A still from the 2013 film The Great Gatsby.
, Photo Credit: AP
If Vyasa, Chaucer, Joseph Conrad, Scott F. Fitzgerald and the perspicacious storytellers of the Jatakas and One Thousand and One Nights were to confabulate in the afterlife on their oeuvre, they would surely illuminate the choice of frame narrative in structuring their masterpieces that have had a life of many centuries and counting. Across cultures and genres and from the ancient to the modern, frame narrative, or frame story, is a favorite form of storytelling that has never gone out of fashion. The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms describes frame narrative as “a story in which another story is enclosed or embedded as a ‘tale within the tale’, or which contains several such tales.”
A story within a story
This type of framing is not done in literature alone. Fans of The Usual Suspects, an acclaimed noir mystery from 1995, would remember how conman Roger Kint, one of the two survivors of a blood letting and fire aboard a ship, goes back and forth during his interrogation narrating events and unraveling a world of crime. The taut, tantalizing script by Christopher McQuarrie teases the audience with the story-in-story style, until it reveals who the mafia lord Keyser Soze is. This is just one instance of the use of frame narrative in film.
But why do authors let a character narrate a story rather than use their voice to do the heavy lifting? In the process of creation, some characters take on a life of their own, growing out of the bailiwick set by the author. So, by employing another voice, is the author trying to bridle the recalcitrant characters, set the terms and bring the plot back to the original? Or is it that the primary narrative can help the author break down complex characters and ideas for the reader to grasp. The writer can even position his or her fictional alter ego as a devil’s advocate who floats arguments just for the heck of it. The possibilities seem endless.
Frame narrative is thus a literary device to deliver the plot to the audience. In PoeticsAristotle says the plot is the first principle and the soul of a tragedy, and they are either simple or complex, for the actions in real life, of which the plots are an imitation, obviously show a similar distinction. Even in these times, when plot has lost its imperative for fiction, the narrative rides on literary devices. For instance, a character in a story without a plot goes into a rambling, non-linear stream of consciousness, which is one device to tell a story.
Instances of frame narratives
Equally at ease in books and films, frame narratives have stood the test of time. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald lets bond salesman Nick Carraway tell the tale of the inimitable bootlegger Jay Gatsby. He is the first-person narrator, revealing Gatsby layer by layer pining for his lost love, Daisy, in a gilded age blemished by corruption. Nick takes us through the Long Island Jazz-era lives and tragedies of Daisy, her husband, Tom Buchanan, and his mistress Myrtle Wilson.
Then we have Bertie Wooster and Jeeves. How much yarn has PG Wodehouse spun with this gentleman and his valet? The two characters and their light-hearted engagement framed so many laugh riots.
The legend goes that Vyasa did not write down the Mahabharata. It was Ganesha the scribe who wrote the epic for the sage. The war of the Pandavas and the Kauravas is framed by this transaction between the sage and the god. Thunchaththu Ramanujan Ezhuthachan narrates the Adhyathma Ramayanam in Malayalam as a kilipattu, or parrot song. Each chapter begins with the calling of the parrot and asking it to tell the song of Rama.
Geoffrey Chaucer, in The Canterbury Tales, uses a pilgrimage by 30 people to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury as a framing device. Each has a story to tell as they travel and each is a story in itself, as they are from various walks of life, professions and outlook. The larger frame story leads readers to several more stories. In Conrad’s heart of darkness, the disillusioned Marlow narrates the horrors he faces after going to Africa in a spirit of adventure. In Thousand and One Nights, the frame is of Scheherazade telling her husband, King Shahryar, one tale each night. Some of the tales themselves are set in other frames. every entertaining Jataka tale is set in the frame of the life of the Buddha and his compassion and tolerance.
Coming back to the silver-screen, the popular 2018 multi-lingual film Mahanati is framed from the perspective of a journalist and a photographer who unravel the life of yesteryear actor Savitri, her rise to prominence, relationship with Gemini Ganesan and fall from grace.