The Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Into the Abyss: Framing in 1001 Nights and The Decameron

Alice Maglio

Jacques Derrida tells us, “There is framing, but the frame does not exist.” It is this discourse that informs my paper’s exploration of the frame in 1001 Nights, Il Decameron, and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s films, Il fiore delle Mille e una notte and Decameron. There undeniably is framing in 1001 Nights and Il Decameron, but it is not the mere presence of many frames that significantly defines these texts. Rather, these works demonstrate that framing can be an ongoing and dynamic process with a certain fluidity that allows for inversion, transgression or laceration of its own structure. Pier Paolo Pasolini recognizes the dynamic process of framing in these two texts, and truly brings it to the forefront in his films. The filmmaker consistently challenges the notion of the frame as a static limit as he confuses inside with outside, art with reality, and dream with waking life.


The structure of the frame often dominates studies of Alf Layla wa-Layla (1001 Nights) and Il Decameron.  The “frame narrative” genre compels critics to place these works alongside such others as the Panchatantra, The Canterbury Tales, and The Book of Good Love, to name a few.  While the structural characteristic of frame is one of the more obvious ways in which we can immediately associate 1001 Nights with Il Decameron, this point of comparison warrants a more subtle examination if we take inspiration from Jacques Derrida who claims that, “There is framing, but the frame does not exist” (Parergon, 39).   There undeniably is framing within these two works, but it is not the mere presence of many frames that significantly defines the texts.  Rather, I will argue that 1001 Nights and Il Decameron demonstrate that framing can be an ongoing and dynamic process with a certain fluidity that allows for inversion, transgression or laceration of its own structure.

Critics of the 1001 Nights and Decameron often study the texts through narratological methods, that is, the study of the form and structure of narrative.  In doing so, they identify many important devices and aspects of the text, such as elements of plot, narrative voices, levels of embedding, etc.  Essentially, narratology marks a complex attempt to frame elements of a given work into various categories.  It is a method for separation and delineation bent on proper identification of a work’s constituent parts.  Though critics aptly identify constituent parts of these works, they fail to fully appreciate how these devices affect, alter and define the frame’s nature. Despite the fact that these narratological categories can be helpful in initial analyses of the works, at a certain point they can be limiting and reductive if we do not push beyond categorical analysis.

In this thesis I will demonstrate how the authors of the Nights and Decameron use layers of focalization and mise en abyme to create a dynamic process of framing.  The constant shift in focalization, as well as its multiple implicit or explicit layers, negates the concept of the frame as a fixed structure.  Instead layers of focalization speak to an ongoing process that can never be fixed definitively in time, space, or perspective.  So, too, does mise en abyme transgress the frame as a limit.  It problematizes the fixed position of an image, theme, or character within one embedded position, and allows for a relationship of reflection that reaches across many frames. Although this thesis will treat both works, the Decameron will be secondary to my analysis of the Nights, as the latter exemplifies this process of framing with greater intensity.  Unlike any other artist or critic I have encountered, Pier Paolo Pasolini recognizes the dynamic process of framing in the Nights and Decameron, and truly brings it to the forefront in his films Il fiore delle Mille e una notte and Il Decameron.  As a filmmaker, Pasolini consistently challenges the notion of the frame as a static limit as he confuses inside with outside, art with reality, and dream with waking life.  He identifies the potential for fluidity of the frame within the written texts, and makes this discourse lavishly explode on screen. His films encourage us to look back to the texts, and draw our attention to the ways in which mise en abyme and focalization perpetuate a dynamic process of framing.

My first chapter will focus on the role of focalization and how it initiates a process of framing in the two works.  This discussion will pave the way for my second chapter in which I will discuss the role of mise en abyme and the ways in which it transgresses the limits of the frame.  Finally, I will tie my discussion together with a final chapter on the works of Pier Paolo Pasolini, as they also exemplify the fluid and dynamic process of framing through a visual medium.

Narratological Categories  

Narratologists across the board break the text down into constituent parts, or frames, usually in two or three major categories.  Perhaps most prominent is Gérard Genette’s three-part division of narrative discussed in Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method.  He proposes, “to use the word story (histoire) for the signified or narrative content … to use the word narrative (récit) for the signifier, statement, discourse or narrative text itself, and to use the word narrating (narration) for the producing narrative action and, by extension, the whole of the real or fictional situation in which that action takes place” (27).  Many other Structuralists, such as Roland Barthes [1] and Tzvetan Todorov, follow this model.  Similarly, Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan’s work Narrative Fiction adheres to Genette’s breakdown, though she refers to the three parts as story, text, and narration, respectively.  Other authors, however, break narrative down into two parts instead of three.  Russian Formalists such as Vladimir Propp make a distinction between fabula, sum of total events in the story, and sjužet, they way in which story is organized, namely, plot [2].  In his work on narrative in both fiction and film, Seymour Chatman provides another two-part breakdown, defined as a what and a way [3].  While the what is the story, the way is the discourse. In this way, the general trend among narratologists is to break down the text into either two or three main parts, separating, at the very least, the story itself from the way/act of narration.  These initial frames go on to significantly inform our perception and analysis of the rest of the work.

Similarly, narratologists set up various categories to delimit the ways in which the reader experiences the story through different types of narration and points of view.  The story we read is, “presented in the text through the mediation of some ‘prism’, ‘perspective’, ‘angle of vision’, verbalized by the narrator though not necessarily his” (Rimmon-Kenan, 72).  In order to replace the terms point of view or perspective, Genette uses the term “focalizer,” to refer to the entity that mediates the presentation of story in the text.  Genette makes the distinction between three different types of focalization: zero (the narrator knows more than the character, roughly equivalent to omniscient); internal (the narrator only says what character knows); external (the narrator says less than character knows).  Though Rimmon-Kenan adopts Genette’s term of focalizer, she defines focalization and narration as distinctive activities.  While the focalizer is the center of consciousness, the narrator is responsible for relating the story events.  The focalizer and the narrator can sometimes be the same entity, as in external focalization, where focalization is close to the narrating agent and thus termed “narrator-focalizer.”  This type of focalizer yields a panoramic view of events and can employ all temporal dimensions in narration.  The two can also be separate agents, as in first-person retrospective narratives, as well as in instances of internal focalization.  In these cases, there is usually a character-focalizer who is a limited observer, and can only use the present temporal dimension in acts of perception.  Rimmon-Kenan also states that, “narratives … are not only focalized by someone but also on someone or something” (75).   In this way, there is always a perceiver and perceived.

