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A frame story (also known as a frame tale or frame narrative) is a literary technique that serves as a companion piece to a story within a story, where an introductory or main narrative sets the stage either for a more emphasized second narrative or for a set of shorter stories. The frame story leads readers from a first story into one or more other stories within it. The frame story may also be used to inform readers about aspects of the secondary narrative(s) that may otherwise be hard to understand. This should not be confused with narrative structure or character personality change.[clarification needed] A frame story is also called a "sandwich narrative" or an "intercalated narrative." One narrative is embedded or nestled within a second story and acts as a commentary on the frame narrative or vice versa. This framing device is a common literary technique within the New Testament. For example, Mark interrupts the story of the cursing and withering of the fig tree to place another story within it. The fig tree narrative acts as a commentary on the Temple cleansing.
- A Cursing of the Fig Tree (Mark 11:12–14)
- B Cleansing of the Temple (Mark 11:15–19)
- A' Withering of the Fig Tree (Mark 11:20–21).
- A Cursing of the Fig Tree (Mark 11:12–14)
Some of the earliest known frame stories are those from ancient Egypt, including one found in the Papyrus Westcar, the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, and The Eloquent Peasant. Other early examples are from Indian literature, including the Sanskrit epics Mahabharata, Ramayana, Panchatantra, Syntipas's The Seven Wise Masters, and the fable collections Hitopadesha and Vikram and The Vampire. This form gradually spread west through the centuries and became popular, giving rise to such classic frame tale collections as the One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), The Decameron, and Canterbury Tales. This format had flexibility in that various narrators could retain the stories they liked or understood, while dropping ones they didn't and adding new ones they heard from other places. This occurred particularly with One Thousand and One Nights, where different versions over the centuries have included different stories.
The use of a frame story in which a single narrative is set in the context of the telling of a story is also a technique with a long history, dating back at least to the beginning section of the Odyssey, in which the narrator Odysseus tells of his wandering in the court of King Alcinous.
A set of stories
This literary device acts as a convenient conceit for the organization of a set of smaller narratives, which are either of the devising of the author or taken from a previous stock of popular tales, slightly altered by the author for the purpose of the longer narrative. Sometimes a story within the main narrative can be used to sum up or encapsulate some aspect of the framing story, in which case it is referred to in literary criticism by the French term mise en abyme.
A typical example of a frame story is One Thousand and One Nights, in which the character Shahrazad narrates a set of fairy tales to the Sultan Shahriyar over many nights. Many of Shahrazad's tales are also frame stories, such as Tale of Sindbad the Seaman and Sindbad the Landsman, a collection of adventures related by Sindbad the Seaman to Sindbad the Landsman.
Extensive use of this device is found in Ovid's Metamorphoses, where the stories nest several deep, to allow the inclusion of many different tales in one work. Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights uses this literary device to tell the story of Heathcliff and Catherine, along with the subplots. Her sister Anne also uses this device in her epistolary novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The main heroine's diary is framed by the narrator's story and letters.
Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein is another good example of a book with multiple framed narratives. In the book, Robert Walton writes letters to his sister describing the story told to him by Victor Frankenstein; Frankenstein's story contains the creature's story; the creature's story even briefly contains the story of a family among whom it had been living.
Frame stories have also appeared in other media, such as comic books. Neil Gaiman's comic book series The Sandman featured a story arc called Worlds End which consisted of frame stories, and sometimes even featured stories within stories within stories.
Frame stories are often organized as a gathering of people in one place for the exchange of stories. Each character tells his or her tale, and the frame tale progresses in that manner. Historically famous frame stories include Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, about a group of pilgrims who tell stories on their journey to Canterbury; and Boccaccio's Decameron about a group of young aristocrats escaping the Black Death in the countryside and spending the time telling stories.
Sometimes only one storyteller exists, and in this case there might be different levels of distance between the reader and author. In this mode, the frame tale can become more fuzzy. In Washington Irving's Sketch Book, which contains "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle" among others, the conceit is that the author of the book is not Irving, but a certain gentleman named Crayon. Here the frame includes the world of the imagined Crayon, his stories, and the possible[clarification needed] reader who is assumed to play along and "know" who Crayon is.
Donald Westlake's short story "No Story" is a parody of frame stories, in which a series of narrators start to tell stories, each of which contains a narrator who starts to tell a story, culminating in a narrator who announces that there will be no story. Essentially, it is a frame story without a story to be framed.
When there is a single story, the frame story is used for other purposes – chiefly to position the reader's attitude toward the tale. One common one 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; she or he may also characterize the narrator to cast doubt on the narrator's truthfulness. In P. G. Wodehouse's stories of Mr Mulliner, Mulliner is made a fly fisherman in order to cast doubt on the outrageous stories he tells. The movie Amadeus is framed as a story an old Antonio Salieri tells to a young priest, because the movie is based more on stories Salieri told about Mozart than on historical fact.
