In order to understand how the frame can literally and conceptually shape a narrative – I considered what I had learnt from my case-studies into hybrid forms. This methodology is in perfect syncopation with my own natural way of thinking and designing. My graphic design is always informed by how stories are told in other forms – it is only from these models that one absorbs basic notions of structure, plot and narration. The western literary model is the basis on which all visual narrative is derived – from film to comic strips, and in my own work – to graphic design. There was a great value in looking to a seemingly removed narrative model and its use of framing. There is a fascinating potential in the literary equivalent to filmic framing – and how it can be used to construct a visual narrative. Writers create and employ framing devices through point of view and narration. When done conventionally, (first, second, third person narrator) it allows the reader to follow a story. There are degrees of unconventional use of narration, either via multiple points of view (Russell Banks’ “The Sweet Hereafter”), partially obscured point of view (Henry James’ “Turn of the Screw”) or utterly unreliable first person point of view (Agatha Christie’s “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”).The following case studies are examples of manipulations of the frame of narration.
a. The Frame of Fiction
Point of View; Modernist relationship between teller and the tale.
Understand the basic nodes of narration in modernist and post-modernist fiction was an apt starting point. The aspects of narration such as handling of time and point of view, can inform my own burgeoning understanding of the ‘frame of narration’. Modernist writers like Nabokov, Borges, Beckett, Fuentes, Calvino and Joyce are all fascinating for the way they each, in their own ways, explored the tension between the method/device of storytelling, with the final story. As Anne Dillard points out, a writer doesn’t insert devices and techniques into a novel after the fact, “The work itself is the device. In traditional fiction the work is device made flesh; in contemporary modernist fiction the work may be technique itself or device laid bare.” (p.31) This fine understanding of the relationship between the device of making, and the final made piece – is utterly pertinent to my thesis studies. These work of these writers and others provide possible ways of dealing with this tension. They sometimes making the ‘frame’ of narration invisible, and sometimes leave this mark on the narrative itself – the final piece then bares the bones of its structure.
Handling of point of view in the novel is a good example of this tendency. Writers like Joyce, Conrad and Woolf used limited point of view in what became known a modernist technique – they did so in order to push the novel into the realm of the consciousness of the characters. It is ironic though that this ‘modernist’ technique overlaps with a post-modernist notion of self-reflexive form. That is, the other effect of this limited point of view is to distance the reader from the action, make the reader more aware of the ‘frame’ of point of view as a device. As Dillard observes with reference to Conrad’s narrative technique, “it is an aritifice which intermittently calls attention to itself.” (p42) The same could be said of Joyce’s narration in Ulysses; Molly Bloom’s mode of narration doesn’t truly allow us to see what that character sees – there is a constant friction between her frame of ‘seeing’ and our own.
When point of view is fractured a similar effect is created. In one respect, multiple voices recounting the same tale leads the reader to a more relativist, distancing reading of the events. As in “The Sound and the Fury”, “…For while we as audience walk round and round some fictional event, that event, while it acquires rondure and depth before our eyes, also becomes isolated.” (p42). Fragmented point of view, which is another form of limiting point of view, can make us speculate the element of fiction and its construct, rather than just experience the event. Dillard points out that limited viewpoints can have the opposite effect also. By drawing attention to what is usually the invisible surface of the ‘telling’, “…they flatten what would traditionally be the deep part of the work, the tale itself. And so by making the deep parts shallow and the shallow parts deep, they bring to the work an interesting and powerful set of tensions…” (p43.)
b. The Suspense of Henry James
Henry James attempts “…a balanced distribution of emphasis in the rendering of what is looked at, who is looking, and what the looker makes of what she sees”
Analysis of Henry James’ novella “Turn of the Screw” exposes a working methodology for manipulation of the narrative frame of point of view. This was James’ version of the Gothic ghost story – its underlying plot ambiguity built around the audience’s unsureness of the reliability of the narrator (the governess) in recounting the tale. It is a prime example of the notion that the tale itself is less central than the telling of the tale. It is a wonderful example of the tension than can be derived from playing with the frame of first-person narration. The effect of this style of narration is to heighten the reader’s involvement in the story, and our experience of the effects of suspense and fear. Through the structure of the text, the audience becomes an active participant within the story’s world. “James manipulates his narrators and, by extension, his fictional world to involve the reader totally. The reader is forced to puzzle the book together (382-383).”