Finally, Genette delineates the subordinate levels of story construction, or embedding, while Rimmon-Kenan reflects on their possible functions.  Genette defines three levels of story: extradiegetic (the highest level, the narrative itself); diegetic (the story, the events themselves); hypodiegetic (one level below diegesis, embedded narrative).  Rimmon-Kenan discusses various ways in which the hypodiegetic level functions in relation to the higher levels of narrative.  They may have an actional function, which advances or maintains the action of the first narrative if only by the nature of the fact that they are being narrated.  As Rimmon-Kenan states, “A Thousand and One Nights is a classic example.  Scheherezade’s life depends on her narration, and the only condition her stories have to fulfill is to sustain the Sultan’s attention” (93).  Secondly, hypodiegetic narratives may be explicative, to clarify events leading up to the diegesis.  Finally, they may serve a thematic function, in that there is an analogous relationship between the diegesis and hypodiegesis.  This final function may employ mise en abyme, “an analogy which verges on identity, making the hypodiegetic level a mirror and reduplication of the diegetic” (Rimmon-Kenan, 94).  Mise en abyme will play a central role in my analysis, and I will discuss it at greater length in Chapter Two.

The Frame

Many authors, such as Decameron critic Guido Almansi, see the literary frame as a limit or barrier.  Specifically in terms of the Decameron, Almansi asserts that the cornice (frame) is an estranging device.  He holds the Decameron to be entirely self-sufficient—though it portrays events and elements of everyday life, a certain distortion is apparent.  Almansi states,

“The text invents a world which has the same reflecting properties as Alice’s mirror: the copy is never quite exact.  What comes out is a model of the vécu, and of contemporary society.  While at the same time we find a statement emphasizing the fact that everything to be found in the text is a part of a world of narrative rather than lived experience, a world of words and not a world of action, a world of sounds and symbols, not of flesh and blood” (The Writer as Liar, 6).

The reader, then, should adopt a non-engagé approach to the text and thus must be aware that this work is self-contained, and does not truly referring to events outside the narrative.  At once the Decameron, “invites us to take part in an artistic game with fixed rules, while at the same time it forces the reader to be continually aware of the fact of its being literature, part of the genre of story-telling” (Almansi, 5).  Despite the apparent familiarity of events, they are essentially “other” and take place on the other side of a barrier, which Almansi defines as the cornice.  The barrier becomes an estranging device in that it is a, “deliberate statement declaring that everything within it is a stylized narrative creation, a sum of narrative items which the cornice thus automatically sets apart from the items of the everyday world which the reader lives in and knows about” (Almansi, 13).  Within its function as an estranging device, the frame vouches for its own self-contained artistic nature, and demands to be considered according to the conventions for artistic expression.  Moreover, this level of estrangement maintains a necessary distance between the tale and vécu.

Furthermore, both Charles Singleton and Pier Luigi Cerisola delineate certain areas of the cornice as Boccaccio’s defense of his art for art’s sake.  In his piece, “On Meaning in the Decameron,” Singleton reminds us that in Boccaccio’s medieval culture, a literary work’s intrinsic value was contingent upon the way in which it meditated on God or certain philosophical truths.  Singleton describes the framework of the Decameron as an, “effort to justify and protect a new art, an art which simply in order to be, to exist, required the moment free of all other cares, the willingness to stop going anywhere (either toward God or toward philosophical truth)” (119).  As the brigata (group of ten narrators) escape from the pestilence of Florence, Singleton asserts that the 100 stories told among them are examples of art existing for itself.  Moreover, in his article, “La questione della cornice del Decameron” Cerisola singles out the Proemio (main introduction), introduction to the sixth day, and conclusion as parts of the novel in which Boccaccio’s presents an apology for his work.   In these moments, Boccaccio’s rapport with his readers is, “immediati, vivi, colloquiali” (148) (immediate, live, informal) [4].  With the Proemio, Boccaccio seeks to soften the first onslaught of imminent accusations, while keeping a certain distance from the reader.  However, with introduction to the sixth day and conclusion, he makes more direct contact with his accusers and, “scende invece in campo a viso aperto contro le accuse, reali o potenziali” (148) (instead descends in field in plain sight, against real or potential accusations).  In this way, the author defends his narrative work through the use of narrative.

On the other hand, John Frow at least begins to embrace a more fluid view of the frame and strays away from conceiving of it as a rigid and formulaic construct.  Frow defines the frame as a, “limit, at once material and immaterial, literal and figurative, between adjacent and dissimilar ontological realms … anything that acts as a sign of a qualitative difference, a sign of the boundary between a marked and an unmarked space” (The Literary Frame, 25).  Frow sees frames in many places that extend further and further out from the written, filmed or painted work.  For example, outward cinematic frames may consist of the screen itself, the darkness surrounding the screen, the film projector, and the theatre where the audience sits and views the film.  Similarly, literary frames may consist of the bookbinding, title page, author’s name, and editors’ exegesis.  Whatever the frame may be, it delineates the aesthetic space as an “unreal space.”  Within literary texts, the frame, “works both as an enclosure of the internal fictional space and as an exclusion of the space of reality against which the work is set … The text is closed and suspended, but as a constructional element the frame is internal to this closure, and through it the text signifies difference, signifies what it excludes” (Frow, 27).  Thus, this edge of the frame separates the internal text from the outside world, emphasizing the difference between two realms, while at the same time acting as a mediator between them.

But can we truly accept the frame as something that emphasizes a qualitative difference—something that acts as a barrier between art and life, inside and outside, essential and contingent content?  Jacques Derrida would argue against this type of binary classification.  He underlines the difficulty, perhaps impossibility, of distinguishing between the ergon (work) and parergon (by-work, frame), that is, between the essential and the contingent.  Derrida writes that the parergon responds to a certain lack within the ergon: “it is not simply their exteriority that constitutes them as parerga, but the internal structural link by which they are inseparable from a lack within the ergon.  And this lack makes for the very unity of the ergon” (Parergon, 24).  Here, Derrida argues that there is an essential lack within any given work that demands something additional, something that, “plays with, brushes, rubs, or presses against [it]” (21).  The essence of ergon (in its lack) demands parergon.  The frame, then, in its response to an internal lack within the work, cannot simply be exterior to it, but instead participates directly in the work’s integrity, in order to make it whole.  The parergon exists somewhere between two grounds, roughly art and the milieu, “but in relation to each of these, it disappears into the other” (Derrida, 24).  Is the gilt frame a part of the painting or is it part of the wall?  Derrida would most likely argue that it can be either, as he sees both sides as essentially the same: “these two bordering determinations of that against which the parergon works (the operation of free energy and pure productivity or the operation of the essential lack) are the same (metaphysics)” (Derrida, 39).  Art and “reality” are two sides of the same coin, as the frame floats from one side to the other, not separating them so much as assimilating into inside and outside.

