Friday, January 23, 2009


frame-tale format--a narrative or series of separate stories built about an incident, an historical moment, or theme; a single or multiple narrative constructed with recognition of an earlier work; a staging or formulating device for the presentation of a group of stories within a single story. Thus Tales of Scheherazade, or The Thousand and One Nights, a series of stories told by a young woman to a misanthropic Persian king who had the habit of marrying a new wife every day while beheading yesterday's candidate. Thus also The Decameron, in which a group of young nobles, moved to the country to escape the ravages of The Black Death plague, told stories to amuse themselves. From his awareness of these and other frame tales comes Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, stories of individuals on a religious pilgrimage. Off in another part of the world comes the frame tale of the so-called Rashomon Stories, where a single event is replayed to reflect the point of view of the participants, illustrating, as Chaucer did in The Canterbury Tales, a significant view of the human condition from various vantage points on the social scale, a view which has remained constant over the Milena.

In more modern times, the frame tale has become ubiquitous; it appears in such forms as James Joyce's Ulysses, studiously framed on The Odyssey, Clint McCown's short story collection, The Member-Guest, dealing with a weekend golf tournament in a down-at-the-heels country club in the Midwest; and Pam Huston's achingly hilarious collection, Cowboys Are My Weakness, which is a variation on the theme of women being drawn to men who are more drawn to a particular lifestyle than to a particular relationship. Not to forget the memorable cattle-drive theme of the motion picture Red River, which was framed on the seagoing Mutiny on the Bounty, and showing yet another variation on The Odyssey with the Coen Brothers' film, Brother, Where Art Thou? Katherine Ann Porter's 1962 novel, The Ship of Fools, is framed on a 1494 narrative The Ship of Fools by Sebastian Brant; links of Porter's novel could also be argued to link to Hieronymous Bosch's painting, The Ship of Fools, which Bosch admitted to have come from the Brant narrative. It is a likely and lively comparison to argue the connection between Porter's Ship of Fools and The Decameron and certainly The Canterbury Tales.

The frame-tale format adds another layer of thematic connective tissue between the newer version and the original, the two versions becoming linked in the reader's mind--if the reader is aware of the source. This observation leads to the further observation that the more recent version of a framed tale must stand on its own dramatic merits, as though the reader had no previous knowledge of the original. The motion picture, Shakespeare in Love, had a richer level of significance for those familiar with Twelfth Night and the conditions of the English theater in which the roles of women characters were performed by young boys. Thus the reader familiar with Shakespeare would know that the character of Viola in Twelfth Night was performed by a boy, leading to the conceit in Shakespeare in Love of a young woman masquerading as a boy in order to win the role of a woman in a play, "causing" Shakespeare to "see" the inspiration for Twelfth Night. The play within a play or the story within a story has to stand on its own, to appeal to and transform an audience. The product of the framed tale cannot rely on the fact of its point of origin. Ulysses had to stand on its own, a reputation disputed by many critics and readers.

The doors of imagination fly open to admit possibe entrants for future frame-tale circumstances. What thoughts were dancing in the mind of Ray Bradbury when he got down to work positing the concept of a tattooed man in a circus, a tattooed man whose very tattoos came to life, each demanding its own story? What thoughts later danced in the mind of Mario Vargas Llosa, whose Aunt Julia and the Script Writer becomes another excellent example of exciting ways to tell stories within a larger story?


Kate Lord Brown said...

Oh, I love frame tales - ever since someone gave me a copy of 1001 Nights as a child and my mother put it on the top shelf because she thought I wasn't 'ready' for it (of course, climbed the bookcase to get at it - one of the earliest memories).

I'm working with a 'frame tale' as the opening of book three - 9/11. Right now it feels like a house of cards, but I'm hoping something good is coming out of it.

Querulous Squirrel said...

I love this format and to me one of the most powerful examples that uses this device so centrally is the Japanese movie Rashoman.