . . .

Perhaps we need to consciously search for teachers who see it as more than an occupation. Great teachers from Plato to Dewey have enjoyed giving service to others. Without this enjoyment, teaching has to be drudgery for both teacher and student.

Let's look for teachers who believe that students can master their academic work--who will be comitted to seeing their students learn. (Forum 1,6).

These are four very different descriptions of the same subject. Each description creates a drama in our minds. By means of individual stories, vivid scenes, noble and ignoble characters, and plots set in the heart of the American school system, the authors have each given us a different episode of a show called Life in the Eighth Grade.

Fantasy theme analysis assumes that narrative descriptions such as these permeate our communication. Bormann explains that we come to understand the world by means of such stories which he labels fantasy themes:

People seldom understand events in all their complexity. Yet most human beings have a desire to understand some of the things that happen around them and to them. The way they come to some understanding is by participating in fantasy themes in which an explanation for events is acted out by the personae in the dramas. ("Rhetoric as a Way of Knowing" 436).

Fantasy theme analysts believe such messages deserve critical analysis. This is calling attention to an area often essentially thrown away by traditional advocates of critical thinking. For example, one handout at the 1987 Northern California Institute on Teaching Critical Thinking Skills provided a list of how a critical thinker proceeds, including this guideline: "Does not allow vivid information and anecdotal evidence to carry undue weight" (Johnson). Unfortunately, admonitions to simply minimize the power of dramatic evidence offer those who receive such evidence no advice on how to think critically about it.

Before you can think critically about a message, you must recognize the elements which comprise it. If you conduct a logical analysis, for instance, you can voice doubts about certain evidence in a speech, but your critical assessment is stronger if you can separate assertions from support, identify the line of reasoning leading to conclusions, and name the logical fallacies. The same principle applies to drama. By isolating segments of a drama and examining each individually you get a sense of why and how a message may have moved you. Fantasy theme analysis is a procedure for doing that.

History of Fantasy Theme Analysis

Knowing how fantasy theme analysis evolved may help you understand how it can be applied. In the early 1970's the dominant method used by speech scholars for analyzing speeches was the classical approach. Students of argument and critical thinking were especially concerned to assess the validity of evidence and to determine whether evidence offered in a particular argument was sufficient to support the assertions made. The pervasiveness of emotional appeal was acknowledged, but usually grudgingly, as though rational individuals should not be emotionally moved.

At this time Bormann, who was actively researching small group communication, came across Robert Bales' book Personality and Interpersonal Relations. Bales identified a particular group behavior marked by the group getting off the task at hand to chat about what appeared to be irrelevant issues, tell stories, kid around, and in general discuss the "there and then" rather than what was going on in the group "here and now." Bales called such discussion topics fantasy themes.

Bales realized quickly that these discursions were not nearly so irrelevant as they seemed. Noting that often a group returned to its task with renewed vigor and that problems which had seemed to plague the group previously no longer did so, Bales hypothesized that during fantasy themes a group was building a common group culture and often dealing in a safe, indirect way with emotional tensions inherent in the group. A group of ex-teachers, for instance, faced with a dominating leader, might talk about principals they had worked with who were unreasonable in their demands and didn't allow the teachers any input. An astute leader should get the point without having to be confronted.

The more actively group members got involved with the fantasy themes, the more the fantasies signified a group value. As Bormann explained, "When group members respond emotionally to the dramatic situation they publicly proclaim some commitment to an attitude" ("Fantasy and Rhetorical Vision" 397). When fantasy themes generated strong responses, they were said to be chaining out, the term underscoring the notion of a chain reaction building and expanding.