We can use Derrida’s essay as a guiding light, as a parergon, when reading the criticism discussed so far, as Derrida’s underlying goal runs contrary to discourses on narratology and frame analysis.  Where Derrida challenges the conceptual limit between true inside and outside, between art and reality, these other authors are bent on drawing lines and barriers so we can more clearly see what everything is and what everything is not.  Narratologists want to know where they stand every step of the way in a story—every word has a place and contributes to our knowledge of duration, mode of focalization, level of hypodiegesis, ad infinitum.  Where narratologists seek to reduce, Derrida seeks to expand.  John Frow hints at the possibility of a Derridean conception of the frame when he writes about its fluidity, and the way in which it can reach farther and farther out from the original work.  However, Frow does not relinquish the fact that the frame is a limit, and leaves little room for any type of transgression or overlap between two separate worlds.

Similarly, Derrida’s view of parergon challenges Almansi’s discourse on the frame.  It is not just a barrier, but a barrier that estranges and calls attention to the fact that the reader is experiencing fiction, only a reflection of reality.  When Almansi states, “The text invents a world which has the same reflecting properties as Alice’s mirror: the copy is never quite exact,” he seems to be describing a relationship en abyme.  That is, the text holds up a mirror to the reader, in which they see some sort of reflection of themselves.  This reflection reaches across the “barrier” of the frame, between art and reality.  Thus, in its very nature, mise en abyme transgresses a barrier between original and copy, as it is a reflection produced in one world and witnessed in another.  Almansi, however, fails to explore the full significance of this dynamic reflective relationship with the frame.

Towards Understanding mise en abyme    

In “Magic Time,” Sandra Naddaff explores the ways in which repetition in the Nights challenges the boundaries, or frames, of time.  Naddaff points out that Nights as a whole, with specific focus on the Porter and Three Ladies cycle, is a narrative structured on repetition.  Though the nature of repetition is essentially temporal, these narratives seek to transcend time, or to, “achieve the status of the timeless, the eternal, to move beyond the realm limited by the temporal boundaries of beginning and end” (Naddaff, 48).  Naddaff notes that cycles such as the Porter are extremely difficult to follow as there is not a strict, linear temporal movement of the stories in the cycle.  Essentially, there is no straight line against which the plot can unfold.  Instead, “One must move up and down within the various levels of narrational time as well as back and forth in narrative time as the story unfolds.  A fundamental jarring of temporal perspective occurs” (Naddaff, 44).  The use of repetition instigates this difficulty in following all the stories in the cycle through time since the movement of narrational times and voices is merely a “verbal mirroring” of other times and voices.  Naddaff characterizes repetition as a narrative act with a distinctly paradoxical nature in that it attempts, “to destroy its own essence, to kill the natural movement of linear time, to turn time back upon itself, to make time repeat itself, reflect itself, do anything but continue its unimpeded advance” (45).  This ironic nature of repetition is exemplified by the narrators of the Porter cycle, in that they must kill time and avoid their deaths by creating narrative time, while using repetitive structures in their stories that undercut narrative’s fundamental impulse to move forward in time.  Also, such narratives structured by repetition subvert the sense of an ending of an “ideal” narrative, i.e. one in which the beginning and ending are two equilibria in which the ending is a type of resolution that is distant and different from the beginning.  However, Naddaff argues that a repetitive narrative is always inclined to “turn back upon itself,” and the Porter cycle is one that is essentially retrograde.  Instead of moving towards a future, different state of equilibrium, the cycle returns all characters to their former states before the opening of the narrative.  It re-establishes the status quo, and has actually forced time to move backwards.  For Naddaff, the structures of repetition in this cycle have successfully cheated time by creating a constant mise en abyme situation, an infinite potential for mirroring.

Though Naddaff does not present her argument as such, she is essentially writing on the transgression of various frames through mise en abyme.  Her whole piece details the way in which repetition challenges our temporal perspective and the concept of a beginning and an end.  Time, and a work’s beginning and end, are both types of frames present in the Nights.  The repetition that Naddaff discusses creates a mise en abyme relationship among all the elements that are repeated.  As a result, it is extremely difficult to root ourselves in the story cycle, as it moves up and down and side to side across time.  Our place in time frame is challenged, as well as our position among the many literary frames.  We do not know where we are in the time or space of the text—these frames do nothing to orient us, but rather confuse us.  As Naddaff says, the nature of repetition is to destroy its own essence, in that it kills the natural movement of linear time.  We could apply this to our working definition of mise en abyme, as its constant mirroring calls into question what is the original and what is the copy.  It constantly moves back and forth among reflections, transgressing the boundaries of time, space, character, voice and level of embedding.

Similarly, in Narrative Dialectics, Ferial Ghazoul introduces various narrative devices used to structure characters and themes in 1001 Nights that move towards a fuller understanding of mise en abymeFor Ghazoul, one of the most striking impulses of the frame tale is that of binarism.  The first variation thereof is the pairing of characters.  Shahryar and Shahzaman exemplify the device of doubling, as they are two brothers who are, “two parties in two performances of the same drama” (Ghazoul, 22).  Next comes opposition or inversion, which occurs when two opposing characters are coupled together.  The couple of Shahryar and Shahrazad, “offers opposed and complementary polarity” (Ghazoul, 23).  Such roles that they fulfill are, husband : wife, sultan : subject, listener : narrator.  The one cannot exist without the other, and each serves as a mirror reflection of the other.  Finally, ambivalence serves as a third variant of binarism, which is again exemplified by the characters of Shahryar and Shahrazad.  At first glance, Shahryar represents total power and virility, while Shahrazad represents weakness and feminine vulnerability.  However, Shahrazad problematizes this fierce dichotomy by slowly taming Shahryar and finding a new way to appease his appetite.  Just as these principles exist in the realm of character, they are paralleled by principles that exist in the realm of action:  repetition (mumathilah), inversion (muqabilah) and fusion (‘addad).  The author repeats the principles of Eros and Thanatos in the events of the frame tale.  Inversion also occurs, when, for example, Shahryar is cuckolded by his wife, and then himself cuckolds the ‘ifrīt.  Fusion occurs between Eros and Thanatos through Shahryar’s actions: “deflowering and killing, opposite rites, turn out to be facets of one act, namely laceration” (Ghazoul, 27).  These devices in the frame also often appear within the embedded tales of the work.

