The Frame Novel

What do novels such as Wuthering Heights, Frankenstein and Heart of Darkness, to name but a few, have in common besides fantastic writing? They are all known as framed novels. To be a frame narrative, the story must act primarily as an occasion for the telling of other stories, forming novels with a narrative surrounding the core story at both ends. This style of story seems to represent the origin of all stories. Stories evolved from an oral tradition within a tribe, with an old and, no doubt, wise person assigned the task of entertaining and of passing on information in a palatable way. An introduction of sorts would have been needed before listeners could momentarily step into another’s shoes and experience their world. Hence the frame. Therefore, to be a frame narrative, the story must act primarily as an occasion for the telling of other stories. One thing to note here is that usually, though there are always exceptions, the frame narration carries little plot.

Some of the earliest frame stories came from ancient Egypt, such as in the Papyrus Westca. Indian literature has many examples too, including the epics: Mahabharata and Ramayana and the fable collections such as Vikram and the Vampire. As this method of telling story became more popular, it gave rise to One Thousand and One (Arabian Nights), The Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in which each pilgrim tells his own tale, the beginning section of Homer’s Odyssey in which, Odysseus narrates much of the Odyssey to the Phaeacians, but, even though this recollection forms a great part of the poem, the events after and before the interpolated recollection are of greater interest than the memory. It can be seen that a frame story in which a single narrative is set in the context of the telling of a story is a technique with a long history.

In a framed novel, the narration can intercept the story at any point and therefore, as with Frankenstein, there can exist various frames, but generally it appears at the beginning and end of a story, to bookend the plot. So what is the point of this literary technique today? Well, the frame can have various benefits in that it can introduce the story, give context to the story, judge the story from an opposing viewpoint, add momentum, add factual information which the main characters are unable to do, connect the present to the past in some format and engage with other points of view.

As with most subjects, once you delve beneath the surface, the frame novel can be further broken down. There are nested stories, in which one or more characters within a frame story act as a storyteller; an epistolary frame in which the story is either communicated through or interspersed with fictional media (traditionally with letters and journal entries from the perspective of one or more fictional characters) and an epigraphic frame where the frame is separated from the core of the story and usually appears as chapter, section epigraphs or as footnotes throughout the text. A bookended frame narrative is perhaps the most popular, however, setting the stage for the story with a character recounting past events. In a film this narration is often in the form of a voice over, which will sometimes involve the telling of the beginning at the end and the end at the beginning. It is important to remember that each of these frame narrative methods can be paired with a particular purpose. These purposes can be to blend the meta fictional world with the fictional world or to strengthen, disprove, or redirect any of the conclusions made from the encapsulated story. Each purpose in turn has its own label: meta-fictional exploration, refutation, reinforcement and redirection which are all quite explanatory. A story can be seen as an object too, observed, for example, in Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. These objectified stories are created when the frame character reads a book or watches a movie and either the reality of the frame intrudes upon the fictional world or the fictional world extrudes into the reality of the frame.

Another common reason to frame a single story is to draw attention to the narrator’s unreliability; by explicitly making the narrator a character within the frame story, the writer distances him or herself from the narrator. The technique maybe used to cast doubt on the narrator’s truthfulness or version of events, as in Wuthering Heights and also in P.G Wodehoues’s stories of Mr Mulliner. Another use is a form of procatalepsis, where the writer puts the readers’ possible reactions to the story into the story’s characters. We see an example of this in the Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift. Often this method is employed when a story lacks a strong narrative hook, helping to create greater intrigue.

A specialized form of the frame is a dream vision in which the narrator claims to have gone to sleep, dreamed the events of the story, and then awoken to tell the tale. In medieval Europe, this was a common device, used to indicate that events were fictional; Geoffrey Chaucer used it in The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame, Parlement of Foules, and The Legend of Good Women (the last also containing a multi-story frame story within the dream). In modern usage, it is sometimes used in works of fantasy to create suspension or disbelief about the story. J.R.R. Tolkien, in his essay On Fairy-Stories complained of such devices as unwillingness to treat the genre seriously; he used frame stories of different kinds in his Middle-earth writings. Lewis Carroll‘s Alice stories (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass) include such a frame so that the stories themselves use dream-like logic and sequences. The writer John Bunyan used a dream device in the Christian allegory Pilgrim’s Progress and its sequel, explaining that they were dreams he had while he was in prison and felt God wanted him to write down. This worked because it made what might have been seen as a fantasy more like a divine revelation to others who also believed it. Still, even when the story proceeds realistically, the dream frame casts doubt on the events. In the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the events really occur, whereas the dream frame added for the movie detracts from the validity of the fantasy.

In essence though, a frame novel can add structure and help strengthen your story, while also allowing you to create the context for how the narrative should be interrupted. Overall, frame narratives are used to provide the reader with multiple levels of meaning. The frame narrative may contain one embedded narrative or a series of related stories, so that the opportunity for multiple levels of interpretation occurs. The result maybe that the frame may expand or shrink the distance between the reader and the story. It can also change the reader’s sense of what is and what is not important, or imply certain sociological, political or ethical consequences that reach beyond the text into the real world. All of these effects of frame narratives can alter the meaning as well as, most importantly of all, provide an entertaining and thought-provoking read.

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