Reading Frames in Modern Fiction

Reading Frames in Modern Fiction

by Mary Anne Caws


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691611709
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #16
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

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Reading Frames in Modern Fiction

By Mary Anne Caws


Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06625-7



... though the relations of a human figure or a social occurrence are what make such objects interesting, they also make them, to the same tune, difficult to isolate, to surround with the sharp black line, to frame in the square, the circle, the charming oval, that helps any arrangement of objects to become a picture.

Henry James, preface to The Awkward Age


This book had its origin in the hypothesis that many readers recall the same scenes from even the longest novels, that frequently the same passages have stood out from the whole in successive readings, and are represented in the memory as condensations of action and vision. They could be compared to a static arrest, within the normal flow of the text, for the presentation of a scene whose borders are so marked as to enhance and enclose its denser, or more "dramatic," more pictorial, or more musical, or sometimes more "poetic," consistency. The actions and gestures seem to participate in a space larger than ordinary narrative space, and yet a heavily bordered one; their importance seems heightened, the energy unaccustomed, the language more "meaningful." The elements enclosed within the framed passage may appear to refer out to the larger or whole text, and the passage may appear to represent something beyond itself, as if it were a metonymic indication of some larger significance; at the same time, the framed passage may seem complete within itself: thus the fascination with the process and with the effect.

To frame in is also to frame out, so that the notions of grid and selection, of inclusion and exclusion, are constantly in play, as well as those of border and of centering or focus. Many of the devices that work so efficaciously upon the imagination in these passages seem to play upon the same motifs and with the same techniques. This study concerns the techniques of bordering that mark such passages for our own arrest: visual, gestural, verbal, and conceptual, as they are contained in works relatively familiar to us all. I have made my own selection from the art of the novel and the tale, with a side excursion into one narrative poem of a heavily framed portrait. Dramatic framing makes its own incursion into the art of James, for example, and in some measure the art of framing is itself a will to the mixing of genres, a point to which I shall return.

The first question to ask is pragmatic: To what extent is the frame useful as a concept? Too elastic in definition, it would enclose too much; too narrow, it would exclude any richness of content. Ruskin's meditation upon the topic of topic itself, as it is problematic and insoluble, opposes inflexibility and encourages fruitful ironies about the very project of investigating any question at all about which we would like to draw simple or simply stated conclusions: "I never met with a question yet, of any importance, which did not need, for the right solution of it, at least one positive and one negative answer, like an equation of the second degree. ... Mostly, matters of consequence are three-sided, or four-sided, or polygonal; and the trotting around is severe work for people in any way stiff in their opinions."

I take that passage as illustrative of thinking about framing: the frame is valuable as a concept for the imagination, even in its strictest limits, as is the very act of "trotting around" it occasions, plainly self-inclusive and self-framing. The notions presented here and the initial categories of possible techniques that I shall try to establish are in no way to be taken as stiffly opinionated or rigidly "right." They are, like the frames themselves, above all, aids to perception, developed hypothetically in view of a variety of texts.

The topic is further complicated by the observation that, very often, the most interestingly framed passages are to be found in novels and stories in which — as they are offset, inset, and peculiarly visible — they intensify the oddness of the whole. The framed passage, by definition, stands out against the average one, or deep within it. As for oddness, one of the oddest complications of the perception itself is the self-inclusion typical of the topic; given that an observing figure is often included in the passage as framed, the very shiftings of vision by the reader may be controlled by those ascribed to an enclosed figure. But all frames are constantly open to shift and exchange.


The selective or framing look cuts out, concentrates upon, and centers on whatever is to be emphasized, by a decoupage or circumscription — writing around and about, cutting and cropping — all of which exemplify a technique of limiting with positive aims. A sonnet by Hérédia, to which Philippe Hamon refers in his description of description, showing how it works vertically from head to foot, reveals also a whole universe of action and vision circumscribed in a reduced scene within the queen's eyes. They are not starry but starred with golden flecks, as with time and space gathered within the strictest of possible limits; the severe cropping of everything outside them brightens both the flash of her eyes and the cosmic vision captured there:

    Et sur elle courbé, l'ardent imperator
    Vit dans ses larges yeux étoilés de points d'or
    Toute une mer immense où fuyaient des galères.

    And bending over her, the ardent emperor
    Saw in her large eyes starred with flecks of gold
    A whole immense sea where galleys were fleeing.