Bormann reasoned that if you could look at the dramas believed by a small group and learn something about group values, you could similarly look at the dramas which chain out to a much larger group or an entire society and learn something about that society's values. He began his study with that area of public speaking minimized by the classicists--the anecdotes in a speech which were not really evidence nor assertions but merely examples to illustrate a point. These, Bormann said, constitute fantasy themes. Putting them together we can find the construction of a group's world view or rhetorical vision. He and a group of graduate students began to analyze messages by examining the fantasy themes in them. Bormann himself applied the method to the Puritan rhetoric of the early Massachusetts Bay Colony and in 1972 published his first paper using fantasy theme analysis, "Fantasy and Rhetorical Vision: The Rhetorical Criticism of Social Reality."

Since that time the methodology has been applied to multiple subject matters ranging from television programs to the Communist party. In that process it has been refined and elaborated and a technical vocabulary developed.

Elements of Fantasy Theme Analysis

In order to understand the fantasy themes of a message, you must identify the fantasies and the elements within them, marked by the technical vocabulary described here. As you learn these terms and begin to analyze messages using this methodology, bear in mind the premise upon which it operates. Fantasy theme analysis assumes that when individuals read or hear dramatic narratives, they participate in a social reality defined by the stories being told. That reality has characters with whom they identify and others whom they oppose; it has implied values they accept when they are moved by a character's struggle. If they get fully caught up in the drama, they can be motivated to certain actions or beliefs in their own lives based on the values in the drama. You can determine what many of their values are by examining the dramas they believe in. Bormann illustrated this by his analysis of the sermons in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but you could as well assess your favorite television show to learn about its audience or the latest song hit sweeping the nation and what it says about those who sing it.

Bormann defines a fantasy theme as a specific telling of an incident with a concrete plot and characters. Use of the label fantasy has caused some confusion in applying this methodology. Fantasy in this use does not mean unreal; it is not intended to conjure up elves and magic fairies. Rather it is a term for our perceptual frames. The stories we tell may be fictional; they may also be dealing with factual matter, the dramatization of a genuine event. In every case, however, we deal with interpretations, how individuals see their world and cast it into dramatic form.

Though a fantasy theme is concrete and specific in its original form, one of its powers is that it does not have to be retold in full to evoke the message after an audience has accepted it. Images can be conveyed to all but new audiences by what Bormann has labelled insider cues. As a society, we are familiar with the phrase "crying wolf" without having to hear the whole fable of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" again. We know what a "good Samaritan" is without returning to the Biblical passage. We can turn withering glances on those less astute than ourselves when we figure out a puzzle and say to them, "Elementary, my dear Watson" and expect them to know what we mean. Most of us can relate to the phrase "Where's the beef?" or "I can't believe I ate the whole thing" even if we have never seen the commercials that began these phrases and have no idea what product they were trying to sell. Likewise a social movement can have an insider cue which evokes the image of a full narrative. Those who support Greenpeace in its efforts to save the seals, who are familiar with stories of volunteers sailing in the ship Rainbow Warrior to Newfoundland to spray the coats of baby seals with green dye so the fur is of no use to furriers, do not have to repeat the full drama to convey their messages. They can simply use phrases such as "green fur coats" or "send the Rainbow Warrior" to convey the whole image. Even the visual drama which began this chapter is an insider cue for the story of the harried businessman who chucks it all to run away to the beauty and adventure of the south seas.

Sometimes when you listen to a story, you feel you have heard it before. If you trace back your recollection to its base, you may realize the story you heard was different, yet told much the same tale. Bormann uses the phrase fantasy type to refer to different stories with different characters and situations which tell essentially the same story with the same general plot and a common theme. Harlequin romance novels are a fantasy type. Each novel has the same type of heroine, the same hero, the same struggle to find true love, the same happy ending solidified in marriage. Alcoholics Anonymous meetings turn on the fantasy type of the worthy human being brought to ruin or near-ruin by addiction; the ruin may be loss of family, loss of employment, loss of opportunity, loss of respect from others and from self; then the central character finds AA, stops drinking and starts the long path to sobriety; life thereafter is better and stronger and the hero has hope--as long as the addiction is rejected with the help of AA meetings. Though specific details vary, the central plot is the same over and over, stressing the common experience of AA members and giving a wide variety of people reason to identify with one another.

