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  • Lost in the Gutter:Within and Between Frames in Narrative and Narrative Theory
  • Eric Berlatsky (bio)

One of the most difficult and confusing of narratological concepts is that of the "narrative frame." While numerous studies refer to and examine the frame, its definition remains somewhat elusive. The central reason for this is the sheer quantity of concepts and ideas to which this singular appellation refers. Internal narrators and narratives, paratexts, advertisements, blurbs, the covers of a book: all of these have been referred to as "frames," in addition to more metaphorical applications. In "Framing in Wuthering Heights," for example, John Matthews looks not only at "embedded narratives," but also at the metaphorical frame of the human body, and the general concept of boundaries in order to elucidate how the novel explores "empty middles" and Lacanian psycholinguistic "lack." That is, a look at a more or less objectively identifiable narrative feature (narratives within other narratives) is soon treated figuratively, as "liminality" of both form and content, generating a metaphorical slippage that may be productive for understanding the individual novel, but is less so for understanding the concept itself. Indeed, as I will argue, constitutive of the difficulty in pinpointing the term is the link between the literary frame and framing in the visual arts, particularly painting. Some of the earliest discussions of the literary frame attempt to map the typical notion of the picture frame onto literature with problematic and confusing results.

In order to address this problem, I divide this essay into two primary parts. First, I discuss the shortcomings of the "picture frame" model, particularly in its conflation of two distinct concepts: the physical liminality of frames and their capacity to direct interpretation. Through a use of a simple two-axis graph, I illustrate how the conflation of these two functions blurs understanding of the various kinds of frames [End Page 162] and their functions and how it might be possible to correct this problem. Second, I offer an alternative metaphorical equivalent to the literary frame. Instead of the frame of a painting, I argue that a more productive metaphor for literary frames is the typically ignored, and always multiple, frames/panels of comic books and the gutters between them in which interpretation is enacted. Indeed, I argue that to understand the concept of the literary "frame" as singular is, in fact, to misunderstand it. Instead, multiple frames, and therefore at least one "gutter," are always constitutive of framing. "Gutters" are the spaces between comic book panels, or "frames," in which, according to theorists of comics like Scott McCloud, the reader puts the juxtaposed pictures together and generates meaning. I shall return to this concept in greater detail below both to more fully articulate the problem with the "picture frame" model and to indicate the importance of frames and gutters to reading practices. Finally, I close with a discussion of how one might view any textual system as a "comics page," complete with multiple frames.

Picture Frames, Literary Frames, and Paratexts

Meyer Schapiro's "On Some Problems in the Semiotics of Visual Art" treats framing in painting and has proven to be influential in consideration of literary frames, for both good and ill. Schapiro follows a 1902 essay by Georg Simmel and argues that the picture frame serves as a concrete border delineating the world of the "real" from the world of art. In "The Picture Frame: An Aesthetic Study," Simmel repeatedly insists that the "essence of a work of art is to be a whole for itself," to be autonomous and free-standing, whereas the world around it is a "natural entity" wherein things cannot help but flow in and out of each other (11). The frame, in Simmel's model, is important merely as a line demarcating the "artistic" from the "real," the whole from the necessarily partial. Schapiro makes a similar argument, but argues that, in fact, such separation is necessary only because of the introduction of three-dimensional perspective (a "realism" on its way out by the time of Simmel's essay). According to Schapiro, frames traditionally separate the world in which we live from a world that only appears to be real, clarifying the...


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pp. 162-187
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