This bestarred text offers a privileged and visionary example of the circumspective power, taken within the narrow compass of the eyes themselves, with the gold rendering the vision still more valuable, still more valid. This constrictive art requires, for its recognition, the detection of cut and cropped borders and their visual and verbal emphasis by such procedures as repetition, contrast, reversal, figure change, and patterning around the central focus: of these, repetition is perhaps the simplest to detect, and it or the effect it produces can be stressed as the device most proper to the intensification of those passages we read as deeply poetic. Gerard Manley Hopkins, for instance, presents poetry as what is detached from prose by its frame: "Poetry is speech framed for contemplation of the mind by the way of hearing or speech framed to be heard for its own sake and interest even over and above its interest of meaning. ... If not repetition, oftening, over-and-overing, aftering of the inscape must take place in order to detach it to the mind and in this light poetry is speech which afters and oftens its inscape, speech couched in a repeating figure."

The framed passage "stands by itself," this shape of the texts we contemplate here as framed within the ongoing flow of the narrative, these texts standing out and in, import this technique from poetry to prose, making an arrest of a most exceptional kind, dense, "aftered," and "overed." They also, in other cases, appropriate the techniques of melodrama for the needs of narrative, so that — as critics have pointed out in the case of Henry James particularly — the melodramatic scene occurs within the narrative as a contrast with the picture. Now the inserted picture also, that import from art, is found to make this static arrest — witness the picture described, as in the cases Hamon studies, as well as the inset pictures themselves; the developing power in each case, that of scene and of object, is all the greater for the insertion within the unlike. What is true of the poetically dense moment — or of the dramatically rich moment or of the vividly pictured moment or, again, of the musical moment, which we will study in Proust — within the narrative, is that the contrast of the two genres lends greater force to both.

The framed moment is frequently the other in the same: play or poem or artistic or musical pause in the flux and flow of story. The concentration upon this otherness, with its modern connotations and its ancient reverberations — for instance the ekphrasis of the Greeks, or their inset choruses — is the point of the present tale. It is this inter-genre impact which my frame circumscribes and writes about. In these moments of intensified scent and sight and sound, or of intensified realizations and revelations, the heightened effect extends beyond the perception of the narrator out to the reader in an increasing experiential correspondence of alternate modalities, and of the signs of, or pointers toward, the inclusion of the other scene, so often stolen from another genre, and so often worth the steal.


The change of genre is always noticeable, for the mode is evident, whether it be lyric, musical, dramatic, or narrative; the particular moments examined here are in general the crossings of other genres over into the narrative. Of the several techniques which may mark the limits in which these specific crossings are situated within the general flow of the text, some are discussed in the following pages; these borders for the specific passages in question are the subject of my book. Since the change of genre is already a breaking of the "frame of expectation" set up by what precedes the change, these passages so marked are to be read sometimes as the framed junctures between one frame and expectation and another, and sometimes as framed moments unto themselves, but almost always of brief duration and bordered in heavily stressed limits. They can be viewed as the operators of the narrative text, or the agents de change, since they alter the preceding sight and psychological or mind set, but also as culminations in themselves of the intensive mode characteristic of genre crossing, in whatever way their own borders are to be read. The opposite of blank spaces or neutral counters or silences permitting the interruption of the narrative or discursive flow or the nondistinctive noise in order to make form and sense, these highly charged moments or scenes are the bearers of meaning and intensity, the conveyors of revelation and insight. They are themselves what they contain, being the pictures on the wall of the text, the poetic summits of the prose, the tonic highlights of the musical offering, and the dramatic culminations of the play of the text. Giving themselves in particular spectacle, these parts standing for the whole do not just encourage, they force our deeper understanding of the unity and the ultimate meaning of what we are led to contemplate and reflect upon, in a pause or a delay or a tableau, or an interreferential and repeating moment, even as we are swept along in the narrative flow. These are what literature is, for a large part, about.



Older people tend to overlook the frame, even when they are looking right at it, said Thomas. They don't like to think about it.

Donald Barthelme, The Dead Father


Both the simple border separating the enclosed space of the visual object from its backdrop, like the figure cut out or pasted against it — this border, perceived or not as the isolating element — and the high baroque verbal borders of Henry James state equally the importance of what they enclose, privileging a restricted area for heightened perception and focus.