When a fantasy theme becomes so widely accepted that it can be used to explain related experiences which occur under very different circumstances, it becomes an archetypal shared fantasy theme. Bormann gives examples of this. Senator Joseph McCarthy's investigation of communism in the government in the 1950's was referred to as a "witch hunt"; initially a reference to the Salem witch trials, this archetypal fantasy allows any case with similar perimeters--such as the McCarthy hearings--to be forced rhetorically into the witch hunt framework ("Ten Years Later" 296). Similarly, a group very opposed to the Vietnam war describes conditions in Central America as "another Vietnam" to direct negative feelings about the Vietnam war toward American involvement in Central America (Force of Fantasy 7).

Fantasy themes turn around characters. As you study a message, you pinpoint major characters in the dramas with an eye toward extricating the human traits these characters represent. How the audience should feel about each of the characters (and thus each of the traits) is indicated by the viewpoint of the story and the degree to which the characters are presented as sympathetic or admirable.

A story must have a central persona, a sympathetic character for the audience to identify with. As you read a story, watch a drama or hear an anecdote, ask yourself who you are rooting for. When you can answer, you have found the central character. Sometimes such a central character is called the hero, but because the term hero implies heroic action, and the central persona does not always engage in such behavior, the label hero can be misleading.

The central character has some laudable goal which we yearn for him to achieve. Alas! An opposing force or negative persona is out to stop the central character from accomplishing this goal. The negative persona is often called the villain, but again the label can be misleading; opposition is not always villainous. Accepting audiences are attracted to the sympathetic central character, often identifying with both the character and his or her goal; in the same sense they feel an antipathy toward the negative character. These responses arouse emotions and generate their involvement in the story.

Other characters also help forge feelings about the drama. Stories often have supporting characters who help motivate the plot--perhaps an admiring crowd who cheer the central character's decision and imply the hearer's own decision will be cheered if it is similar; or an intellectually astute older character who represents wisdom, suggesting that though the crowd doesn't understand, insightful, wise people will support the decision. Sometimes stories have victims who need assistance; if the hearers give to Greenpeace, for instance, they join the heroic men and women aboard the Rainbow Warrior sailing to save the innocent baby seals from certain death. Without the victims, the story has no point. Sometimes a character in a drama is portrayed as a fool, thus isolating what behavior is not acceptable. The foolish smoker who continues to eat fried foods and drink heavily will lose his life early, despite the warnings of his intelligent friends who subsist solely on celery and broccoli sprouts.

Dramas are set in a particular locale. The setting can be immaterial; in some cases, however, the setting indicates how near to you the story is. If the drama happens in a "typical classroom," it could be yours. Often the setting is symbolic. The television series Star Trek has often been credited with describing racial and political problems facing America in the late 1960's by transferring them to future times and different planets so they could be discussed indirectly in dramatic form.

The scenario or plotline explains how the central character faces conflicts in his or her effort to reach the goal. How the struggle is resolved provides models to the audience for how problems should be faced. The television hero who solves his problems with his fists, for instance, does not offer strong rationale for calm, dialectical reasoning at a conference table. Though he is portrayed as fighting for the right, his plotline says, nonverbally, that might makes right.

If dramas are to be accepted by listening audiences, those who create them must take into account reality links or factual data recognized by the larger community. Consider, for example, one of the many beautiful perfume ads flourishing in magazine pages today. No matter how lovely the images may be, they will not sell a perfume with the aroma of onions. The reality link is the actual fragrance of the perfume itself. Or we may have a fantasy theme that says those who work hard and are prepared will get the best grades and those who don't study will not do well; our story must account for Bill's getting a "B" and Jana getting a "C" even though Jana studied hard and Bill did not. We may account for this by saying Bill was lucky, or he knew the subject better because he had taken another similar course, he was favored by the instructor, he cheated, he's smarter, etc. Each of these could be a different fantasy theme and we are free to choose at will, but somehow we must account for the incongruity, the reality link of the grades.