As with Naddaff’s study, we can conceive of all the devices that Ghazoul underlines as mirroring processes, or relationships en abyme.  A mirror does not always simply reflect a complete image back to the viewer, but can also repeat, invert, or fuse the image(s).  While Ghazoul helps us identify important building blocks that reoccur throughout the Nights, she fails to address how this mirroring affects the nature of the frame.

Moving over to the Decameron, both Franco Fido and Salvador Fajardo analyze the ways in which the sixth day mirrors the central themes of the work as a whole.  Though they do not state it as such, this mirroring of the whole work forms a type of mise en abyme.  With this day, Boccaccio comes closest to bridging the gap between the ten narrators and the characters of the novelle (embedded stories). The sixth day’s cycle contains characters with intelligence of a similar level to the storytellers, characters with special language abilities, and stories that illustrate wit and repartee.  They are mostly set in Florence, and there is closeness in time period between the novelle and cornice.  Fido notes that the brigata, “parlano di personaggi interessanti principalmente perché sanno parlare, e la scelta del tema ha delle conseguenze immediate sul taglio, sull’ambientazione, sull’estensione delle novelle” (L’Ars narrandi di Boccaccio nella Sesta Giornata del Decameron, 78) (speak of characters who are interesting principally because they know how to speak [well], and the choice of the theme has immediate consequences on the length, the setting, and the extent of the stories). During this day, the narrator is doubly responsible, both for the choice of argument, and also for the way in which he narrates it.  Fido asserts the importance of this fifty-first story, set in the exact middle of the Decameron: “contiene in nuce la poetica di tutto il libro, con una funzione simile a quella assolta, in certe pale d’altare del Quattrocento, dall’oggetto che pende dal sommo dell’abside en trompe l’oeil, esattamente sopra la testa della Vergine, e compendia al centro il ritmo e la tensione geometrica dell’intera composizione” (it contains, in a nutshell, the poetics of the entire book, with a function similar to the one performed, in certain altar pieces of the 1400’s, by the object that hangs from the peak of the apse in trompe l’oeil, exactly above the head of the Virgin, and epitomizes the rhythm and the geometric tension of the entire composition) (87). Again, what Fido is describing is a mise en abyme.  Though Fido and Fajardo take the first steps in indicating the potential for mise en abyme in this day and the work in general, they neglect to address the ways in which this device challenges the nature of frame.

Using the aforementioned works on framing and mise en abyme as a starting point, my paper will go a step further and look at the ways in which mise en abyme and focalization challenge the fixed nature of the frame and go on to create a dynamic process of framing in the Nights and Decameron.  Through their structure and essences, these devices challenge the limiting and estranging nature of the frame as conceived by many critics, and instead move towards a more fluid and dynamic identity, an ongoing and never truly complete process.  Above all, I will utilize Derrida’s concepts regarding the fluidity and dynamic nature of the frame, as well as the breakdown and overlap between the original and the contingent inform my analysis.   In this way, I will work towards a new conception of the framing process in 1001 Nights and Il Decameron.

Chapter One: Focalization

In literary as well as visual works, we experience elements of the text through a type of lens or filter, a process many narratologists refer to as focalization [5].  As Mieke Bal defines it, the process of focalization is, “the relation between the elements presented [in a text] and the vision through which they are presented” (Narratology, 142).  We, as readers and audience members cannot simply insert ourselves into literature and films and experience objects, landscapes, and conflicts with our own five senses, but rather always face some kind of mediation, some kind of focalizer.  This element of focalization, then, is crucial to our understanding and interpretation of a work, as our perception is inevitably controlled and manipulated by one or many focalizers internal or external to the text.

I will use this chapter to examine structures of focalization in Alf Layla wa-Layla (1001 Nights) and Il Decameron and the ways in which they contribute to a process of framing in the worksIn 1001 Nights, the story cycle of Al-Aḥdab Ṣaḥib Malak al-Ṣīn (The Hunchback, Friend of the King of China) dramatically undermines the system of focalization we have previously witnessed in the other story cycles, and subsequently fails to engage in a moral discourse.  Instead, The Hunchback buries itself so deeply in an excess of repetition, proliferation, and layers of embedding that we lose ourselves entirely within this cycle and no longer connect to the frame tale.  The many layers of focalization in themselves perpetuate a process of framing in which each narrator acts as a frame in the text.  So, too, does the Decameron’s array of narrative focalizers in the Sesta Giornata (Sixth Day) echo and produce their own process of framing, though this process is more ordered than that of the Nights.  These processes of focalization or framing pave the way for my second chapter’s examination of mise en abyme and they ways in which this devices utilizes layers of focalization to transgress the frame and demonstrate its fluidity and dynamism.    

Focalization in 1001 Nights 

Mark Turner, in his Bedtime with Shahrazad, explores the concept of narrative imagining in 1001 Nights.  He defines this act as thinking before acting, which, “is the fundamental instrument of thought … It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, and of explaining.  It is a literary capacity indispensible to human cognition generally” (Turner, 4-5).  This imagining also involves the projection of one story onto another.  When the two processes of story and projection are combined, we are left with parable.  Turner states,

“This classic combination produces one of our keenest mental processes for constructing meaning … it follows inevitably from the nature of our conceptual systems” (5).  It is just such a parable that acts as the first embedded tale of 1001 Nights, that of the Ox and the Bull.  Here, the wazir hopes that his daughter, Shahrazad, will be able to project her own story onto this parable, and learn a lesson from it.  Essentially, what Turner is describing is the process of focalization.  Characters use their narrative lenses, or imaginations, to project stories onto their audience.  The audience is subject to the narrator’s imagination, his focalization, as they experience the parable.  This process of focalization/narrative imagining dominates the Nights through many levels of embedding.

