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Narrative Structures: The Nested Narrative, Or Story Within A Story


Narrative Structures: The Nested Narrative, Or Story Within A Story

by James Powell

One of the most captivating ways to spin a yarn is to unfold it through a nested narrative, like pulling a series of smaller Russian dolls out of larger Russian dolls. The nested narrative is also known as a story within a story. It is an ancient narrative form that has enriched myths, plays, novels, films, and short stories. The philosophical tale known as “The Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov is one of its most well-known examples.

Though ancient, this form is poised to take advantage of the narrative possibilities offered by contemporary concerns: postmodernism’s explorations of possible worlds and physics’ many-worlds theory. After all, if modernist writing was about different ways to exist in the world, postmodernism has been more concerned with the many different worlds we are capable of imagining (see, for instance, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities). Nested narratives are found even in nonfiction; science is an open-ended story about things. It will always remain the ultimate nested form, each successive theory swallowing up its predecessors in the same way that Einstein’s physics swallowed Newton’s physics.

In the realm of fiction, however, the most simple of nested narratives consists of only two layers—an outer and an inner—such as found in feudal India’s plays within plays: for example, a raja’s wife enjoying a royal entertainment celebrating her birthday while unaware that, in the drama she beholds, the beautiful young courtesan’s lover is none other than her husband, the raja, in disguise. A more well-known example of a two-layered narrative is the Michael Jackson video Thriller, in which a young woman is horrified by what turns out to be a movie within her dream. Although in literature and film, stories that end with “and then she woke up” are considered déclassé, nested narratives are capable of conveying multilayered subtleties.

In a sense a nested narrative is like another character, a “character” who can add a satirical, critical, comical, irreverent, or humorous aside that would otherwise not emerge in the outer story. For instance, before European “discovery,” Tahiti’s Arioi society traveled from island to island, enacting sexual fertility rituals, reciting myths, and putting on entertainments that went on for days. Although one of the roles of the troupe was religious—to chant the ancient myths and scriptures passed down through their disciplined chain of oral recitation—in plays, and plays within plays, the Arioi productions could also humorously criticize, parody, and satirize chiefs and even religious leaders.

This dual function of transmitting religious doctrine while satirizing it appears also in one of the more elaborate nested tales, “The Tale of Jivata,” itself nested within an ancient Indian scripture known as the Yoga Vasistha.




The tale begins with a monk who, through meditation, can actualize his thoughts. Like a child with a new toy, however, he soon grows weary of this skill and tries to imagine what it would be like to be just an ordinary fellow. So he imagines he is a guy named Jivata, and so becomes Jivata. Jivata, in turn falls into a drunken stupor and dreams he is a scholarly Brahmin. This Brahmin then dreams he is a prince, who dreams he is a king, who dreams he is a celestial nymph, who dreams she is a docile doe, who dreams she is a vine, who dreams she is a bee, who dreams a compensatory dream of being a huge elephant, who recalls his former existence as a bee and becomes a bee once again, who once again drinks from the flowers of the vine, which is once again trampled by an elephant.

An aside: In many of these transformations, the reader recognizes that each incarnation is the result of desire: Of course a king will be jealous of a celestial nymph to the point of wanting to become her! Of course the celestial nymph will covet the docility of the doe! Of course the tiny bee will dream of being a powerful elephant! Of course the elephant will want to be as nimble as a bee!

The vine remembers being enthralled by swans she had seen floating on the serene waters of a lake, and so dreams she is a swan. Then, in a vision, the swan beholds the god Rudra and so becomes Rudra. Of course, as Rudra, the swan is able to see that all these dreams nested within dreams have been illusions. So she goes to the original monk who began the story and wakes him up to his true nature as Rudra, who wakes up the Brahmin scholar, the prince, and so on. In the end they all awaken to god realization, transcending the endless chain of birth and rebirth.

Not only is one tale nested within the next in “The Tale of Jivata,” but the ending of the tale, like a serpent swallowing its tail, curves around to the beginning, becoming a circular tale, but with a topological twist that morphs it into a Möbius-strip narrative structure. Circular and Möbius-strip narratives will be the subjects of subsequent posts.

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