The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Bronwen Thomas

The term frame is used in a metaphorical sense when applied to the novel. It borrows from the idea of a frame to a painting and is primarily used to denote borders and levels within the narrative, or how the actions and words of the fictional characters are shaped and presented to the reader. In theory, therefore, the metaphor suggests that a novel has stable and clearly defined boundaries. It also intrinsically implies a clear dichotomy between “outer” and “inner” worlds. This is most clearly the case where the frame narrator's account of events is portrayed as objective, in contrast to the subjectivity of the inset narratives. The extent to which this framing is foregrounded and overt may vary considerably, but the device typically serves to remind readers that the story world is separate from their own and draws attention to the act of telling and to the figure of the storyteller, casting doubt on the extent to which any one telling will suffice.

Frame theory or frame analysis borrows more specifically from the work of Erving Goffman on the discourse markers we use to enclose or bracket aspects of our everyday talk. For example where we initiate a story within a conversational setting, we would typically signal this by using familiar locutions such as “Once upon a time,” or “Let me tell you a story.” Goffman's theory has been applied to the novel, particularly the framing of stretches of dialogue. Here the frame consists of narrative description or commentary which orients the reader by providing information about the characters, what they are doing, where they are, and so on. Mixing our metaphors, we might say that framing in this sense is like the opening and closing of the curtain in a theatrical performance. Once the introductory remarks have been made, the narrator withdraws from the “scene,” perhaps only reappearing at the end of a section or a chapter, to signal the curtain descending on this particular event and to take up the reins of the narrative once again. This framing work may be fairly unobtrusive and minimalistic, but the narrator may use the frame to direct the reader toward a particular interpretation of the scene, to link it to other scenes in the novel, or to foreground the extent to which the characters' talk has been “edited” or stylized.

In narrative theory the concept of framing draws on work in the field of cognitive psychology to refer to the ways in which the mind processes and stores information and sensory experiences. Frames are seen in this context as providing a kind of shorthand or blueprint for our mental experiences, and it is argued that this can help illuminate the reading process and the kinds of expectations that readers bring to a novel. The notion of cognitive frames has also been used to explore how readers approach characters in a novel as having continuing consciousnesses and rely on hypotheses about their mental functioning in order to understand their actions and interrelations.

The Paratext

The term paratext was coined by French narratologist Gérard Genette to refer to all of the supplementary material which accompanies a printed text, though the term has subsequently been applied to all kinds of audiovisual and multimedia forms. For a print novel, the paratext would include anything that appears on the book jacket, the frontispiece, contents and copyright pages, author biographies, lists of other titles by the same author or in the same series, epigraphs, dedications, and so on. However, novelists have always exploited these aspects of the novel to blur the boundaries between the story world and the real world. This was particularly evident in the early novel in the English tradition, where authors did all they could to test the boundaries of the genre and to playfully probe the distinction between fact and fiction. For example, the contents of a novel could be presented as a history, a memoir, or an autobiography. Thus the full title page of The History and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders (1722) by Daniel Defoe declares the book to have been “written from her [Moll's] own Memorandums” but carries a Preface by an anonymous editor, which attempts to provide the reader with moral guidance and advice as to how to approach the story which is to follow.

The device of framing a story as the work of a named, or unnamed source, “edited” by a third party, has been used repeatedly in the novel paradoxically both to create the illusion of authenticity and to distance the reader from the story world and from the perspective offered by the narrative. In the contemporary novel, experimentation with paratextual material may be employed for the purpose of unsettling the reader and dislocating the stability of boundaries and margins of all kinds (see METAFICTION). Quasi-academic footnotes threaten to take over the page in Manuel Puig's El beso de la mujer araña (1976, Kiss of the Spider Woman), and manage both to tease and irritate the reader as they become increasingly intrusive. Such aspects of the design of a novel are crucial in defining what kind of relationship an author chooses to set up with his readership, and thus can in no way be dismissed as merely being of peripheral interest or importance.

Framed Stories and Narrative Embedding

The idea of the story within a story goes back to the earliest oral traditions and may involve extensive and complex forms of narrative embedding. Here metaphors of “Chinese boxes” and “Russian dolls” are relied upon to help convey the sense of almost infinite regression that such narratives can create. The effect of stories “nesting” within one another in this way may be used to offer the impression that the reader is being given a number of different perspectives on events. However, the nesting may be more hierarchical, where one narrative level is portrayed as having more authority. For example, a frame narrative may be provided where the narrator or situation of telling in the embedded or inset narrative leaves some room for doubt in terms of reliability or veracity.

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902) is mainly given over to Marlow's reminiscences about his adventures in the Congo, delivered to various unnamed men accompanying Marlow aboard the Nellie on the Thames River. However, Marlow's narrative is embedded within the narrative of one of the men on the boat, who introduces Marlow to the reader, picks up the pieces when Marlow's telling breaks down or is interrupted, and provides the coda to the novel as Marlow's telling stutters to a halt. The reactions of the men on the boat to Marlow's narrative are crucial in stressing to the reader just how “absurd” his experiences would seem to anyone who is “moored with two good addresses ... a butcher round one corner, a policeman round another” (chap. 2). The frame narrator is there to react to Marlow's narrative rather than explain it to the reader, and he is no more able than Marlow to place events within some kind of moral framework or shape them into some kind of poetic vision.