Henry James was a master of deliberately creating what has been described as ambiguity through the very syntax of his prose. All such ambiguity is created through James’ precise handling of narration. This is a carefully conceived and designed tension between narrative voices, and narrational modes – as will be seen in my discussion. Jamesian methods employed include use of point of view, the story within a story, variables and constants, narrational gaps, and clues. James’ “unconventional handling of point of view…The reader, one might say, is constantly forced to pass through several foregrounds before he can make out clearly what is looming in the background…The same basic mechanism is operable with James’ central reflectors’ through whom all or nearly all of the action takes place.” (p19); “Novel to Film; An Introduction To The Theory of Adaptation”; Brian McFarlane).
Point of View,Syntax and Mistaken Identities.
“James recognized that his story was a `trick' story.”
Henry James’ writing is a beautiful example of how point of view can be perceived as a literal ‘frame of reference’ in the literary model. His use of character point of view goes beyond simple ‘mode of narration’ ( as in first person, second person, or third person). James’ uses character point of view as a sort of viewing frame, through which the audience visually and psychologically grasps the narrative. Manipulation of point of view is the fundamental source of the novella’s ambiguity. The all-pervasive ambiguity of the story results from result of a rendition by a first person narrator who is not omniscient or reliable.
Throughout the novella, James uses a variety of narrational techniques and juxtapositions to heighten this ambiguity. Use of first-person point of view typically functions to align the reader’s perspective, our literal and attitudinal view of the story – to the author’s, or protagonists. This central premise is questioned in “Turn of the Screw” halfway through when we begin to doubt the governess, who is presenting us the tale. From that moment of doubt onwards, the reader’s frame of reference is unstable. James maintains this instability carefully through how characters speak and can be identified. There is a crucial lack of direct identification of speakers that keeps the meaning constantly slipping, and even forcing the reader to question the actual identity of characters. At key, climactic moments James never writes “I said” or “he said”. Much has been made of whether Miles and Douglas (the narrator of the prologue) are the same person – and of course the suspense of much of the tale hinges on the identity of Peter Quint- whether he is an actual apparition or a figment of the governess’ imagination.
Understanding James’ form of narration is key to understanding the narrative – the two become so closely intertwined. As with much modernist fiction – the actual persona of the author even enters the fictional world of the novella – further confusing the ‘fictional frame’ the reader believes is operating.
Mirror Structure and Language
James works with what could be described as a mirror structure in his novella – “This "basic structure," according to Brooke-Rose, is presented to us "framed" in a "mirror structure"--a set of reflecting dichotomies suggestive of reflections in a mirror.” Critics like Huntley and Bontly pick up on the mirroring between characters in ‘Turn of The Screw”, the way in which the Jessel/Quint relationship mirrors the relationship between the governess and her employer, or the mirroring of Miles and the employer.
The ‘Twist’; Doubts and Doubly Directed Clues
The idea of the gap is a key strategy Henry James employs to create tension in his novella. It is both a motif and a structural consideration – James’ ability to create areas of doubt within a larger, believable narrative is the paramount to the novella’s cohesiveness, and intensity. This is a question of how James controls the reader’s doubts, or how he controls the reliability of the viewing frame, the governess’ point of view narration.
Rimmon has explored how “Turn of the Screw” structures and paces ambiguity with relation to other James’ works. In “The Lesson of the Master”, ambiguity is only perceptible in retrospect, in contrast to “The Figure in the Carpet,” where it is perceptible almost from the beginning. In “The Turn of The Screw”, the story is first set up to be believed (a reliable frame) – and only in Chapter Six does the reader’s doubt begin. The effect of this is to almost force a re-reading over what one has read, and a retrospective awareness of earlier ambiguity. One example of this is re-considering the reliability of what the prologue tells us about the governess’ account, considering Douglas was in love with her and that these events at Bly took place ten years earlier. Rimmon demonstrates how the reader alternates between ‘singly directed clues’ that allow us to believe contradictory readings which culminates in “an insoluble clash. Both the governess's and Mrs. Grose's "wavering" sometimes occur successively in the same episode, but contradictory interpretations by each character are also "scattered throughout the narrative" (134).
