The following is an excerpt from this webpage:
Narratology: A Guide to the Theory of Narrative
Full reference: Jahn, Manfred. 2005. Narratology: A Guide to the Theory of Narrative. English Department, University of Cologne.
N2.3.5. Transgression of levels
Normally, the levels of action, fictional mediation, and nonfictional communication (as shown in the graphic above, N2.3.1) are hermetically sealed domains indicating crucial thresholds of control and awareness. Any agent situated on a higher-level dominates and frames all lower-level agents, while lower-level agents are unaware of the existence of the higher-level agents. For instance, the characters at the level of action do not know that they are characters in some narrator's story, and they cannot complain if their acts or motives are misrepresented by this narrator. Similarly, a narrator such as Holden Caulfield is not aware of the fact that he is a fictional figure in a novel written by J.D. Salinger (the point is spelled out in more detail in N1.6).
Occasionally, however, one finds some playful and not-so-playful transgressions of levels, which Genette calls 'metalepses' (Genette 1980 : 234-237). Typical cases cited in the literature are (1) characters attempting to establish communicative contact with either audience or author (see the device of the 'aside ad spectatores' in drama and film -- D3.4, also actors 'acting out of character'), and (2) narrators and narratees seemingly joining the characters in the action. Slightly modifying the terms used in Malina (2000), the first could be called a 'diegetic-to-extradiegetic metalepsis', while the second would be 'extradiegetic-to-diegetic' (these terms differ slightly from the ones actually used by Malina because I want them to dovetail with the Genettean terms listed in N2.4, below). Here is a famous example of the second type:
You shall see them, reader. Step into this neat garden-house on the skirts of Whinbury, walk forward into the little parlour -- there they are at dinner. [...] You and I will join the party, see what is to be seen, and hear what is to be heard. (Charlotte Brontė, Shirley 9)
Clearly, a metalepsis can either be playful and harmlessly metaphorical (as in the example above) or else a serious transgression violating the "sacred frontier between two worlds, the world in which one tells, the world of which one tells" (Genette 1980 : 236) -- in other words, the domain of the discourse and the domain of the story. See D. Herman (1997) for a formal description of metalepsis and Malina (2000) for an in-depth exploration of functions, effects, and types of 'reconstructive', 'deconstructive', 'subversive', and 'transformative' metalepses.
Whoever is interested in another batch of recent studies of the phenomenon should watch out for the proceedings of the International Colloquium "Metalepsis Today" held at the Goethe Institut, Paris, on 29-30 November 2002 (ed. John Pier). Related phenomena include alterations in prose narratives (N3.3.15), the alienation effect in drama (D6.1), the device goof in film (F5.3.3), and parabasis in classical rhetoric (the latter term refers to a character directly addressing the audience).
N2.4. Narrative Levels
N2.4.1. Story-telling can occur on many different levels. As Barth (1984 ) puts it, there are "tales within tales within tales". The model presented in N2.3.1, above, provides a general framework which can easily be adapted to more complex circumstances. One such circumstance arises when a character in a story begins to tell a story of his or her own, creating a narrative within a narrative, or a tale within a tale. The original narrative now becomes a 'frame' or 'matrix' narrative, and the story told by the narrating character becomes an 'embedded' or 'hyponarrative' (Bal 1981a: 43):
- A matrix narrative is a narrative containing an 'embedded' or 'hyponarrative'. The term 'matrix' derives from the Latin word mater (mother, womb) and refers to "something within which something else originates" (Webster's Collegiate Dictionary). In linguistics, a 'matrix sentence' is one that embeds a subordinate sentence. Ordinarily, both the transition to a hyponarrative, its termination and the return to the matrix narrative are explicitly signaled in a text; occasionally, however, a text closes on a hyponarrative without explicitly resuming the matrix narrative (see example in subgraphic [c] below). One could call this a dangling matrix narrative. The systematic opposite to this would be an uninitialized hyponarrative (example?).
N2.4.2. For a more elaborate analysis of embedded narratives, Rimmon-Kenan (1983: 91) suggests the following terms:
- A first-degree narrative is a narrative that is not embedded in any other narrative; a second-degree narrative is a narrative that is embedded in a first-degree narrative; a third-degree narrative is one that is embedded in a second-degree narrative, etc.
- A first-degree narrator, by analogy, is the narrator of a first-degree narrative, a second-degree narrator is the narrator of a second-degree narrative, etc., in exact correspondence.
See Genette (1980 : 228-234; 1988 : ch. 14) [extradiegetic, diegetic, intradiegetic, metadiegetic]; Bal (1981: 48-50) [on 'hypo-' vs. 'meta-']; Lanser (1981); Rimmon-Kenan (1983: 91-94) ['graded' narrators and narratives]; Duyfhuizen 1992; O'Neill (1994: ch. 3); Nelles (1997: ch. 5).
