It’s an idea I’ve seen in many variations.
From Willa Cather: “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”
Aristotle said there were only two stories, Comedy and Tragedy.
Paulo Coelho has stated that all writers are only recycling four stories.
(This blog post by Damien Walter shares several more opinions.)
This morning I read this in the ToB match commentary:
It struck me that these two books, while very different in structure and scope, are both interested in the ways their characters define morality and contentment while living under governments that are apathetic toward, or openly negligent of, their well-being. The Sellout does this by following one black man in a small California town over, what, a year or so? Tsar follows generations of characters across all of Russia. Beatty and Marra’s characters have in common that they’ve stopped believing in right and wrong, and yet are trying to live lives of meaning.
And this is what I wrote last week describing A Bend in The River:
The country and it’s people are struggling to find their identity. Many of the characters are immigrants, besides, so they have an even harder time finding their place in a place that doesn’t know what it is in the first place. There are two phrases that are repeated several times in the book. The first: “What do you do? … You do what we all do. You carry on.” The second: “It isn’t that there’s no right and wrong here. There’s no right.” Those lines sort of become the themes of the book. Everyone just carries on, without any particular moral compass of right and wrong guiding them.
Urban California, Stalinist-to-present-day Russia, post-colonial Africa. One story. Three of the million ways to tell it.