Cambridge University Press 2002 icon

Cambridge University Press 2002




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The borders of narrative



Framing narratives


As you move to the outer edges of a narrative, you may find that it is embed­ded in another narrative. The containing narrative is what is called a "fram­ing narrative." Classic examples of framing narratives, or frame-tales, are Boccaccio's Decameron (1351-53), Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), and A Thousand and One Nights (c. 1450), in which an embracing nar­rative acts as a framework within which a multitude of tales are told. In The Thousand and One Nights, for example, the sultan Schahriah in his bit­terness against women, resolves to marry a new woman every day and to strangle her each morning before sunrise to insure that she will never be unfaithful to him. Scheherazade marries him anyway but escapes execution through the strategy of telling the sultan a story every night and breaking off just before the climax each morning at sunrise. The sultan is hooked, and Scheherazade winds up telling a thousand and one stories. This fram­ing story has its own conclusion, which I won't give away here, but it also works as a way of collecting together a multitude of quite different stories.

There are numerous examples of framing stories that are much more modest than these in that they only frame a single narrative, either a short story, or a novel, or a film, or whatever. Yet such framing narratives can play critically important roles in the interpretation of the narratives they frame. Henry James's novella The Turn of the Screw (1898), for example, is a bizarre and horrifying ghost tale conveyed through a manuscript written by the tale's central figure, a governess who is either a courageous hero­ine or a pathological, power-obsessed hallucinator. The narrative appears to support both readings (and others) of her character. But there is a fram­ing narrative of about eight pages in length that begins the novella and gives an account of how the governess's manuscript was found. It ere that proponents of the "heroic governess" reading draw key sup­port for their interpretation of her character. The narrator of the framing narrative, to whom the manuscript was entrusted by the governess, tells ls that some time after the events in the tale she had later become his sister's governess and that "She was the most agreeable woman I have ever known in her position; she would have been worthy of any whatever."1 Needless to say, this evidence has been strongly countered in the continuing debate over this amazing short novel. But for my purpose in this chapter, the important point is that framing narratives can, and often do, play a vital role in the narratives they frame. The connection of the framing narrative to the narrative it contains is another one of those gray areas where you find, on the one hand, embedded narratives that can easily stand alone, like those in The Decameron and The Thousand and One Nights, and, on the other hand, em­bedded narratives like that of the governess that would change considerably were they torn from the framing narrative in which they are embedded.


^ Frames and framing


The term "frame" is currently used in many different ways in the discussion of narrative. One scholar has isolated at least ten.2 So I emphasize here the compound term "framing narrative," a concept about which there is some consensus. A promising, but quite different, use of the term "frame" is the adaptation to narrative of "frame theory," as first developed by the sociologist Erving Goffman in his book Frame Analysis (1974). This general approach examines the interaction between audience and text in terms of the models of understanding, or frames of reference, that audiences bring with them. It examines the ways in which narrative texts gratify, frustrate, or in other ways play with these cognitive structures by which we make sense of our world.

Paratexts



Where does narrative end and the "real world" begin? In one sense, this is an easy question to answer. The narrative begins at its beginning and ends at its end. But the division between narrative and world is not quite so neat. Narratives usually come packaged in additional words and some­times even pictures — chapter headings, running heads, tables of content, prefaces, afterwards, illustrations, book jackets (often with blurbs). Dramas often come with program notes, posters, and marquees. In addition, authors give interviews, or a novel is second in a series of novels, or the authors correspondence reveals that she was thinking of a certain person when she created a certain character. All of this tangential material can inflect our experience of the narrative, sometimes subtly, sometimes deeply. So in this sense all of this material is part of the narrative.

Gerard Genette invented the word "paratexts" for this material that lies somehow on the threshold of the narrative. Talking about the impact of a narrative, we can easily overlook the contributions of paratexts. We get into the habit of assuming that the narrative is identical with the story we read or see. Of course, the influence of some paratexts, like the kind of paper a novel is printed on, or the texture of its binding, may have very little influence on how we experience a narrative. (Though even here one can find exceptions. Wilde's Dorian Gray purchased "nine large-paper copies" of his favorite novel "and had them bound in different colours so that they might suit his various moods."3) But a strong recommendation on the book jacket might predispose us to read a narrative with a favorable mindset or, conversely, to be doubly disappointed when the narrative fails to match the expectations created by the blurb. Or an ad, perhaps for commercial reasons, may lead us to expect one kind of play or film, when the work is quite something else. The American premier of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot -a stark, static, darkly humored representation of the human condition - was advertised as "the laugh sensation of two continents." As a result, the production played to, if not the wrong audience, the wrong set of expectations. On opening night, the upper-middle-class Miami audience, lured by the prospect of light comedy, left the theater in droves before the end of the first act.

The influence of paratexts can not only be profound but sometimes can permanently affect the reception of a narrative. When in 1919 read­ers first read W. N. P. Barbellion's life story, The Journal of a Disappointed Man, they were deeply moved by its account of a gifted young naturalist's doomed struggle with muscular sclerosis. The last words of the text were: "Barbellion died on December 31 [1917]." The book was immensely pop­ular, going through five printings in the space of a few months. But when readers later learned that Barbellion had not died on 31 December 1917, but had in fact continued to live long enough to read the reviews of his life story, the feeling of betrayal was as deep as it was widespread, and the book fell into an obscurity from which it has rarely emerged. So here is a case in which a piece of paratextual information outside a narrative transformed the narrative without, at the same time, changing a single word of it. In fact, Paratexts in general work this way. The phenomenon is a vivid reminderthat, though we may call things like texts, books, or films "narratives," where narratives actually happen is in the mind.

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