N2.4.3. Genette has illustrated the basic structure of embedded narratives with the help of a naive drawing using stick-figure narrators and speech-bubble narratives (Genette 1988 : 85). In graphic (a), below, first-degree narrative A contains a second-degree story B. The other examples in the graphic are 'Chinese-boxes models' which can be drawn to great accuracy, indicating both the relative lengths of the various narratives as well as their potentially 'open' status (Lintvelt 1978; Ryan 1991: 178; Branigan 1992: 114).
In example (b), A is a first-degree narrative, B1 and B2 are second-degree narratives, and C is a third-degree narrative (Question: which ones of these are matrix narratives?). Finally, example (c) illustrates the embedding structure of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw. James's novel ends on the conclusion of a third-degree narrative (the Governess's tale) without explicitly closing its two superordinate matrix narratives.
There are a number of texts which are famous for their multiply embedded narratives: The Thousand and One Nights, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, Jan Potocki's The Saragossa Manuscript, Emily Brontė's Wuthering Heights, John Barth's "Menelaiad". See also Chatman (1978: 255-257), Barth (1984 ), Ryan (1991: ch. 9), Baker (1992).
N2.4.4. As an exercise, work out the following problems. Some of them are quite tricky; use simple Chinese-boxes models to argue your answers.
1. Can a hyponarrative be a matrix narrative?
2. Can a matrix narrative be a hyponarrative?
3. Must a first-degree narrative be a matrix narrative?
4. Can a text have more than one first-degree narrative?
5. Can a single character be both a second-degree narrator and a third-degree narrator?
N2.4.5. Comment. The foregoing account makes short shrift of a host of rather unhappy terms that haunt the narratological literature, including the term 'frame narrative' itself (does it refer to a narrative that has a frame or one that is or acts as a frame?). With reference to graphic (a) in N2.4.3, above, Genette calls the narrator of A an 'extradiegetic narrator' whose narrative constitutes a 'diegetic' level, while B is a 'metadiegetic narrative' told by an 'intradiegetic' (or, confusingly, 'diegetic') narrator. On the next level of embedding, one would get a meta-metadiegetic narrative told by an intra-intradiegetic narrator. Against this, Bal (1981a: 43) and Rimmon-Kenan (1983: 91-93) have argued that hypo- (from Greek 'under') is a more adequate prefix than meta- (from Greek 'on, between, with') to refer to what are, at least technically (though not necessarily functionally), subordinate narratives. Oddly, however, in their system, B (in graphic [a]) is a 'hyponarrative' told by a 'diegetic narrator', and if there were an additional level, Bal and Rimmon-Kenan would be happy to have a 'hypo-hyponarrative' told by a 'hypodiegetic narrator', and so on. Although the hypo- concept is a useful one, correlating hypodiegetic narrators with hypo-hyponarratives is both awkward and counterintuitive. More drawbacks of the nomenclature become apparent when one tries to tackle the problems set in N2.4.4.
N2.4.6. Embedded narratives can serve one or several of the following functions:
- actional integration: the hyponarrative serves as an important element in the plot of the matrix narrative. For instance, in The Thousand and One Nights Scheherazade's stories keep the Sultan from killing her. Indeed, in the end, he marries her because she is such an excellent story-teller. Or think of a surprise witness in a crime or courtroom novel whose tale solves the case.
- exposition: the hyponarrative provides information about events that lie outside the primary action line of the matrix narrative (specifically, events that occurred in the past).
- distraction: "So tell us a story while we're waiting for the rain to stop" (Genette 1988 : 93).
- obstruction/retardation: the hyponarrative momentarily suspends the continuation of the matrix narrative, often creating an effect of heightened suspense.
- analogy: the hyponarrative corroborates or contradicts a story line of the matrix narrative ("You are not the only person ever deceived by a faithless lover; let me tell you about [...]") (Barth 1984 : 232).
N2.4.7. Hyponarratives are also often used to create an effect of 'mise en abyme', a favorite feature of postmodernist narratives (Dällenbach 1981; Ron 1987; McHale 1987: ch. 8; Wolf 1993). The graphic on the right shows a visual example.
- mise en abyme The infinite loop created when a hyponarrative embeds its matrix narrative. "It can be described as the equivalent of something like Matisse's famous painting of a room in which a miniature version of the same paintings hangs on one of the walls. [...] A famous example from Gide's work is The Counterfeiters (1949) where a character is engaged in writing a novel similar to the novel in which he appears" (Rimmon-Kenan 1983: 93).
Spence (1987: 188) cites the following example:
It was a dark and stormy night. The band of robbers huddled together around the fire. When he had finished eating, the first bandit said, "Let me tell you a story. It was a dark and stormy night and a band of robbers huddled together around the fire. When he had finished eating, the first bandit said: 'Let me tell you a story. It was a dark an stormy night and . . .'"