We experience the Nights through layers upon layers of focalizers.  We can conceive of this work’s structure as a lens placed in front of a second lens, placed in front of yet another lens, and so on.  Each one of these lenses denotes a particular narrator-focalizer, who in turn corresponds to a layer of focalization, a layer of embedding.  As I mentioned earlier, a narrator focalizer is a character within the tale who both tells the story in addition to providing the perspective through which we experience the story.  The structure of layered focalization normally invites comparison between the embedded tales and overarching frame tale in which Shahrazad first introduces us to her ḥikayat ‘ajībah (amazing stories).  The author repeats this complex, yet neatly-layered and evenly structured focalization apparatus throughout nearly all of the story cycles, which in each case leads to the production of a moral discourse that exists in dialogue with the frame tale.  As we will see, this moral dialogue seems to get lost in The Hunchback as it consistently undermines the typical structure of focalization within this work as a whole.

As a rule in the Nights, characters who tell effective stories are the ones who relate their own personal experience, thus acting as the focalizers of their own adventures, or narrator-focalizers.  In his “Exemplary Tales in the Nights,” Muhsin Mahdi observes, “what gives rise to all the actions in the general frame story is direct observation and experience” (147).  Thus, the most convincing stories, and the ones that spur on actions, are the ones that can be traced back to the person who experienced the events.  In this way, “The purpose of the general frame story and of most of the stories narrated by Shahrazad is to make the hearer or the reader imagine that the characters in her stories speak about and act upon existing, not invented, things” (Mahdi, 148).  While exemplary tales construct a direct connection between the story (not based in personal experience) and the life of the reader using simile, framed tales are much more subtle, relying on metaphor, and only hinting at a connection between the story and the audience.  In this way, characters act as witnesses to their own adventures, then act as focalizers to present the audience with accounts of their experience.

Departing from the norm of focalization in many works of literature, the Nights belong to a genre in which most of the characters focalize their tales in an a-psychological manner. As Tzvetan Todorov observes in Narrative Men, the Nights is a work in which, “the actions are not there to ‘illustrate’ character but in which, on the contrary, the characters are subservient to the action” (66).  I believe that a complete and utter lack of distortion with any literary narrator is impossible, as there will always be some kind of mediation between the reader and events of the story.  Going back to the metaphor of the focalizer as a lens, it may be more precise to view the characters of the Nights as windows through which we gaze.  They are, for the most part, transparent—inviting few distortions of the light, correcting few imbalances of colors.  Despite their transparency, these characters nonetheless act as glass that separates us from their story world.  They function as a type of mediation, or process of mediation and frames that we cannot ignore.  Above all, this process of mediation/framing invites us to examine the complex and repeated structure of a glass before glass.

These focalizers, layered as they are in succession in a process of framing, lead to the construction of a non-coercive moral discourse from Shahrazad to Shahryar.  Behind every tale, within a tale, within a tale, lies Shahrazad as the key focalizer of the Nights.  She acts more as a lens than a glass—as the light of the stories shine through her she bends it in such a way that she is able to obliquely instruct and move the tyrant king.  Her voice is so subtle that the reader easily forgets that she is, in fact, the focalizer through which we experience all of these tales.  She briefly reminds us of her role as narrator-focalizer at the beginning of each night with words such as, “balaghanī/ z’amu/ sama’tu ayyuha al-malak al-sa’īd inna …”  (it reached me/ it was said/ I heard O happy king that …).  After she initiates each tale with an account of her knowledge, and a reminder of the character narrating, her voice gets lost and we become immersed in the tale.  When we begin to look from the inside out, from the deepest embedded tale outward towards the frame, we witness how each moral discourse is constructed.  Each embedded tale advances some moral message, which ultimately finds its way back, through a series of focalizers, to Shahrazad, the chief lens and framer.  These framed tales obliquely construct a moral discourse from which Shahryar benefits.  He does not feel as if he is being assaulted with moral lessons, as he would be if Shahrazad told him an exemplary tale, advertising her agenda from the get go.  This system of focalization advancing a non-coercive moral discourse is part of the long line of literary tradition of counsel or advice for kings in the Middle East as well as Europe from the early middle ages through the Renaissance [6].

Focalization in The Hunchback’s Tale 

The Hunchback story cycle, however, breaks from these aspects of focalization in the Nights, starting with the striking distance between all four main narrator-focalizers and their tales.  These four narrators, consisting of al-simsār al-naṣrānī (the Christian broker), al-shāhid al-muslim (the Muslim steward), al-ṭabīb al-yahūdī (the Jewish physician), and al-khayyaṭ (the tailor), all narrate tales’ of others, ones that they have not experienced themselves.  In this way, their level of removal is one layer greater than is typical of character narrators in the Nights.  Here, these narrators disrupt the typical process of framing in the Nights, beginning to demonstrate the fluidity and flexibility of this process.  The Christian broker is the first to tell his tale, claiming that it is even more amazing than the tale of the hunchback, related at this level by Shahrazad.  Instead of telling an amazing tale of his own adventures, the broker instead relates some one else’s, the story of the “Young Man with the Severed Hand” which details the circumstances that led to the young man’s deformity.  When he is finished telling his borrowed tale, the broker demands, “fahadha ayyuha al-malik mā huwa a’jab ḥadīt al-aḥdab.’  faqāla malak al-ṣīn ‘laysa hadha a’jab min ḥadīt al-aḥdab wa lā bud lī min shafaqakum antum al-arb’ah ‘ala ajl al-aḥdab'”(304).  (‘Isn’t it, O King, more amazing than the hunchback’s story?’  The king of China replied, ‘No, it is not more amazing than the hunchback’s story, and I must hang all four of you for the hunchback’s death’) [7].  In this way, the broker’s story does not have the power to move the King of China, most likely because it is not one of personal experience, which, as Mahdi states, is the only kind of story that effects change in the plot.

Similarly, we must bear in mind another significant reversal that begins with the broker’s narrative.  Up until this point, the pattern of story telling has been “your life for your story,” that is, characters attempt to prevent their own deaths through telling amazing stories.  However, after the King summons the chief of police along with all four narrators, and hears the story of the hunchback, “ta’ajaba ghāyat al-‘ajab wa akhadha al-ṭarb wa amara an yuwarikh dhalik wa yaktub, wa qāla li-man ḥawluh, ‘hal sama’tum bi-‘ajab min hadha al-qaḍiyah wa mā jarā li-hadha al-aḥdab'”(109). (he was much amazed and moved to mirth, and he ordered that the story be recorded, saying to those around him, ‘Have you ever heard anything more amazing than the adventure of the hunchback?’).  Here, the narrator implies that the lives of these four men are no longer on the line.  At the beginning of the narrative, the noose is passed from one to the other as each proclaims his guilt before the chief of police.  However, after the King hears the hunchback’s story, he is moved to mirth, and he does not make any threat on the lives of the four.  Had they kept their mouths shut, it is likely that all four could have walked away from the situation, and The Hunchback’s Tale would have come to a close.  However, the Christian broker takes the bait, confidant that he can produce a story more amazing than the hunchback’s.  He is sorely mistaken, and in this case, presents an inferior, second hand story that makes the King threaten to kill all four narrators.  Here, the pattern is reversed, and instead of ransoming his life with his story, the broker puts his life, and the life of his three counterparts, in jeopardy due to his inability to narrate effectively.

