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Framed Narrative

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English Literature

Frame narrative is a literary device that enables the author to tell a tale within a tale. It has been used in literature, on stage and on screen and helps authors add suspense and hold the reader's attention. But what is it, and how does it work exactly?

Frame narrative: definition and purpose

Imagine a painting hanging on a wall. The painting is framed. Now think of the frame as the introduction to a story and the painting as that story.


A frame narrative works in the same way as the painting: the frame is the first narrator, easing the reader into the story's world. The painting is the main narrator (or narrators) who will show us what happens in that world.

Frame narrative, a painting with a narrator & audience,  StudySmarterThe frame is the first narrator,JW - StudySmarter created on Canva

There can be more than one motif or subject in a painting, just as there may be more than one story in a narrative. The first narrator can open the story, and then a second narrator may appear to continue the story, which is an example of a story within a story.

Framed Narrative, Visualisation of a framed narrative | StudySmarterThe painting inside a painting or story inside a storyJW - StudySmarter Original created on Canva.com

Also known as an embedded or sandwich narrative, the frame narrative can help allow the reader to change perspective by seeing the story through the eyes of several different characters in the book. It can also :

  • Add energy
  • Change the pace
  • Help give context
  • Add more background.

Framed Narrative, An open book inside another open book | StudySmarterThe story within a story,JW - StudySmarter created on Canva.com

Frame narrative: examples

An early example is Homer’s Odyssey. In it, Ulysses, in the palace of King Alcinous, tells the story of his experiences with Calypso and subsequent shipwreck. The narrative shifts from the author to Ulysses and his personal experience.

Frame narrative was also used on stage. Shakespeare used this device in several of his plays.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet has a troupe of actors performing within the play itself, offering Prince Hamlet an opportunity to direct them (and so direct a message at his uncle the king).

The Taming of the Shrew is a play within a play. The ‘frame’ of the narrative is in the prologue scene, where a drunken tinker is tricked into believing he is a lord, and a group of actors decide to perform a whole play before him to keep up the pretence.

Potentially Shakespeare is also poking fun at his own audiences and their often drunken behaviour when watching his plays.

A sea explorer aboard his ship is writing home to his sister and describes rescuing a man on the frozen seas of the Antarctic. The rescued man introduces himself and explains how he is chasing a ‘Creature’ he let loose into the world. The rescued man describes his student days which were spent hunting the secret of life. He constructed a man from dead bodies and brought it to life, and was horrified by the result. The rescued man tells his story and dies. The sea explorer closes with a description of the ‘Creature’ who, informed of the rescued man’s demise, disappears into the misty distance, never to be seen again.

If this sounds familiar, you have either read Frankenstein or seen a film version of it. Mary Shelley’s novel hit the press in 1818, and its frame narrative involves several embedded stories.

Study tip: look at the description above again and decide how many narrators are involved.

Walton, the explorer, as the first narrator, has the task of setting the scene: aboard a ship in the frozen sea. He also introduces us to Frankenstein:

His limbs were nearly frozen, and his body dreadfully emaciated by fatigue and suffering. I never saw a man in so wretched a condition. …he is generally melancholy and despairing; and sometimes he gnashes his teeth, as if impatient of the weight of woes that oppresses him.

Once the reader's curiosity is piqued, the narrative is turned over to Frankenstein, who is now the main narrator for the rest of the novel until halfway through the last chapter. The reins are handed back to the explorer Walton, who describes an interview with the creature and ends with the creature disappearing across the waves on a raft until it is 'lost in darkness and distance.' (M. Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818)

Frame narrative, the multiple narratives in Frankenstein, StudySmarterThe multiple narratives in Frankenstein

Inside Frankenstein’s story, we discover another narrative: that of the Creature, who tells his own story to Frankenstein, which gives us:

Frankenstein’s narrative > within Walton’s narrative >

Frame narrative, The multiple narratives in Frankenstein including the Creature's narrative,  StudySmarterThe multiple narratives in Frankenstein including the Creature's narrative

The frame narrative allows for information to be revealed further on in the story and by more than one narrator – this is useful to writers in general, particularly in stories of mystery, suspense, and the supernatural.

Wilkie Collins devised his version of the frame narrative in his novels. Technically, different characters share the narration giving their testimony as to what happened. Collins used this technique with his detective novel The Moonstone, one of English literature's early major detective novels.

The Moonstone concerns the theft of an invaluable jewel at a family house in the countryside. The family steward, Betteredge, opened and closed the main narrative with an epilogue consisting of statements by minor characters. Within the main narrative, seven other characters take turns to narrate:

Starting from these plain facts, the idea is that we should all write the story of the Moonstone in turn—as far as our own personal experience extends, and no farther—Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone, 1868

The novel is divided into two parts; the first narrated by Betteredge, and the second containing the seven other narratives, and concluded by Betteredge:

Part 1 + Part 2 (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th narrative, conclusion (Betteredge) + Epilogue

This enabled the author to keep the reader from discovering too much too soon, allowing for a completely unexpected reveal in the final chapters.

