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  • Nesting:Embedded Narrative as Maternal Discourse in Children's Novels
  • Roberta Seelinger Trites (bio)

Many North American and British children's novels written since the rise of modern feminism in the 1960s rely on embedded narrative structures wherein the plot of the nested tale parallels the plot of the framing tale.1 Gayle Greene comments on the prominence of embedded narratives as a mode of feminine discourse when she describes their recurrence within postmodern feminist writing. She notes that feminist critics and novelists alike have rejected the "linear sequence of traditional quests and Bildungsroman plots" in favor of more circular narratives; she cites Elizabeth Abel, Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva, and Patricia Tobin, among others, to demonstrate how this rejection of linear narrative form constitutes a rejection of patriarchal power structures (14-15).2 Thus, recent children's novels with embedded narrative structures can be seen as potentially critical of traditional patriarchal structures.

Moreover, as is the case with many parallel embedded narratives written for adults, such texts written for children—-e.g., E. L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler or Virginia Hamilton's Arilla Sun Downtend to foreground the discourse of art and creativity because the story-within-a-story creates an atmosphere wherein the very nature of narrative becomes a fundamental issue. Embedded narratives therefore question narrative linearity by demonstrating that "life, as well as novels, is constructed through frames, and that it is finally impossible to know where one frame ends and another begins" (Waugh 29). This self-reflexivity about the arbitrary and constructed nature of narratives implicitly lends itself to a critique of the dominant traditions of fictional realism (Waugh 28-34, 78).3

Some recent children's novels with nested narrative structures exercise their critique of traditional realism by encoding the text with both a form and content that evokes maternity; for example, nested narratives that explore the relationships between mother- or grandmother- figures and their daughter- or granddaughter-figures, such as From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967), Arilla Sun Down (1976), Patricia MacLachlan's Unclaimed Treasures (1984), and Pam Conrad's My Daniel (1989). In the course of investigating various aspects of metaphorical or actual mother daughter relationships, these books rely on themes of birth or maternity to enact what Nancy Chodorow calls the reproduction of mothering.4 All four of the girl protagonists in these novels are engaged in the process of learning to value maternal relationships.

Part of what is unique in children's novels that use embedded narratives to communicate maternal discourse is the way such texts reproduce mothering not only thematically, by privileging maternal relationships and images, but also in the way that the texts reproduce mothering through narrative structure. In and of itself, the narrative structure of the embedded narrative evokes for the reader a textual representation of a mother's pregnant body. With its housing of one narrative body within another narrative, the structure implies feminine fertility, so nested narratives can themselves become a child-of-the-mother image; the subnarratives are the offspring ofthe narrative. The very structure of a nested narrative places a metaphorical value on birth.

Moreover, rather than relying on the linear plot that is considered conventional for children's literature and that evokes the hierarchical logic Carol Gilligan associates with masculine decision-making, the maternal embedded narrative evokes the awareness of interpersonal connections that Gilligan associates with feminine decision-making.5 The story-within-the-story establishes a web-like structure from within which a story-teller communicates about the importance of community. The structural pattern of the nested narrative represents the interconnectedness of narratives, while the thematic content of the story emphasizes the interconnectedness of relationships, especially between mother and daughter figures. Nested narratives that follow this pattern reproduce mothering in that they articulate the maternal process as a creative, artistic process. When this articulation occurs, the text joins form and function to engender a valorization of the maternal body. This pattern may encourage child readers to question patriarchal traditions, including such social traditions as delegitimizing motherhood and such prescribed narrative traditions in children's literature as the...


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pp. 165-170
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