In their turn, however, they presuppose other concepts of edging and enable the perception of further edges; borders relate to other borders, outlines to other outlines. Hierarchic arrangement in order of difficulty and interest would present first the most easily perceived architectural outlining, in which the view is set off by being placed at a certain height, like the scaffold scene in Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter or the figure of Eustachia Vye profiled high upon the barrow against the sky in Thomas Hardy's Return of the Native, or by backlighting, as in the image of Madame Arnoux luminously detached, on shipboard in Gustave Flaubert's Sentimental Education. In the same category is Henry James's outlining a figure in a door or window as a presentational space: this often permits the description of the contents of that room or of that figure. The window permits another level of complication, as the framed picture may be seen from either the viewer's outlook or inlook, depending on the placement. Some scenes manage both: for instance, in Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance, Coverdale's framed sight of the leading figures of the Utopian colony, seen out from his boardinghouse window and in through their window.

The visual connects with the conceptual on a level of greater complication, as still another work of art, visual or verbal, included within the larger work to explain and point to parts of it, and deepen its meaning: here I am thinking of the inset play in Mansfield Park or the portrait of Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, or the portraits of Charlotte and the Prince in Henry James's Golden Bowl. In each case, the smaller work serves as a developing object for the larger one. In an extreme case, the two developments — of the inset picture and the outer one in the entire text — may take place at the same time for a double text-in-process, like a metatext: the inserted story of the oval portrait in Edgar Allan Poe's story of the same name coincides with the narrator's reading of the story of the portrait and with the edge of the story we read as well, just as Lily Briscoe's canvas in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse is completed precisely when the narrative of the text itself is completed. The smaller-scale work points to the process and the meaning of the larger or including picture, and indicates its major vector or thrust.

In the general category of formal devices, a verbal border exists where an excess or lack is apparent. A nervous repetition of the same terms, a sustained word play, a noticeable ellipsis or a series of deictic pointers may arrest the scene within the ordinary temporal flow, drawing attention to what is blocked out; here it is, says the frame. These borders mark the most painful and prolonged scenes of James's Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl, of such scenes as the "O sole mio" passage in Proust's Le Temps retrouvé, and the natural and italicized borders of Woolf's Waves.

The major presentational devices throw into relief the moral and formal issues, for what is set apart as denser in stylistic effect or heightened tension than the rest is read as more significant. The nondescript or emptied-out spatial surround, or the temporal delay as the negative border for the framed passage, serve as well as the highly worked borders to make the essential point: the selective function is of double interest, in the selection itself, and in the ongoing process of how the choice is designated. In the first instance, we are reading what is framed, and in the second, we are reading the frames. The first is characteristic of the earlier works discussed here, and the second is, rather, characteristic of modernism, both of its products and of the way in which we tend to view them. The frames are both perceptual and actual; any consideration of the dissolution of the frame in postmodernism would lie beyond the borders of this study, focussed on the frame itself.


Philosophical Frames: Handling, Containing, Placing

Frames are ways of handling what we are looking at: a celebrated text on the handle as it makes the juncture between the object and what surrounds it, reaching in and out, may help to get a grip on the frame, as it is always to be read facing in both senses: turned out and in, excluding, including, and focusing. Georg Simmel's essay "The Handle" describes the ideal space of art as it relates to reality, taking as an analogy the vase. Held and used in practical life, it "stands in two worlds at one and the same time" (GS, p. 67), having a dual nature which is often expressed by its handle, projecting artistic form in the real words, constituting a single "aesthetic vision" with the body of the base (GS, p. 68). Its shape harmonizes inside and out, working as tool and hand, life flowing through both: "Thus, a mediating bridge is formed, a pliable joining of hand with bowl, which with a palpable continuity, transmits the impulse of the world into the bowl, into its manipulation. But then, through the reflux of this energy, the bowl is drawn into the circumference of the life of the soul." (GS, pp. 69-70). Utility and beauty are transcended by a higher order to which the handle is a cue, one world reaching into another; The Golden Bowl, treated here at length, extends between two worlds in such a manner.


Excerpted from Reading Frames in Modern Fiction by Mary Anne Caws. Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • CONTENTS, pg. vii
  • Preface: Reading Frames, pg. xi
  • Acknowledgemets, pg. xiii
  • I. APERTURE, pg. 1
  • NOTES, pg. 266
  • BIBLIOGRAPHY, pg. 297
  • INDEX, pg. 307

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