4.6. Narrative embedding



We have already introduced the general notion of enunicative level, relative to the use of direct speech in a text.  Narrative levels are simply enunciative levels where the quoted speech is a narrative.  A character in a story tells a story (about his past, for instance, or a fictional story) and that story is situated at a narrative level which is secondary with respect to the main story. 

What Genette calls intradiegetic  story is a story within a story,

not only in the sense that the first frames it with a preamble and a conclusion . . . but also in the sense that the narrator of the second narrative is already a character in the first one, and that the act of narrating which produces the second narrative is an event recounted in the first one.  (Narrative Discourse  228). 

Although the identity of the intradiegetic narrator and his status as a character need not always be that clear, this might be taken to represent the standard situation.  It should be kept in mind, however, that many other types of embedded enunciations can be found, in which the embedded element is not a narrative.  It may be a poem or a piece of statistics, and even if it is a narrative it can be very different from the main one: for instance, a piece of news report, or a letter, embedded in a novel. 


            An intradiegetic story can contain another story which is intradiegetic with respect to it.  In absolute terms, from the point of view of the complete structure of the work, this story will therefore be intradiegetic in the second degree (metadiegetic,  according to Genette).  The "main" narrator, the one who introduces the hierarchically superior level, is situated in an extradiegetic   position--insofar as he is a narrator; he may, of course, be at the same time a character inside the story and be inside the diegesis in that sense, but Genette will use there the term homodiegetic.   There is always an extradiegetic narrator of some kind or other in a narrative work, though there need not be any intradiegetic narrators.  It is important to separate this issue of narrative level from the question of narrative person we have mentioned before: an extradiegetic narrator may tell the story in the first or in the third person; in Genette's terms, he may be either homodiegetic or heterodiegetic.  The same goes for intradietetic narrators.  That is, the opposition intradiegetic / extradiegetic situates the narrator with respect to the whole narrative hierarchy of the work, whereas the opposition homodiegetic / heterodiegetic defines the narrator in terms of his own  narration--which need not encompass the whole work. 


            Genette observes the peculiar use of intradiegetic stories in a whole tradition of narrative writing, and proceeds then to an exasmination of the main relationships between the embedded narratives and the main text.  In his Nouveau discours,   he adds some indications by John Barth to distinguish five main types:

1)  Causal relationship: when both narratives refer to the same fabula, the intradiegetic narrative may be analeptic and explicative of the events in the main fabula. 

2)  When we find an intradiegetic proleptic narrative, the function is of prediction. 

3)  The third type of relationship is purely thematic.  This often happens in the case of fictional embedded stories.  An extreme form, in Genette's view (Narrative Discourse 233) is the structure of mise en abyme. 

4)  Sometimes the thematic relationship is made explicit by one of the characters, and the story acquires an explicit exemplary, persuasive value.  This is the case, for instance, of exempla  in medieval narrative. 

5)  Sometimes it is not the story but its narrating which establishes the significant connection with the main story: Genette's favourite example is the Thousand and One Nights,  where only the narrating keeps the intradiegetic narrator alive.  In other cases, the function of the narrating may be purely distractive (as in the Decameron). 

These five types are classified according to a greater importance of the narrative act itself.  And all of these values may be mixed in a variety of degrees in concrete narratives. 





Embedding, Metalepsis and Mise en abyme



We have said that by definition the barrier between reality and fiction cannot be crossed.  This is also the case for the other kinds of barriers that we have studied, deriving mainly from the difference between the sign and the referent.  The sign cannot suddenly become its referent--in those cases when it comes, we feel that it should not.  