Henry James’ ghost novel The Turn of the Screw opens with an unnamed narrator who in turn is told the story by a fellow guest. The fellow guest has the story of his sister’s governess, dead for the last twenty years. By using the frame narrative, James effectively creates a sense of distance and mystery. In addition, we, the readers, are made to feel uncertain as to the reliability of the narrator: is the governess really seeing phantoms? Are the children truly possessed? Are any of the narrators involved reliable?

In this structure, we do not return to the first narrator. James, with chilling and dramatic precision, ends the story with the narrative of the governess:

We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.—Henry James, Turn of the Screw, 1898

Visualisation of frame narrative for Turn of the Screw | StudySmarter | StudySmarterFrame narrative in Turn of the ScrewJW - StudySmarter Original created on Canva.com

Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights adopts the frame narrative in a less complex way, by having only two main narrators: the first, Mr Lockwood, is very quickly haunted by a phantom (in chapter 3). When he is confined to bed after catching a cold on the Yorkshire moors, he asks his housekeeper to tell him about the morose family resident at Wuthering Heights. The housekeeper, Nelly Dean, then becomes the main narrator and continues the story until the last couple of chapters when Lockwood, returning to the area a year later, takes over the novel's conclusion.

Frame narrative, Frame narrative visualised for Wuthering Heights, StudySmarterFrame narrative in Wuthering HeightsJW - StudySmarter Original created on Canva.com

Bram Stoker, in his vampire novel Dracula, follows a similar structure to Wilkie Collins in using different accounts from various character viewpoints through journals, diaries and letters.

Jonathan Harker, a young solicitor, travels to Transylvania to settle a land sale with a client called Count Dracula. He narrowly escapes the Count’s clutches and falls into a fever at a convent, where his fiancee joins him and continues the story. Five of the main characters share the narrative and Mina concludes it when all five characters unite with Dr Helsing in bringing down the Count.

The frame narrative helps engage a reader’s attention and keep the story's pace going. It is also a handy tool for the author to feed in extra details which might otherwise be difficult for the reader to take in. The frame narrative is a popular device in literature, on stage and in films. It allows authors more creative freedom and enables audiences to enjoy a fuller, more varied experience.

Framed Narrative - Key takeaways

  • A frame narrative is a literary device that enables the author to tell a tale within a tale.
  • A frame narrative is also known as an embedded or sandwich narrative.
  • The frame narrative can help allow the reader to change perspective by seeing the story through the eyes of different characters in the book.
  • The frame narrative can help add energy and background to a story.
  • The frame narrative is also used on stage (i.e. The Taming of the Shrew).
  • The frame narrative is a popular device in many gothic and mystery novels (The Moonstone, Dracula).

Framed Narrative

A frame narrative is a story told within another story.

Turn of the Screw by Henry James, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins.

A framing device in a narrative is a technique whereby the author introduces a story within a story; this may be a found document (a diary or journal) or a new character who takes over the narration.

Framing is another word for presenting and structuring a piece of writing, using a careful choice of words.

A short story can be turned into a frame narrative by introducing a narrator who then tells the story.

Final Framed Narrative Quiz

Question

What is a frame narrative? 

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Answer

A framed narrative is a story told within another story.

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Question

What is an example of frame narrative?

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Answer

Turn of the Screw by Henry James, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

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Question

What is a framing device in a narrative?

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Answer

A framing device in a narrative is a technique whereby the author introduces a story within a story; this may be a found document (a diary or journal), or a new character who takes over the narration.

Show question

Question

True or False? In Frankenstein, there are two narrators, Walton and Frankenstein.

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Answer

False: In Frankenstein, there are three narrators, Walton, Frankenstein and the Creature.

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Question

True or false? Hamlet is a play about a group of actors playing a prank on a drunken tinker.

Show answer

Answer

False: Shakespeare’s Hamlet has a troupe of actors performing within the play itself, offering Hamlet an opportunity to direct them (and so direct a message at his uncle the king).

Show question

Question

Complete the following: Bram Stoker, in his vampire novel Dracula, follows a similar … to Wilkie Collins in using different accounts from various character … through …, diaries and ….

Show answer

Answer

Bram Stoker, in his vampire novel Dracula, follows a similar structure to Wilkie Collins in using different accounts from various character viewpoints through journals, diaries and letters.

Show question

Question

By using the frame narrative, Henry James effectively creates a sense of … as well as … .

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Answer

By using the frame narrative, Henry James effectively creates a sense of distance as well as mystery.

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Question

Complete the following: A frame narrative works in the same way as a …: the … is the first …, easing the reader into the world of the story. 

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Answer

A frame narrative works in the same way as a painting: the frame is the first narrator, easing the reader into the world of the story.

Show question

Question

Complete the following: Frame narrative is a popular device in many … and …  novels 

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Answer

Frame narrative is a popular device in many gothic and mystery novels.

Show question

Question

True or False? A frame narrative is also known as an embedded or submarine narrative.

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Answer

False. A frame narrative is also known as an embedded or sandwich narrative.

Show question

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