Given the broker’s failure to amaze the King of China, the other three narrators are forced to try to save their own necks.  The next two focalizers, the Muslim steward and the Jewish physician, make similar mistakes.  Instead of focalizing narratives of personal experience, they present narratives once removed from their own lives, and sorely fail.  The King declares their stories as inferior to those of the hunchback, and maintains his threat of death.  The fourth narrator, the tailor, and final hope for salvation, steps forward and presents the most elaborate tale of the group.  Through his eyes, we experience the tales of “Al-Rajul al-‘alaj min Baghdad wa-al-muzayyin” (The Lame young Man from Baghdad and the Barber), Ḥikayyat al-muzayyin” (The Barber’s Tale), as well as the tales of the barber’s six brothers.  The tailor is one level removed from both the young man and the barber’s tale, and two levels removed from the tales of the barber’s six brothers.  We have not seen these levels of removal before in the Nights, and the double level of removal between the tailor and the six brothers are not even present in the tales of the other three narrators in the story cycle.  Given the failure of the other three focalizers (due to their level of removal from their tales), we would expect the tailor’s distant removal from his tales as a promise of ultimate failure and death.  However, the King is completely amazed by the tailor’s tale, and grants all four narrators clemency.  This outcome is troubling, because it breaks with the integrity of this particular story cycle, and the integrity of the entire work—that is, a focalizer must focalize his own adventures to effect change.  We ask the questions: what about the tailor’s tale makes it stand out?  Why is he able to depart from the norm of personal focalization yet still is able to overwhelm the King with feelings of intense amazement and wonder?

We can begin to answer this question as we examine the barber as a focalizer, who is a character in the tailor’s first tale, “The Lame Young Man from Baghdad,” and who himself goes on to focalize the six ensuing tales relating to his deformed brothers.  The barber first appears in the tale of the lame young man, when he is hired to shave the man’s head in preparation for a meeting with his beloved.  The barber assures the young man, who is in a great rush, that he will not delay him, as “ma anā aladhi tasmīnī al-nās al-ṣāmit li-qalat kalāmī?” (336)  (Am I not the one whom, because of my taciturnity, people call the Silent One?).  From this moment on, every single one of the barber’s words and actions disproves his claim to taciturnity.  The barber, through his speech and actions, reverses his explicit rhetorical intention.  Instead of shaving the young man’s head, the barber foils him at every turn, as he plagues the young man with anecdotes, poetry and auguries, making him later and later for his appointment.  After a great deal of tedium, the young man finally makes his way to his beloved’s house.  Once there, the barber yet again foils the young man, as he follows him to his appointment, makes a commotion in the street, thus drawing attention to the young man’s illicit presence in the house. This action on the barber’s part causes the young man to jump from the window, break his leg, and ultimately flee his country and his family if only escape from the unforgivably verbose “Silent One.”

We are not yet rid of the barber’s rhetoric, as the tailor presents us with the barber’s self defense in “The Barber’s Tale,” as well as the tales of his six brothers.  At the outset, the barber tells the audience at the feast the moral of his story, “mā kuntu fuḍūlan wa lā kathīr al-kalām” (347) (I was not meddlesome or talkative).  Here, he breaks one of the primary rules of focalization in the Nights by stating the moral outright, and not allowing his audience to infer his tale’s meaning.  In his main narrative, the barber mistakenly follows ten convicts (thinking that they are going to a party), and ends up before the Caliph with his life on the line.  When the Caliph discovers that the barber is not one of the convicted men, he marvels that the barber did not speak up to prove his innocence, and asks if all six of the barber’s brothers are as silent as him.  Without further ado, the barber embarks on six tales that detail exactly how meddlesome his brothers are, in contrast with his own nature.  After the tale of the first brother, the Caliph is amused, and asks the barber to leave, but the barber insists on staying just to prove exactly how taciturn he is, with no inclination to meddle.  The Caliph is equally amused by each ensuing story, and gives the barber permission to go, but the barber relentlessly barrages the Caliph with more proof. When the barber runs out of deformed brothers, the Caliph admits (ironically) that the barber is neither meddlesome nor talkative, yet insists on banishing him from the city.  By producing these entirely unnecessary and excessive tales, the barber as a focalizer has entirely reversed his explicit rhetorical intention of proving his taciturnity.  The barber’s life was never on the line, thus depriving his narrative of all the urgency we have witnessed in previous stories.  At this point, the barber seems to be indulging in narrative for narration’s sake, obsessed with his own story-producing abilities.

In this way, we can begin to look at The Hunchback, with special focus on the tailor’s tale, as a cycle that emphasizes form [8] over content and is defined by an elaborate process of framing/focalization.  The tailor latches on to classic story telling devices, multiplies them ten fold, and at the end of the day leaves us with form and no content.  His character, the barber, effects nothing in his discourse with the Caliph—he does not save his own life, nor does he advance any important moral message to his audience.  The Silent One tells not just one tale to prove his taciturnity, but six.  These six tales told from the position of a single focalizer in order to prove an inconsequential (and demonstrably false) point, are merely an excess display of storytelling bravado.  The amazing part of the tailor’s tale is the way in which it demonstrates its own sheer virtuosity, making the text explode and abound with story telling devices, the magnitude of which we have never seen until this point.