You may be inclined, based on previous beliefs, to think that facts are facts and cannot be changed by an individual's fantasy theme. Such a view fails to take into account the ability individuals have to take radically different views of the same event. You may remember the death of Jim Fixx, author of The Complete Book of Running. After preaching that active people lived longer lives, Fixx died at 52 of a heart attack which occurred while he was running. Needless to say, the response was varied. Those of my physical fitness orientation (my idea of exercise is a good brisk sit) pointed derisively at Fixx's death as proof that exercise is unnecessarily wearing on the body. Aficionados of running, however, claimed Fixx's massive heart attack indicated a potential that could have killed him as a much younger man had he not been physically fit, therefore his advice was still valuable. Some supporters went so far as to claim his running kept him alive for years despite his heart condition. Others simply dismissed his death as something that eventually happens to everyone and said that while being physically fit does not prevent heart attacks, it makes your life better and keeps you healthy.

Or consider the other side of the baby seal issue. From the furriers' point of view, the activities of the Greenpeace activists are the overly dramatic escapades of wild-eyed radicals who do not understand the economic demands of the furriers, their employees and agents, or the people of Newfoundland, and claim to worry about a few hundred seals because life is sacred and then go out and eat a steak.

A fantasy theme rarely operates singly. In addition to their concern for endangered seals, for example, Greenpeace also dramatize the plight of whales, the damage to ecology if a species dies out, the need to protect the environment, the tragedy of dolphins trapped with tuna. They explain in story and description what protesters accomplish in various world ports, what forces they must overcome to protect wildlife, how leaders in many countries support their efforts. Various fantasy themes fit together in, as Bormann describes it, a complex web of "composite dramas which catch up large groups of people in symbolic reality" ("Fantasy and Rhetorical Vision" 398). This world view Bormann calls a rhetorical vision. It is a vision of the world literally conveyed rhetorically. We construct a coherent world view from stories we hear and believe about how the world works. When you consider how few experiences you have yourself and how many you are told, read about, or see via mass media, you begin to understand why rhetorical visions are so potent.

Bormann stresses that an individual may participate in a number of rhetorical visions.

A given individual may share several rhetorical visions providing social realities for such things as hobbies, politics, intimate relationships, and religion. . . . The visions may last only for short periods of time. On the other hand, some rhetorical visions are so all-encompassing and impelling that they permeate an individual's social reality in all aspects of living. I call such all-encompassing symbolic systems life-style rhetorical visions. (Force of Fantasy 8)

Once accepted, rhetorical visions can be quite compelling:

When a person appropriates a rhetorical vision he gains with the supporting dramas constraining forces which impel him to adopt a life style and to take certain action. The born-again Christian is baptized and adopts a life style and behavior modeled after the heroes of the dramas that sustain that vision. The devout Puritan in Massachusetts was driven by his vision. Likewise the convert to one of the counterculture in the 1960s would let his hair and beard grow, change his style of dress, and his method of work and so forth. ("Fantasy and Rhetorical Vision" 406-407)

Often rhetorical visions which draw large numbers of followers come to be recognized by labels or slogans such as "The American Dream," (the Wall Street Journal, for instance, runs a column entitled the "Daily Diary of the American Dream"), "The Cold War" or "The Moral Majority." For a rhetorical vision to be accepted, it must account for related reality links and integrate into it values from the fantasy themes that compose it.