Critics like Rubin, Edel, and Collins attempt to peek into James's psyche as the author imagined his readers' reactions to the story he was creating: “One can imagine him chuckling at the whole thing. A triumph of craft indeed, of precisely the sort that he most enjoyed. For had he not accomplished just what he said he wanted to do: renovate a supposedly outmoded story form, the tale of horror? ... How thorough the ambiguity he attained...! The further we try to extend the meanings of a passage, a scene, the more elusive the answer. How often one finds oneself, after weighing all the evidence, coming to the same conclusion: `It could be either'.
c . Detective Fiction
“The aim of detective fiction, which makes it unique among literary forms; to prevent an idea from taking shape.” (RA; pg.25)
Detective fiction can be applied as a particularly fascinating and relevant literary model - a subject area that could be used as a methodology. In his essay Detection and Its Designs: Narrative and Power in Nineteenth-Century Detective Fiction, Peter Thoms discusses how detective fiction deals with the nature of storytelling, and specifically, the relationship between the author and the audience, and the audience’s relationship with the narrative itself.
The construct of the detective story is different from other literary constructs in that its effectiveness is reliant upon the author’s manipulation (even deception) of the reader’s viewpoint. These texts deliberately prevent the reader from grasping the whole truth. The frame (or point of view) is used to disguise the content beneath it – all in the service of creating a suspenseful and engaging experience.
The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd
“Barthes says, correctly, that in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the reader seeks the murderer behind the “he” when he is really hidden behind the “I”. (p33)
If detective stories are built around the notion that the frame of narrator (or detective) obscures – Christie’s novel “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” pushes this to the limit. In her most famous novel, Christie creates a unique construct in which the narrator is the murderer, a fact she withholds from the reader up until the final pages. In this way, the novel is built around the frame of the narrator literally obscuring the solution to the entire story, while simultaneously narrating. This frame reveals enough to bring the reader into the fictional world of the novel and its plot twists and turn, but obscures enough to keep the reader in the dark. It is a fascinating and extreme example of how framing can work in creating a narrative.
Pierre Bayard’s “Who Killed Roger Ackroyd; The Mystery Behind the Agatha Christie Mystery” goes behind the construction of the novel and breaks down how the balancing act is pulled off. He lays out the Van Dine principle upon which all detective fiction relies – two rule stating that the final truth must be hidden throughout the book, and that while being hidden, this truth must be accessible, but disguised. This principle is essentially about the method of concealing the truth – by actually making it clearly visible to the reader but somehow disguised. Interestingly, this is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s comments about how he was able to build suspense in his films – emphasizing not notions of pure concealment and ambiguity, but the very opposite; "Clarify, clarify, clarify," said Hitchcock, "you can't have blurred thinking in suspense." (Bogdanovich, The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, pp. 40, 43.)
Following this, the strategies of disguise and distraction must operate – “Scattered through the text, the truth emerges only when the reader has reassembled these fragments that have been made deliberately unrecognizable.”