Ultimately, this story cycle breaks with the pattern of advancing a moral message, which has previously been constructed through a series of focalizers all leading back towards Shahrazad’s frame.  The structure of focalization that invited us to make a comparison with the frame is thus complicated, undermined and exploded through sheer excess.  We lose ourselves in the proliferation of these tales, and become cut off from the key focalizer, Shahrazad, and her moral discourse with Shahryar.  The removal between focalizer and story is key in this cycle, because the story no longer truly belongs to the focalizer.  Amazed as his is by the tailor’s story, the King of China summons the barber, wanting to hear the tale from his own lips.  Here, the king subverts the focalizational power of the tailor by physically inserting himself into the story world, and summoning a character to his presence.  The barber, whose tales were three levels removed from the king, are now one level closer.  By asserting his will, the King challenges the focalizer’s ownership of the tale and ability to completely control our perception. In this way, we are left with stories told for their own sake, stories that do not truly belong to their narrators or place much importance on content to advance a particular message.  Rather, this cycle confronts us with an elaborate process of focalization that will pave the way for The Hunchback’s complex discourse of mise an abyme, which I will discuss at greater length in the upcoming chapter devoted to this topic.

Focalization in Il Decameron 

The Decameron’s main frame tale consists of ten narrator focalizers, the brigata, made up of three young men and seven women.  Having fled from the plague-ridden city of Florence, the brigata take up residence in the countryside, forming their own community with a set of codes.  Their group is ordered yet fluid, one that continually experiences an even flux of power.  Each of the ten young men and women has the opportunity to embody a set of contrasting subject positions: focalizer and listener, king/queen and subject.  Essentially, they set up a process of focalizing or framing their experience, and ours as readers.   Each individual assumes narrative power for the duration of a tale, only to promptly pass it along to the next narrator.  So, too, does every focalizer assume the role of king/queen for the day, then abdicates to the next ruler in line.  Everyone has the opportunity to have their voice heard, with power shared equally among all.  Each is ruler for a day and also focalizes one individual story for each of the ten days.  The focalizers claims little ownership over their individual narratives—not a single one tells a tale of personal experience.  Unlike Shahrazad, these narrators employ fewer lenses, or layers of embedding, to separate them from their tales.  They create this sense of removal outright, as they make it clear that they have no direct experience with their narratives.  Instead of emphasizing reliability or ability to trace the story back to its roots, these focalizers place emphasis on story construction.  Moreover, Mahdi would most likely describe the Decameron as a set of exemplary tales, as the theme of the day is fixed from the outset by the king/queen, and each narrator announces the purpose of their story even before they begin.  The audience, thus, looks through the lens of each focalizer with their intended message framed at the forefront of their minds.

Given this relationship among character focalizers within the frame tale, the overall discourse they construct is radically different than Shahrazad’s purpose of advancing a non-coercive moral discourse.  Where every person is equally a king and equally a subject, equally a narrator and equally a listener, their tales do not speak to a sense of urgency in combating an imbalance or misuse of power.  Whereas Shahrazad strives to preserve herself in the face of Shahryar’s tyrannical rage, all the while instructing him in clemency and mercy, the brigata have no such pressing motivations.  No narrator is motivated to move her or his audience in a certain direction in order to advance (or stall) the plot.  The overall structure consists of the king/queen focalizer establishing the theme or lesson of the day, each narrator-focalizer establishing a related theme for their individual story, and ultimately exemplifying it with a tale.  Finished tales find the brigata right where they were at the outset of each day.  These tales do not effect noticeable change or alter the system of fluid power within the group.  However, through their narratives and very structure, the focalizers suggest that there is a certain way to tell stories, a certain form to which a narrator must adhere to keep the attention of his audience.  Many critics, such as Franco Fido and Salvador Fajardo, read the Decameron as a discourse on how to narrate well.  Franco Fido states that, “il Decameron non è che una lunga, profetica metafora narrativa di quella sua definizione” (L’Ars Narrandi di Boccaccio, 73) (the Decameron is nothing but a long, prophetic narrative metaphor of its own definition).  The brigata, as system of focalizers, is a frame of reference for good storytelling, producing a set of orderly rules that are necessary for good fiction.  Each focalizer embodies what it means to be a good storyteller, and is a vessel for the production of narrative.  In this way, the brigata serve as a series of frames that act as a schema for good storytelling.  Though this emphasis on correct narrational form is present throughout the work, the sixth day is a specifically dedicated to the correct and effective use of wit and language.  The linguistically gifted narrators focalize tales about individuals that also have a way with words.  This day especially resonates with The Hunchback cycle, as it continually values linguistic form over content, celebrating language and story telling through story telling itself.

Focalization in the Sixth Day 

The frame of sixth day, ruled by Elissa, begins with an unexpected focalizer who is a counter-example to good narration.  Before we begin this day, the narrator tells us the theme of the day will regard, “chi con alcuno leggiardo motto, tentato, si riscosse, o con pronta risposta o avvedimento fuggì perdita o pericolo o scorno” (311).  (those who, on being provoked by some verbal pleasantry, have returned like for like, or who, by a prompt retort or shrewd manoeuvre, have avoided danger, discomfiture or ridicule)[9].  Before the narrators can settle down to exemplify this message, they are interrupted by a conflict in the kitchen between servants Lisica and TindaroWhile telling her tale to Elissa, Lisica gives us an example of how not to narrate: Lisica is too deeply connected to her story, and it does not adhere to the form and content previously adopted by the other narrators.  Though the brigata are amused by this story, its style is base or low, and does not adhere to the noble or high style espoused by the narrators of the brigata.  After this example of a lower style of narration from the servant, the ten focalizers go on to demonstrate their narrative strength and capability through the ten tales that make up this cycle.

In the first novella (story) of the day, we look through Filomena’s lens and witness an interaction between an unskilled storyteller and a woman who is gifted with “leggiardi motti” (shafts of wit).  In this tale, a knight tells Madonna Oretta a tale that is truly, “bellissima, ma egli or tre e quattro e sei volte replicando una medesima parola, e ora indietro tornando, e talvolta dicendo: ‘Io non dissi bene,’ e spesso ne’ nomi errando, un per un altro ponendone, fieramente la guastava: senza che egli pessimamente, secondo la qualità delle persone” (315). (excellent.  But by constantly repeating the same phrases, and recapitulating sections of the plot, and every so often declaring that he had ‘made a mess of that bit’, and regularly confusing the names of the characters, he ruined it completely.  Moreover his mode of delivery was totally out of keeping with the characters).  Though the story content is bellissima, the knight’s form is so terrible that Madonna Oretta requests, “Messere, questo vostro cavallo ha troppo duro trotto, per che io vi prego che vi piaccia di pormi a piè” (315).  (you have taken me riding on a horse that trots very jerkily.  Pray be good enough to set me down).  With a witty metaphor, Madonna Oretta stops the knight in his tracks, and makes him realize just how poorly narrated his story was.  In this description, Filomena essentially gives the audience a list of exactly how not to narrate a story, contrasted with a brief but effective leggiardo motto that puts an end to the awful tale.  She does not even bother to put the awful story down into words, but merely gives us a list of every single thing the knight did incorrectly.  Through the lens of Filomena, a gifted narrator, we learn what a poorly narrated story is, as it contrasts with Madonna Oretta’s shaft of wit as well as with Filomena’s own skilled story that encompasses it.