At the base of a fantasy theme, and central to the rhetorical vision, is an ultimate legitimizer, the basic value from which others spring. The ultimate legitimizer is the bottom-line value which justifies the decisions of the central figure and the characterization of success or failure of the enterprise. For the Harlequin romance fantasy types, for example, that ultimate legitimizer is romantic love. All sacrifice and struggle is worthwhile if it leads to love. For highly religious individuals, the ultimate legitimizer may be faith in a Higher Being. Whatever sacrifice is necessary carries meaning, they believe, if it leads to God. Students often live in one of two rhetorical visions regarding education. One vision holds that a college education will get you a good job and place you in a higher status in society. The ultimate legitimizer of this rhetorical vision could be success. An alternative vision is that knowledge is valuable in itself and that higher education is a path to knowledge. The ultimate legitimizer for this vision might be intellectual understanding. Knowing the ultimate legitimizer can be useful in grasping the dimensions of the rhetorical vision and the particulars of a given fantasy theme. However the ultimate legitimizer is so central to most fantasy themes and rhetorical visions that adherents often do not see any need to state it. To them it is obvious, taken for granted. The message analyst, therefore, often must ferret it out.

Those who accept and participate in a particular rhetorical vision comprise its rhetorical community. These people have a sense of themselves, derived in part from their own descriptions, as the insiders, and of those who do not accept their ideas as the outsiders. Bormann explains, "They often share fantasies that depict themselves as better than outsiders and their rhetorical innovations as an improvement over current ways of viewing the world" (Bormann, Force of Fantasy 12). Frequently these fantasies clarify the group's sense of self. As Bormann reports:

Who are the outsiders? Typical personae who can symbolize the outsiders are a useful device for identifying the insiders and drawing boundaries around the community. Fantasies that clearly divide the sympathetic, good people (we) from the unsympathetic or evil people (they) aid the group's self-awareness and are crucial to the emergence of its consciousness. (Force of Fantasy 12)

Bormann sees one of the most important notions to come out of fantasy theme analysis research to be the identification of the process of symbolic convergence, "the communicative processes by which human beings converge their individual fantasies, dreams, and meanings into shared symbol systems" Communication Theory 189):

When we share a fantasy theme we make sense out of what prior to that time may have been a confusing state of affairs and we do so in common with the others who share the fantasy with us. Thus we come to symbolic convergence on the matter and will envision that part of our world in similar ways. We have created some symbolic common ground and we can then talk with one another about that shared interpretation with code words or brief allusions along the lines of the inside joke phenomenon in a small group. ("Rhetoric as a Way of Knowing" 436)

How Fantasy Themes Work

To understand how to analyze a message using fantasy theme analysis, you need to understand clearly how fantasy themes work rhetorically to create social realities. As we have already noted, the process begins with a narrative. This story catches the attention of individuals, sometimes expanding to very large audiences, sometimes reaching only a few. At this point the fantasy either begins to chain out or fails.

If a fantasy theme chains out, the audience responds to it for some reason. This can be on a small scale, such as an odd phrase only a small group understands. In my family, for instance, we use the phrases "dusty minute" and "that's obsidian." These are children's versions of the phrases "just a minute" and "that's obscene" which were uttered by little ones in total sincerity; the stories of the mistakes were told so often the whole family knew them after a while. If I wanted to analyze my family's communication, I might try to probe why these particular phrases chained out instead of some others misspoken by children. Much more important than these phrases are the stories told over and over in families about uncles, grandmothers, cousins, friends who set out alone to try a new life or were tempted by frivolity but chose to stay home and take care of family or worked hard all their lives and achieved great rewards and happiness (or died without every enjoying life--how the stories end depend on the fantasy theme).

Similar stories operate at wider levels. When Jerry Brown was governor of California, the professors in the state demanded a pay raise. Brown replied that they did not need a pay increase; he recounted a version of teaching in which professors were rewarded by the work they were doing and the lives they touched; teaching, said Brown, had psychic income. The notion of psychic income chained throughout the state. Cartoons ran in the editorial section of newspapers showing professors offering psychic dollars to buy groceries. Articles extended the image to describe how other professions could be paid in psychic dollars and debated who should get how much. A letter was sent to professors in the state urging them to send psychic dollars to Brown's election campaign. The idea had hit a nerve; encapsulated in the insider cue of "psychic dollars," it chained throughout the state.