As with “Turn of the Screw”, tension and ultimately resolution are built through manipulation of the first-person narrator in Christie’s novel. The frame of first-person narrator is set up as a reliable voice but ultimately is the ultimately obstruction to the truth, “…a chief form of concealment here arises from the confusion of narrator and murderer. The difference from James’ novella is, we are never made to doubt the reliability of the narrator in “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” until the end. “Agatha Christie’s cunning was to manage to disguise the murderer in the process of narration as that invisible and trustworthy voice which ostensibly discloses the story to the reader as if it were above suspicion because it is quasi-divine in origin – as if it were the utterly detached voice of the narrative itself.” (p34)
Detective stories provide a model and series of well-worn strategies for shaping and controlling a narrative. They are pertinent to my line of enquiry as they deal primarily with frame (as a metaphor for point of view). Detective stories are entirely about how an audience is given access to the components of the narrative – the pieces of the puzzle, the clues. They are built around the idea that the gradual accretion of information leads to a resolution, an understanding. The pleasure of these stories is not really in the content, in the story – but in the unfolding, illuminating – the framing of this story. In this way – they are among the most self-referential of all narrative forms. They are highly aware of the audience’s point of view, character point of view, the detective’s point of view. These all function as pivotal ‘frames’ of reference through which the story is glimpsed. Manipulation of this frame is fundamental – the detective’s viewpoint can function as the primary frame through which we grasp information – but might also compete with other information we glimpse through another frame of reference, such as information from other characters, or information directly from the author in the form of sub-text, setting, atmosphere. Like Henry James’ concentric circles of reference in “The Turn of the Screw” – the detective story is constructed out of the tension, and final resolution, of these frames of reference. When the audience’s framing of the story finally aligns with the authors, and the full picture is visible – the mystery is solved – the story is complete. How do we get there? How do we move through the narrative?
d. Mazes and Labyrinthes
“…There are some striking parallels between the strategies Matthews describes for constructing a maze and the strategies frequently employed to construct stories…” (W.H. Matthews’ “Mazes and Labyrinths” (1922) Thrillers; p.24)
The basic idea that the maze must contain some level of complexity, or the pleasure in getting out of it is diminished – this equally applies to the mystery/detective story adage that the solution cannot be too obvious or the power of the ending is lost. Matthews also speaks about the design of a labyrinth as being either compact (space is taken up by the paths of the maze or space between paths) or diffuse (extra space beyond the path. “One could draw an analogy between the compact maze and the tight, centripetal structure of the whodunit, in which everything contributes to the final solution. Similarly one could compare the diffuse maze to the looser, centrifugal structure of the detective thriller, in which there is more room for digressions and deviations from the main path…” (Thrillers, p25)
“When we enter a story, we enter a maze, down whose forking paths we are led by the author, who unwinds the route little by little, conceals things from us, creates blind spots and false turnings and barriers around which we cannot see, in order to prolong the suspense and give us the pleasurable anxiety of being lost…for a little while.” (p25) read over a motion sequence in presentation.
It is interesting to observe this theory in practice in the narrative structures created by both writers and filmmakers. Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges is known for the labyrinthine structure of his novels – and his literal use of the maze as a thematic concern.. In “The Garden of Forking Paths” (1941), “This characteristically convoluted Borges tale eventually collapses the distinction between novel and maze: ‘Everyone assumed these were separate activities. No one realized that the book and the labyrinth were one and the same.” (Thrillers; p.25) More subtle evocations of a maze-like construct are evident in the narrative structures of Nabokov and Marquez – in the latter, this working to create a circularity of plot that sweeps all disparate storylines into one epic tale, In the former, the maze-like structure of the plot, as in “The Defence” forces the reader to literally navigate blind spots – and heightens the overall tension of the novel.
The films of Fritz Lang are an excellent example of a film narrative built around a maze-structure. Lang’s “Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (der Spieler)” broke new ground in creating a physically labyrinthine environment for the action to take place in. In the opening scenes audiences see the maze-like network of nightspots and secret lairs which are all linked by twisting back alleys and underground passages. “…this world is infused with a mood of pervasive conspiracy- a mood made tangible through the film’s visual design, keyed on a series of deep compartmentalized spaces that entrap the characters and expose them to the menace of the master villain.” (p60) Lang’s “M” (1931) uses a maze-like structure to construct not only it’s physical space, but its plotline and mise-en scene. This allowed Lang to truly punctuate a story about the police manhunt of a doomed child murderer with a deeper sense of entrapment. The film draws from the labyrinth structure to become a sort of geometric pattern that perfectly expresses a sense of conspiracy. Everything from the physical setting, to the shot-to-shot structure, to the use of sound liken its construction to a web-like maze. The use of sound bridges, where sound carries from one scene to the next, and sound-image bridges works to create an interconnectedness between all elements of the film.