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The Frame (form rapped around middle entrails)

rachelr's picture


 The Frame (form rapped around middle entrails)



“Each man should frame life so that at some future hour fact and his dreaming meet.”




-Victor Hugo

A frame is a structure that encloses, encapsulates something. It creates a boarder, a confinement in which things can happen, can develop, and where they can exist. Frames can give context, and they reflect what they contain. The word itself, “frame,” is not a word or a single dimensional concept: frames can pertain to a frame for a piece of artwork, for a photo, for a document, a movie clip, a comic strip, a story line, even the build of a living body. In literature, these frame stories are overarching base narratives that set up the interior body of the work for smaller tales within the tale.

            These frame narratives seem to have developed from Sanskrit epics written in the first millennium B.C.E. Some of the most famous frame narratives that have been written to date have been the Thousand and One Nights, The Canterbury Tales, and Frankenstein. Frame narratives allow the author to construct a more complex body of work and to convey more than one moral, or “lesson,” within the work as a whole. Many American television shows rely on the use of a frame narrative as well, where main characters develop and we glean pieces of their lives as, in addition, we follow a series of changing stories within that frame that make up the “meat” of each episode. Americans spend an average of 145 hours a month in front of the television, and many of the shows that they fill these hours watching are dramas such as House, Law and Order, and CSI shows, all proceeding under a frame narrative. What is it about the frame narrative that captures our attention? What makes them so appealing and what draws us into them?

            Frame narratives give the audience multiple dimensions of a storyline to focus on and raise the level of the reading experience; the intricacy challenges the audience to, at minimum, pay attention, and delve deeper into the story. The three layers of Thousand and One Nights, with the tales within the tales within the tale, challenge readers to keep track of not only the plot of Scheherazade telling tales to the king but also of Scheherazade’s stories and any stories that the characters which appear in her stories may tell. Scheherazade is not only telling these tales in an effort to put off her death a few more days, but she is also using them as a tool of instruction: all of her tales revolve around upper-class or royal men who commit some wrong and are punished for it. Because these “teaching” stories are woven into a larger narrative, the narrative as a whole does not become overwhelmed by these lessons (as fables tend to be) and the lessons are able to become a piece of the whole, but not the overriding centricity. This also opens up the narrative to a broader audience; while the style remains consistent throughout the different frames, the subject matter is able to fluxuate differently than in a single frame narrative.

            Other examples of framed narrative that our class examined, though constructed slightly differently, are Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. A dream vision is another construction of the frame story where the narrator falls asleep, has a dream, and awakens, with their experiences maintained throughout both the conscious and subconscious states. As our class experienced, this type of framed narrative then opens up thought and conversation to a plethora of narrative building blocks, from the derivation of the dream to the significance and symbolism of characters within the dream. The frame in this context is also perhaps the only way to present a dream in narrative. It also gives us something more concrete, more real and solid to grab hold of if the dream tries to carry us too far from our home of reality.

            But does this framing constrict narratives? Do the tight corners and straight edges confine us too securely, keep us from expanding and taking flight with the tales? In a way, everything we have covered in this class has been a framed narrative: the blogs and articles we read were either concerning, circling a topic (blogs and online resources, primarily), or they were framed by the background of the author (his or her brief history, even photos perhaps). Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland had the dream vision, A Game of You and Persepolis literally were held together page to page by individual frames, Thousand and One Nights held at times two additional stories within the primary tale, and the episodes of House that we are still in the process of viewing have individual medical cases framed by the stories of the doctors and characters, both outside the hospital setting and within. I believe that the question of this constraint by the framing depends on both the quality of literature and the medium. For comics and graphic novels, the point is for them to be contained, for them to provide readers with both the words and images, for everything to be laid out for the audience. While this makes me personally feel constrained, I must also take into account that the aim of this medium is something different than what I am used to being given in novels. In television, entertainment is the primary goal, and the effect or both words and images is similar to that of comics and graphic novels. So for entertainment’s sake, television does not normally make me feel constrained. Upon close analysis, however, I do see myself realizing more the issues of constraint that I find with the literal frames in graphic novels. And lastly, because of what I find to be the more flowing, open nature of novels, and even tales such as the Thousand and One Nights, such frame narratives do not constrict me. I feel that they simply give me more, give me a new and deeper level of words and language in which to lose myself, and in which to glean what lesson or entertainment I may.




Anne Dalke's picture

Framed to see

I've gone on and read w/out assistance from your images, though I'm looking forward to further illustration of this very-interesting-to-me meditation on what constitutes a framed narrative, and what determines how "constricting" that frame may be.

It was of particular interest to me to see you "loop" back to Alice in Wonderland, placing it, retrospectively, within the genre of the framed tale. Does that suggests that any story that ends "it was a dream," or even "was it a dream?" might be called a framed tale? Or, as you go on to suggest--since
"everything we have covered in this class has been a framed narrative"--that everything is framed?

What you've got me thinking
now is that it is actually only through a frame--some lens that organizes our perceptions--that we can be said to "see" @ all. In literary studies, that "frame" could be feminist, or psychoanalytic, or Marxist, or environmental, or postcolonial, or postmodern, or even posthuman--all different modes that highlight different dimensions of the tales we read. In this course, for instance, the explicit "frame" has been that of "genre," which foregrounds the question of literary form. As I suggested to
aybala in my response to her essay, "re-framing" her suggestion that a dream is an "unframed state," dreams may be dreams precisely because they are bounded, because we know they take place only in our minds, not in the material world which the rest of our bodies occupy.

If that's the case--that all narratives are framed, that education is a process of changing up the frames--does that mitigate your concerns about the constriction that frames supply? If frames are inevitable, they are inevitably constricting. But then also inevitably revisable: we can always choose new ones, yes?

Speaking of which: in the genre that is the academic essay, a number of dimensions--including citation of sources and reference to audience--are "frames" that help to define that work. In that context, I find myself a little uneasy about your use of sources: wherefrom (for instance) your claim that "frame narratives  developed from Sanskrit epics written in the first millennium B.C.E.," or that "Americans spend an average of 145 hours a month in front of the television"? I have some questions, too, about voice and audience, when you ask, "What is it about the frame narrative that captures our attention? What makes them so appealing and what draws us into them?" Some of your classmates--see, for example, Molly's posts on Arabian Nights and Second Set --aren't the least drawn in by such structures).  So who is the "we" for-and-to-whom you speak?