Bales originally suggested that groups respond to fantasy themes because of their own underlying needs, and that the success of a fantasy implies something about the group responding to it. Bormann, however, has speculated that artistry on the part of the message source--a clever advertising campaign, a moving film documentary, a beautiful photograph of a scene, an engaging television program--can also account for audience response. A useful analysis will explain such artistry in a message.

An audience's failure to chain out a story can also tell us something about them. Feminist groups do not laugh when a joke turns on a woman acting is a silly way; they reject not just an attempt at humor but a viewpoint. People without a religious orientation do not respond strongly to stories where individuals solve their problems solely through prayer. Jeremy's excuse that he could not study for his test because he had to work will be unmoving to an instructor who worked his way through school and also found time to study.

In any case, an audience does not necessarily accept a drama totally; individuals do not imitate characters absolutely; audiences don't expect to encounter in their environment the exact situation portrayed in a fantasy theme. However, fantasy themes and characters do serve as models. Rhetorical communities expect to encounter similar problems to those portrayed in the fantasy themes they accept and they can be expected to selectively emulate the characters' personality traits. As Bormann explains, "The fantasizing is accompanied by emotional arousal; the dreams embodied in the fantasies drive participants toward actions and efforts to achieve them . . ." (Force of Fantasy 9).

I have noticed in my own research that stories which chain out most widely will typically provide significance for those who identify with them; they spring from widely accepted ultimate legitimizers, and/or use accepted characters who frequently recur in fantasy themes already accepted by the rhetorical community--in other words, stereotypes or familiar images.

One of the benefits of picking messages apart is being able to recognize that message elements are rhetorical symbols. Because fantasy themes describe appropriate ways to behave, they imply motivation. By studying fantasy themes in a message, you can get a sense of how an accepting audience is likely to feel about certain issues and, if they are consistent, how they are likely to behave and what will motivate them. Or you can identify why a message makes you want to act in specific ways.

How to Analyze Messages using Fantasy Theme Analysis

Despite its long technical vocabulary and its developed explanation of how fantasy themes operate to create symbolic convergence, the actual procedure for using fantasy theme analysis is not clearly defined in any step by step form. Rather, those who have used the method have provided models through their work and some commentary for a starting point. The method requires a degree of artistry, of creativity on your part. You must study each message you analyze and provide insights into it as you perceive them, using the fantasy theme analysis approach as a general guideline.

Bormann's description of how a critic can use fantasy theme analysis to understand a rhetorical community gives you an overview of how you might begin to conduct a fantasy theme analysis:

A critic can take the social reality contained in a rhetorical vision which he has constructed from the concrete dramas developed in a body of discourse and examine the social relationships, the motives, the qualitative impact of that symbolic world as though it were the substance of social reality for those people who participated in the vision. If the critic can illuminate how people who participated in the rhetorical vision related to one another, how they arranged themselves into social hierarchies, how they acted to achieve the goals embedded in their dreams, and how they were aroused by the dramatic action and the dramatis personae within the manifest content of their rhetoric, his insights will make a useful contribution to understanding the movement and its adherents. ("Fantasy and Rhetorical Vision" 401)

Before you can analyze a message, you must have a message. If you simply want to defend yourself against the persuasive pull of a given campaign or if one single message has attracted your interest, your task is simple. On the other hand, if you are curious about a type of message, such as perfume advertisements or Nancy Drew books or television evangelists' sermons, or if you want to know why anybody in the world would believe that idiot who was just elected to Congress, the task of message selection is more complicated. You can hardly expect to examine all messages that fall into these categories. You must select a representative sample.

Once you have chosen the message or messages you wish to analyze, your next task is the central one of identifying the fantasy theme elements within it. Determine who is the central character, the opposing force, other characters, what the basic scenario is, how reality links are accounted for, what the insider cues are, what the ultimate legitimizer is, etc. By your identification of these, you begin to see the structure of the message and how the elements operate rhetorically.

At this point your interpretive work really begins. Now you must use the data you have pulled out to identify what central values are presented by the story line, characters, resolution of plot, and setting; to determine how the values are presented (i.e., satirically, directly) and how convincing they are; to suggest what audience the values and style would appeal to; and to formulate explanations for why and how the message works--and for whom.

