One thing we learned about literature while completing the PhD is that the frame story matters. You know what I’m talking about even though you probably haven’t thought of it. It’s the story that comes at the beginning and end of the narrative itself. It frames it. Like in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness when Marlowe is on the boat saying “this, too, was one of the dark places of the earth.” Then Marlowe launches into the story of his time in Africa. That frame story is mightily important and helps explain everything about the novel. That’s right: the frame story contains the clue to the entire narrative.
So if you have to write an essay on any work of literature, consider the frame story and try to figure out why it’s there and whether it contains the theme of the entire work. As an example, let’s look at Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” You remember the plot of this narrative poem, I hope. It’s the one where the ship is visited by an albatross, but then the narrator, the Ancient Mariner, kills the albatross for no reason. Then the ship hits some doldrums, is visited by a ghost ship with Death and Life-in-Death. Everyone dies except for the Ancient Mariner himself, and he is taken back to England, where he learns that all of God’s creatures are important, both “great and small.”
It’s a great supernatural tale, no doubt, but there’s this weird frame story about a Wedding-Guest. It’s so important, though. The Ancient Mariner is forced to tell his tale to certain individuals. In fact, “That moment when his face I see, / I know the man that must hear me: / To him my tale I teach.” The Ancient Mariner’s rime is more than merely a story; it’s a lesson, a parable, a lecture. After all, he teaches those that need to hear him. And this particular Wedding-Guest needs to hear him.
The Wedding-Guest is literally that, a wedding guest. He is about to go in and enjoy the wedding celebration when the Ancient Mariner stops him and holds him spellbound while he teaches him this important lesson. Notice what the Wedding-Guest tells the Ancient Mariner: “The Bridgroom’s doors are opened wide, /And I am next of kin; / The guests are met, the feast is set: / May’st hear the merry din.” The Wedding-Guest wants to go party with everyone else! That’s all he cares about. He doesn’t care about the wedding itself; he just wants to party with them. This Wedding-Guest has missed the point of the wedding, though. A wedding was supposed to be a mirror of Christ’s relationship to the church, not just an excuse to party. But this guy doesn’t get that. He doesn’t even mention the wedding, just the party.
At the end, however, his tune has changed. After hearing the Ancient Mariner’s tale of woe and redemption, he no longer even wishes to go to the wedding feast: “and now the Wedding-Guest / Turned from the bridegroom’s door. / He went like one that hath been stunned, / And is of sense forlorn: / A sadder and a wiser man, / He rose the morrow morn.”
The Ancient Mariner’s tale worked. It taught the Wedding-Guest to think rightly and not be concerned with selfish pleasure. Instead, he now knows that “He prayeth best, who loveth best / All things both great and small; / For the dear God who loveth us, / He made and loveth all.”
So don’t neglect the frame story. Come up with a way to read the frame story so that it contains the entire theme of the narrative.