            But we have also witnessed the prolifereation of barriers and distinctions within  those fictional, represented or quoted worlds.  And these barriers, intradiegetic or fictional in the second degree, are no longer impassable.  Although they lay a claim to the same logical status as the border between the first and the second level, they are in fact very different: they are textual constructions which can be modified and transgressed at will--as long as we do not care so much about verisimilitude.  Genette uses the term metalepsis  to refer to the transition from one narrative level to another.[1]  In spite of this definition, he seems to include there the transitions from one semiotic level to another and from a fictional level to another as well.   But we could divide these "metalepses" into as many kinds as the barriers they overstep.  So, if an intradiegetic narrator suddenly becomes extradiegetic (as it happens at one moment in Marguerite de Navarre's Heptaméron)   the phenomenon is analogous to, but not to be confused with an illegal mixture of fictional worlds--for instance, in Marguerite Yourcenar's "Comment Wang-Fô fut sauvé", where a painter avoids execution by painting a picture and escaping through that fictional landscape.


            Thanks to the rich development of narrative theory the analysis of literary texts has prodigiously advanced in the latest twenty years. The basic threefold division of fiction into fabula, story  and text  have helped the narratologist carry out a much more systematic and accurate analysis  of particular texts.


            For the critic who approaches a novel, the establishment of boundaries between this particular novel and other novels written by the same or a different author is easily made. A novel easily meets Bal's requirements to be called a "text", for, to all probability it possesses 1) temporal continuity;  has 2) textual coherence and, although this is not a sine qua non  requirement,  usually is 3) the product of a unique narrative instance.


            However, the establishment of textual unity becomes more problematic when the critic has to deal, not with a novel, but with a collection of short stories: although the collection appears as a unique object, a single book you can buy, one is tempted, as  Mieke Bal (1985:?) points out, to consider it as a group of texts.


            Within a collection of short stories  considered as a whole Bal (Narratology  142) distinguishes: the narrator's text, which she terms "primary" text; and the actor's text, which is the "secondary" text embedded in the primary text:

The dependence of the actor's text with regard to the narrator's text should be seen as the dependence of a subordinate clause to a main clause. According to this principle, narrator's text and actor's text are not of equal status. The hierarchical position of the texts is indicated by the fundamental principle of level. (Narratology 143)

Thus, in the case of Bal's chosen example, The Arabian Nights, we find a primary text  (Sheherazade's own story) which engulfs the other actors' texts  (the tales told by Sheherazade) like a  frame. The tales told by Sheherazade and Sheherazade's own story are related to each other by a double binding: the development of the action of the main story is determined by the continuation of the secondary stories as these are by the development of the main story within which they are framed.  Bal (Narratologie  61-2) calls this kind of double subordination enchâssement  (enchaining).


            If the subordination functions only in one direction, that is to say, if the fact of telling the secondary story or stories does not affect the development of the main story, as happens in The Decameron and in The Canterbury Tales,  we can speak with Bal of encadrement  (framing).  Corregir


            Enchaining and framing are, then, the two basic ways in which different short stories belonging to the same collection are related to each other.  Another possible relationship between the two texts presents itself when  the two fabulas of these embedded texts  are related to each other: the embedded story, then, can explain the primary story, or it may resemble the primary story.

            In the first case the relationship is made explicit by the actor narrating the embedded story, as happens in the following example: A primary narrator tells  the story of a boy who asks a girl to marry him. She loves him, and would rise on the social scale by marrying him. Still she cannot accept him. The reason is (the girl herself narrates:  that in the past, she has been seduced by a ruthless villain with the usual consequences. Since that time she carries the stain of her contact with a perfidious man who took advantage of her innocence. He seduced her in the following manner...). The girl retires to a nunnery, and the boy soon forgets her.   Citar


            In other cases, however, an explanation of the starting situation may also lead to change. For instance, if the young man had been very moved by the sad account of his beloved's past, and recognized her innocence, he might have come to the conclusion that he wished to forget the past. Thus he would "give her a second chance". In this case the embedded fabula not only explains the primary fabula, but also determines it.

            Resemblance between the main text and the embedded narrative leads us to a form of textual self-reference, mise en abyme,  which we shall study under the heading of reflexivity. 







[1]          The original use of metalepsis, as defined by Genette's source Pierre Fontanier, covers a range of rhetorical phenomena much wider  than the one Genette implies.