Another use is a form of procatalepsis, where the writer puts the readers' possible reactions to the story in the characters listening to it. In The Princess Bride the frame of a grandfather reading the story to his reluctant grandson puts the cynical reaction a viewer might have to the romantic fairytale into the story in the grandson's persona, and helps defuse it. This is the use when the frame tells a story that lacks a strong narrative hook in its opening; the narrator can engage the reader's interest by telling the story to answer the curiosity of his listeners, or by warning them that the story began in an ordinary seeming way, but they must follow it to understand later actions, thereby identifying the reader's wondering whether the story is worth reading to the listeners'. Such an approach was used by Edith Wharton in her novella Ethan Frome, in which a nameless narrator hears from many characters in the town of Starkfield about the main character Ethan's story.
A specialized form of the frame is a dream vision, where 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 the events included are 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 as a means toward suspension of disbelief about the marvels depicted in the story. J.R.R. Tolkien, in his essay "On Fairy-Stories" complained of such devices as unwillingness to treat the genre seriously. Lewis Carroll's Alice stories (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass) includes such a frame, but unlike most usages, the stories themselves use dream-like logic and sequences; most dream frames frame stories that appear exactly as if occurring in real life. 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 something more realistic and meaningful to others who believed as he did.
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; the dream frame added for the movie detracts from the validity of the fantasy.
As with all literary conceits, the frame tale has many variations, some clearly within the confines of the conceit, some on the border, and some pushing the boundaries of understanding. The main goal of a frame tale is as a conceit which can adequately collect otherwise disparate tales. It has been mostly replaced, in modern literature, by the short story collection or anthology absent of any authorial conceit and other rhetorical devices.
To be a frame narrative, the story must act primarily as an occasion for the telling of other stories. If the framing narrative has primary or equal interest, then it is not usually a frame narrative. For example, 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.
Another notable example that plays with frame narrative is the 1994 film Forrest Gump. Most of the film is narrated by Forrest to various companions on the park bench. However, in the last fifth or so of the film, Forrest gets up and leaves the bench, and we follow him as he meets with Jenny and her son. This final segment suddenly has no narrator unlike the rest of the film that came before it, but is instead told through Forrest and Jenny's dialogues.
This approach is also demonstrated in the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire (adapted from the 2005 novel Q & A), about a poor street kid Jamal coming close to winning Kaun Banega Crorepati (the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?) and then being suspected of cheating. Most of the story is narrated at a police station by Jamal, who narrates how he knew the answers to the questions as the show is played back on video. The show itself then serves as another framing device, as Jamal sees flashbacks of his past as each question is asked. The last portion of the film then unfolds without any narrator.
Compared to reprise
In musical sonata form or rondo, a theme occurs at the beginning and end of the work, or returns periodically. This could most simply be a recurrence or restatement of a melody or song. For example, the Beatles song "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" works as a framing device for their album of the same name, appearing at the beginning and end of the album. Other albums with similar devices include Paul McCartney & Wings' Band on the Run, the recurring heartbeats in Pink Floyd's album The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here ("Shine On You Crazy Diamond"), Supertramp's Crime of the Century (the harmonica riff at the beginning of "School" is reprised at the end of the title track), and Spirit's Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus ("You have the world at your fingertips/No one can make it better than you"). Another is Junior Senior's 'D-D-D-Don't Stop The Beat' album which ends with a reprise of the first notes from the opening track. The closing track of Genesis' Selling England by the Pound is a reprise of the opening track "Dancing with the Moonlit Knight."
At the beginning of the 1992 movie Far and Away, the father "dies" and then returns to life briefly. The same thing happens in Vanilla Sky where Tom Cruise's character "dies" and then comes back to life.
Framing devices may also take the form of a recurrent element that appears at the beginning and the end of the narrative. For example, a story may begin with a character visiting a park under one set of circumstances, then returning at the end to the same park under a different set of circumstances, having undergone a change that allows him or her to see the park in a new light.
A framing device might also simply be a defining image of the narrative or art that is used at the beginning and end of the work.
An example of this is in the film Chariots of Fire which begins and ends with the characters running along a beach, accompanied at both times by the movie’s famous theme music. This scene, although chronologically occurring in the middle of the film and unimportant to the straightforward plot, serves to convey a defining emotion and tone that sets the context for the main story.
- James L. Resseguie, "A Glossary of New Testament Narrative Criticism with Illustrations," in Religions, 10 (3: 217), 28.
- Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), 128-34; David Rhoads, Joanna Dewey, and Donald Michie, Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel, 3rd ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 51-52.
- John Clute and John Grant, ed. (1999). The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. Macmillan. p. 312. ISBN 9780312198695.
- Jay, Jacqueline E. (2016). Orality and Literacy in the Demotic Tales. Brill. pp. 27–32, 211–212. ISBN 9789004323070.
- Witzel, Michael E. J. (1987). "On the origin of the literary device of the 'Frame Story' in Old Indian literature". In Falk, H. (ed.). Hinduismus und Buddhismus, Festschrift für U. Schneider. Freiburg. pp. 380–414. ISBN 3-925270-01-9.
- Jones, Steven Swann (1995). The Fairy Tale: The Magic Mirror of Imagination. New York: Twayne Publishers. p. 94. ISBN 0-8057-0950-9.