Between bookends

Janice Pariat | Updated on June 03, 2019

Janice Pariat   -  BLink

Homecoming: The framing of a story around a return offers a narrative embrace around the content in between   -  ISTOCK.COM

Points of return — whether in literature, elections or personal life — are a time of reflection

Landing back in London this summer made me feel I was part of a story employing a framing device. I was here last year, at the same time — but so much since then feels different. Twelve months ago, I’d just about started research on a book I’ve now begun writing. I was a year away from a work sabbatical. On a more personal note, a relationship then was on precarious ground, but it has gradually transformed, strengthened. Along the way, a friendship suffered, was almost lost. Two others were found. We were a year away from these elections, hoping for a turn in the saffron tide. This is the thing about framing devices.

They make you think about change.

I talk about it often with my students. How frames bookend a story with a definitive opening scene that serves to introduce characters, setting, themes and a closing scene that brings it all to a close, a resonant full circle, by looping to — mirroring, in a way — the beginning. They serve to unify, offering a tight narrative embrace around the content in between. One Thousand and One Nights and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, for example, use frames to bind stories together, turning them into “one” story.

Framing also provides context within which a story unfolds — Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness could only be narrated by Charles Marlowe on a liner to an unnamed passenger. It helps distance the reader from the action — an account retold is rendered more believable than if we were to follow the ivory trader Kurtz’s actions directly. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein also offer us the structure of a story within a story, moving from one perspective to another.

Sometimes, the framing narrative lies outside the main story, cleverly lifted, by the author, into its own separate narrative space. As in William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, the fictional version of the author can step in at appropriate moments, consolidate details, or even offer to cut out the boring bits. A successful framing technique allows the reader to accept these intrusions.

For me, though, framing devices, more importantly, serve as jumping off points for a journey. Ones that could take place entirely within an internal landscape.

In Amy Lowell’s lovely prose poem Bath, for instance, we travel without moving. It begins: “The day is fresh-washed and fair, and there is a smell of tulips and narcissus in the air” and ends on the same whiff of flowery fragrance — but in between, we have journeyed with the narrator into that moment when she’s soaking in the bath. The sunshine cleaves the water “like a jewel”, little spots of light lie on the surface and “dance, dance”. She stirs them with her fingers, moves a foot, lies back and laughs. “The day is almost too bright to bear” but she “will lie here awhile” in solid yet fleeting silence.

In between a framing device we can also travel a lifetime. William Faulkner does it in his short storyA Rose for Emily — which begins with a death and the townspeople attending a funeral, and closes with them later on that same day — although by now, we have followed Emily’s whole life. The loss is heightened by our revisiting the same moment but after having been made privy to a character’s loneliness, her one great love and many losses. Filmmaker James Cameron uses it in Titanic — always named by my students in class when I ask for an example of a cinematic framed story — where the story of older Rose frames the story of young Rose (and Jack). Through the narrative in between, we share her journey, and are better placed at the end to appreciate the point at which the story began. We end where we begin, yet everything is changed.

What I also find poignant about framing devices is the idea of return — and this is where it runs beyond literature into life. We experience it with the books we reread — they bookend a period in our lives, where we may, for example, have journeyed from sympathising with one character to another. It happened to me with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, where years later I found myself supporting Mrs Bennet rather than her clever, cruel husband.

Sometimes reread books don’t resonate as they did when we read them last — or they resonate more. Think also about the places we return to. School, university, a city, a country we once lived in. They may have changed greatly, some little or not at all, but they serve as mirrors for us to examine who we are now. How we may have changed greatly in the time between when we were last there and now.

Points of return, whether in literature, elections, or personal life, serve as moments of reflection — what has changed? What hasn’t? How may I do better? As a reader, a writer, a person. What have I learned?

They are moments at which to pause, to take stock, to “lie there awhile” in solid, fleeting silence.

For in those moments of return, when a journey loops back onto itself, lies the hope for greater understanding.

Janice Pariat is the author of The Nine-Chambered Heart

Twitter: @janicepariat

Published on June 03, 2019

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