In Conrad's novel, the frame narrator takes on the familiar role of attempting to re-create for the reader the essence or flavor of an oral narrative. This device relies on the illusion of total recall, and the expectation that the frame narrator is able to combine faithfulness to the oral telling with an ability to give it shape and order. However, Conrad thwarts the reader's expectations at every turn. The identity of the frame narrator is never revealed, his narrative is subordinate to Marlow's rather than the other way around, and the frame narrator is left disoriented and disturbed by what he hears. Indeed, he offers an implicit critique of the fundamental grounds for the metaphor of the frame—the possibility of distinguishing outer versus inner worlds—when he attempts to convey to the reader Marlow's style of narration: “to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze” (chap. 1).

In Conrad's novel the frame narrator shares the same plane of reality as Marlow, though the precise interval between his listening to Marlow's story and his recounting it within his own telling is left undefined. In other novels, frame narrators may occupy a different temporal or spatial realm and may be armed with knowledge or information which for some reason or another was not available to the embedded narrator. Examples of multiple narrative embedding, such as Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847), or Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), provide the possibility of one embedded narrator casting doubt on the truthfulness or fullness of another's telling, and of an ongoing dynamic interaction between the various narrative levels. Moreover, such novels may experiment with different forms of narration, such as letters, manuscripts, diaries, and so on, such that the reader cannot rely on any one source, or any one teller, for a fixed and stable standpoint from which to observe events. In the postmodern novel, for example Umberto Eco's Ill nome della rosa (1992, The Name of the Rose), multiple embedding may indeed serve explicitly to disturb the stability and solidity of the fictional world.

In some novels, it may only be revealed at the very end that the main narrative is embedded. Such a device may be used where an unfinished story is “found” by a third party, or where the main body of the novel is revealed to have been a dream, as is made evident by the intervention of the “author” at the end of Milan Kundera's Identity (1998). However, this kind of narrative trickery can be risky for an author, leaving readers potentially feeling cheated or duped.

Breaking the Frame

The term “breaking the frame” is usually associated with works of metafiction, where the business of constructing a narrative becomes the main focus. In such novels, we are constantly being reminded that everything we read about is being framed for us, and this framing is presented as a problematic which needs to be foregrounded (Waugh). The frame of the fictional world is broken when either the narrator or one of the fictional characters disrupts the seeming separation of ontological levels or realms. Foregrounding the arbitrariness of beginnings and endings, mixing “real-life” personages and places with the obviously fictional, brings into sharp focus our reliance on, and habituation to, the frames through which we perceive and experience the world(s) of the novel. This has the effect of disrupting our ability to hold separate these different planes of reality and jolts us into a renewed awareness of the fictionality of the world within which we have become immersed. In Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five (1969), the narrative of Billy Pilgrim's experiences of the Dresden bombings and being abducted by aliens is framed by an opening chapter where the figure of the “author,” “an old fart with his memories and his Pall Malls” (chap. 1), tells us about how he came to write this book. Chap. 2 takes up the story of Billy Pilgrim, but the author cannot resist intruding into the narrative at various points—“That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book”—breaking through the “frame” to disrupt the reader's immersion in the fictional world and to challenge any threat of complacency or desensitization.

Although by no means confined to the postmodern novel, the idea of narrators and characters stepping in and out of different planes of reality in this way has become a staple of this kind of fiction, to the point where it has become increasingly difficult to find new ways to shock or disorient the attuned reader.

Frames, Loops, and Stacks

The metaphor of the frame has been criticized for portraying narrative fiction as static rather than dynamic. Moreover, the metaphor becomes more difficult to hang on to where narratives eschew linearity, or where the intersecting layers may be so numerous as to defy differentiation. Readers of hypertext novels are typically presented with a potentially infinite number of different narrative levels and story fragments, such that it becomes virtually impossible to differentiate between them in terms of order, precedence, and so on. Hypertext structure also means that the point at which the framing is discovered or revealed may vary with every reading. In hypertext theory, the metaphor of the loop is used in an effort to evade the implication of stasis and linearity that metaphors such as that of the frame may carry. Narratologist and new media theorist Marie-Laure Ryan has proposed replacing the metaphor of the frame with that of the stack, taken from the language of computer programming, which she contends is better able to account for narrative dynamics in a way that resists hierarchization and ossification.

Nevertheless, despite its apparent limitations, the concept of the frame remains an important one for analyzing novels where one story is told within another, and where it is important for our reading of the novel to be able to understand the relations between those stories and their tellers.

SEE ALSO: Closure, Modernism, Narrative Perspective, Narrative Technique, Realism.


1. Genette, G. (1997), Paratexts, trans. J.E. Lewin.

2. Goffman, E. (1974), Frame Analysis.

3. McHale, B. (1992), Constructing Postmodernism.

4. Nelles, W. (1997), Frameworks.

5. Newman, B. (1986), “ Narratives of Seduction and the Seductions of Narrative,” English Literary History 53(1): 141—63.

6. Ryan, M.-L. (2002), “Stacks, Frames and Boundaries,” in Narrative Dynamics, ed. B. Richardson.

7. Waugh, P. (1984), Metafiction.

8. Williams, J. (1998), Theory and the Novel.