Look first in this stage for evidence that the message has been accepted. As Bormann stresses, "The scholar's main task in making a fantasy theme analysis is to find evidence that symbolic convergence has taken place" (Force of Fantasy 6). By this he means you determine or speculate on whether a given fantasy theme has chained out or been accepted by listeners and which rhetorical community is responding to it.

How? If you have several separate messages, look for repeated examples. These signify the speaker considers them viable dramatic incidents. Or in a single message examine the language. Bormann explains:

When similar dramatizing material such as wordplay, narratives, figures and analogies crops up in a variety of messages in different contexts, such repetition is evidence of symbolic convergence.

Other evidence of the sharing of fantasies is furnished by cryptic allusions to symbolic common ground. . . . The inside-joke phenomenon is an example of such a trigger. (Force of Fantasy 6)

As well, he adds, "The appearance of fantasy types provides evidence of the sharing of fantasies . . . ("Ten Years Later" 296).

Using this data, try to explain why the fantasy themes chain out or don't chain out. Do the dramas provide significance for the hearers? Tap into an underlying need in the community? Rely on familiar images or values? Is the drama artistically moving? Has the source simply built a better fantasy theme?

Now piece the whole thing together and verbalize the rhetorical vision. At this point you are prepared to give a unique reading of it, explaining why the message functions as it does. These issues elucidated by Bormann were designed to apply to a message and its entire entire rhetorical community, but you could ask them as well about how a message affected you:

How well did the communication deal with the problem of creating and celebrating a sense of community? Did it help generate a group and individual self image which was strong, confident, and resilient? How did the rhetoric aid or hinder the community in its adaptation to its physical environment? How did the communicators deal with the rhetorical problem of creating a social reality which provides norms for community behavior in terms of the level of violence, exploitation, dominance, and injustice? Did the communication create a drama for the members that served such mythic functions as providing them with an account of the world, the gods, and fate, and that gave meaning to their community and themselves? How well did the vision aid the people who participated in it to live with people who shared different rhetorical visions? ("Rhetoric as a Way of Knowing" 447)

One issue to consider is the reality link. Fantasy themes do not rely on evidence in the sense that other arguments do. Nonetheless you can, in a sense, apply your logical tests here. Factual data accepted by a community at large must be adequately accounted for. An orator can claim the losing candidate ran a brilliant rhetorical campaign if he wants to; but he must account for the fact that his opponent won the election by an overwhelming margin. If relevant issues are left unaddressed or if an explanation about a reality link is inadequate, you may doubt the fantasy theme.

A second logical issue to consider could be called a dramatic reality link. Does the fantasy theme have logical narrative consistency. In short, do you believe this story? Consider some of the more popular television series where average citizens come upon a dead body and quip quick one-liners about it. Do you believe human beings would react that way? Do you even believe the characters created in the show would react that way? Not all shows attempt to produce reality. Even those which are clearly romantic or even fantasies have a structure in which they operate. Violations of the structure cause disbelief. Mary Poppins can open her umbrella and fly; Jessica Fletcher cannot. Perry Mason can reason about murder in rerun after rerun and while we may realize that any sensible criminal ought not to admit guilt in open court, we can still accept, within the dramatic frame of the show, that such villains will crumble when Perry confronts them. But if such an episode were thrust into I Love Lucy we would have grave doubts about the behavior of the murderer who confessed before Lucy's glare.

If you are examining more than a single message, you may note changes in the rhetorical vision over time. Some fantasy themes are designed to raise consciousness; some to sustain enthusiasm, some to motivate to action. Bormann seeks to discover the "emergence, growth, maturity and decline" (Force of Fantasy 22) of a rhetorical vision. In your analysis, you may wish to comment on the significance of these changes.

