51 | Embedded Narratives

Mise en abyme: In Western art history, a formal technique of placing a copy of an image within itself, often in a way that suggests an infinitely recurring sequence. In film and literary theory, it refers to the technique of inserting a story within a story. The term is derived from heraldry and literally means “placed into abyss”. - LINK

An embedded narrative is a story within a story.

A single narrator tells a series of interlocking tales, like Scheherazade in Arabian Nights, or a group of pilgrims recount their journeys to Canterbury in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Shakespeare’s Hamlet has a play within a play.

Stories can be nested or interlocked, with flashbacks, dream sequences, or letters illuminating the main or framing story. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein opens with Captain Robert Walton writing to his sister about rescuing Victor Frankenstein on a voyage to the North Pole. This becomes the frame for Victor to recount his creation and pursuit of his humanoid monster, who in turn implores Victor to create a mate for him, and so on.

Visual arts are rife with infinite sequences. They appear in Russian nesting dolls and the original Quaker Oats man who holds a box of Quaker Oats with himself depicted on it. The French have an evocative term for this type of hell; mis en abyme is also translated as “thrown” or “cast” into the abyss. But embedded narratives also have a meaning beyond their application to literature and art. They are interwoven systems by which we make sense of life.

Theology, nature, culture, law, society and family interconnect. A family’s view of abortion is affected by its religion and culture. Betty and Duane’s social system was defined by Martin Marietta’s hierarchy and mores and the Arapahoe County subdivision where they lived. 1973 was also a time of cultural upheaval and assaults on authority.

Vietnam, antiwar protests and the Pentagon papers. Vatican II tossing out Latin mass and meatless Fridays. Women’s Lib, Roe v. Wade, birth control and Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique. A sexual revolution was going on right under Betty’s nose. And Duane had left Martin while she went back to work to pay college tuitions and procure life insurance. The systems that made sense were coming undone. The narrative no longer held.  

What narratives are embedded in your life?

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