In summary, a general plan to follow in analyzing a message using fantasy theme analysis is to describe the fantasy theme in terms of its individual elements, generate a coherent statement of the rhetorical vision, describe the motivations it implies, explain how these contribute to the message's success or failure, interpret how the message worked to convert the unconverted or affirm the converted, assess the artistry of the message, and render a final evaluation of the message. Remember throughout, however, that no set of guidelines can tell you step by step how to proceed. You must always rely in some part on your own creative insights, relying on the unique approach provided by fantasy theme analysis to lead you to understanding not generated by other approaches.


Information is often presented in the form of narrative evidence or dramatic concepts. A message analyst must be as analytical about values and information presented in As the World Turns as he or she is about a political address.

Analyzing narrative information involves isolating the individual elements of a story in order to determine their hidden assumptions and values. Follow these steps as you conduct your fantasy theme analysis. Remember, however, that these are loose guidelines, not firm procedures.

1. Identify the story elements:

a. The central person(s) with whom the audience identifies. what values this person represents, and how the character is presented to encourage the audience to identify with him or her.

b. The opposing force or obstacle this character faces.

c. Supporting characters in the story who react to the characters in positive and negative ways.

d. The plot or resolution of the problem and how this solution sets up models for the audience.

e. The similarity of this story to others like it which might reinforce the message.

2. Interpret these elements to see how they present values:

a. Identify central values represented by the main character and the way he or she faces problems.

b. Identify the entire rhetorical vision the characters live in and see what values this view of the world upholds.

c. Suggest what elements of the story might draw particular audiences and what elements would lose them.

d. Look for symbolic expression of values or ideas.

3. Look for evidence of symbolic convergence.

4. Look for clues to explain why that chaining occurred or failed to occur. The message:

a. Generated a sense of community.

b. Provided significance for the audience.

c. Explained important events in the lives of audience.

d. Gave audience an account of the world.

e. Aided audience to understand others.

f. Other.

5. Assess the logical validity of the narrative evidence.

a. Compare information in the drama with outside information on the subject.

b. Examine the internal consistency of the narrative.

6. Add your own creative insights.

Remember as you begin to think critically about dramatic material that you are not simply attempting to see if the information is true or false or if the reasoning is valid. You are primarily seeking to isolate the values that are buried in a narrative example and to understand how the story is moving you. In that way you can decide if you really believe those values and if you want to respond in the way the drama generates.

Works Cited

Bales, Robert. Personality and Interpersonal Behavior. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.

Benderson, Albert. FOCUS 15. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 1984.

Bormann, Ernest. Communication Theory. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980.

---. "Fantasy and Rhetorical Vision: Ten Years Later." Quarterly Journal of Speech 68 (1982): 288-305.

---. "Fantasy and Rhetorical Vision: the Rhetorical Criticism of Social Reality." Quarterly Journal of Speech 58 (1972): 396-407.

---. The Force of Fantasy: Restoring the American Dream. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985.

---. "Rhetoric as a Way of Knowing: Ernest Bormann and Fantasy Theme Analysis." The Rhetoric of Western Thought. Ed. James L. Golden, Goodwin F. Berquist, and William E. Coleman. 3rd ed. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall-Hunt, 1983. 431-449.

Bormann, Ernest and Nancy Bormann. Speech Communication, A Basic Approach. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.

Fenstermaker, R. Chris. "From a Teacher." Sacramento Bee 27 Mar. 1983: Forum 1\.

Johnson, Ralph H. "Profile of a Critical Thinker." Unpublished essay. 1987.

Meggs, Ann. "From a Parent." Sacramento Bee 27 Mar. 1983: Forum 1\.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Penguin, 1985.

___. "Critical Thinking in the Electronic Era." National Forum 65 (1985): 4-8.

Shuttleworth, Alan G. "From a Principal." Sacramento Bee 27 Mar. 1983: Forum 1\.

Stanton, Christine. "Help! I'm a Public School Teacher." Sacramento Bee 13 Mar. 1983: Forum 1 \.

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Last updated 4-3-98