These focalizers continue to construct a discourse emphasizing the form of language over its content, in dialogue with characters that know how to use language effectively.  In the third novella, narrated by Pampinea, Monna Nonna de’ Pulci uses her wit to humiliate the Bishop of Florence and Messer Dego della Ratta after they insult her.  In this tale, the Bishop asks Monna Nonna if she could seduce Messer Dego, a well-known Don Giovanni.  Monna Nonna replies, “non intendendo a purgar questa contaminazione, ma a render colpo per colpo, prestamente rispose, ‘è forse non vincerebbe me, ma vorrei buona moneta'” (317).  (less intent upon vindicating her honour than upon returning blow for blow, she swiftly retorted: In the unlikely event … of his making a conquest of me, I should want to be paid in gold coin).  With her sharp retort, Monna Nonna embarrasses Messer Dego, making reference to the counterfeit gold coins he once paid a woman’s husband in order to sleep with her.  She also embarrasses the Bishop, as he is the uncle of the woman Dego slept with.  Here, Pampinea underlines the importance of form over content, as Monna Nonna is more interested in demonstrating her superior rhetorical skill than in defending her honor.

Through the persona of Giotto in the fifth novella, the Decameron briefly and obliquely makes reference to art as a form and how it relates to realityDescribing Giotto, Panfilo says, “niuna cosa dà la natura … che egli con lo stile e con la penna o col pennello non dipignesse sì simile a quella, che non simile, anzi più tosto dessa, paresse, in tanto che molte colte nelle cose da lui fatte si truova che il visivo senso degli uomini vi prese errore, quello credendo esser vero che era dipinto” (320).  (there was nothing in the whole of creation that he could not depict with his stylus, pen or brush.  And so faithful did he remain to Nature … that whatever he depicted had the appearance not of a reproduction, but of the thing itself so that … people’s eyes are deceived and they mistake the picture for the real thing).  This is the only instance in the work where form/art comes so close to mirroring the world’s reality that the audience mistakes art for the “real thing.”  Here, the two realms bleed into one.  Giotto focalizes nature, and represents it in such away that his audience, if only for a moment, sees reality before them in the form of a painting.  Throughout the Decameron, we are constantly aware that we are reading fiction, something that isn’t real.  We look through the lens of various focalizers — always separated by a filter from the events of the story.  For critic Guido Almansi, the barrier of the frame, consisting of the brigata’s focalizers, becomes an estranging device in that it is a, “deliberate statement declaring that everything within it is a stylized narrative creation, a sum of narrative items which the cornice thus automatically sets apart from the items of the everyday world which the reader lives in and knows about” (The Writer as Liar, 13).  Within its function as an estranging device, the frame vouches for its own self-contained artistic nature, and demands to be considered according to the conventions for artistic expression.  Giotto’s audience, however, seems to experience art in a slightly different way.  While we, as readers of the Decameron, are constantly reminded, through our series of focalizers, that we are reading an imitation of life, Giotto’s audience sees art and believes they are seeing reality.  To use the words of Almansi, there is no estranging device, or filter, to keep the audience mindful of the fact that they are experiencing art, not reality.  Though briefly, Boccaccio explicitly problematizes the frame between the two supposedly separate realms of art and reality.  In his film adaptation of the Decameron, Pasolini latches onto Giotto’s propensity to transgress frames in this way, and expands upon this discourse ten fold, which I will discuss in Chapter Three.


Essentially, the layers and structures of focalization in the Nights and Decameron function as processes of framing.  Each narrator is a frame through which we look out onto each story, cycle, or the work as a whole.  Due to the sheer number of narrators across different levels of embedding, focalization as a frame type is extremely diversified and complex.  Moving rapidly from one narrator to the next even over a single level of embedding, focalization is anything but fixed and static.  As the focalizer moves up and down through layers of embedding, it becomes more and more apparent that this process of framing is fluid and dynamic.  The focalizational process of the Decameron is on the predictable and regimented side, as each member of the brigata has equal opportunity and time to tell his or her tale.  However, this movement of focalization in the Nights (and The Hunchback’s Tale especially), is more sporadic and fluid, as there is no telling how many stories each narrator will tell, and just how many narrators in their own stories will surface with tales of their own.  This process of framing explodes with its multiplicity of focalizers and focalized, contributing to its dynamic nature.

Chapter Two:

Transgressing the Frame Through mise en abyme

In The Mirror in the Text, Lucien Dällenbach closely analyzes the inner workings of mise en abyme, a term coined by André Gide in 1893 [10].  Dällenbach dissects Gide’s description of mise en abyme and asserts that it essentially functions as a kind of reflection through which the work can turn back on itself, as well as a device to bring out the meaning and form of the work.  This author goes on to define Gide’s view of mise en abyme as, “a coupling or twining of activities related to a similar object; or as a relationship of relationships, the relation of the narrator N to his/her story S being the same as that of the narrator/character n to his/her story” (18).  From this interpretation of Gide’s view of mise en abyme, Dällenbach describes his own vision on the device as, “any internal mirror that reflects the whole of the narrative in simple, repeated or “specious” (or paradoxical) duplication” (43).  For Dällenbach, this internal mirror can reflect the work in different ways, as the author differentiates between the mise en abyme of “utterance” and “enunciation.”  The mise en abyme of utterance (or fictional mise en abyme) summarizes or quotes the content of the work, and has the ability to, “give the work a strong structure, to underpin its meaning, to provide a kind of internal dialogue and a means whereby the work can interpret itself … By stylizing what it copies, the model distinguishes what is essential from what is only contingent: it in-forms” (55-56).  While the fictional mise en abyme comments on the work’s content, the mise en abyme of enunciation brings the agent and process of the production itself into focus.  This mise en abyme gives the illusion of revealing what is hidden, namely the author or artistic process, by creating a substitute for the author within the text: “if the protagonist … is a ‘producer’ … s/he will be seen getting to grips with a work the creation of which will allow the treatment of the theme of the relationship between ‘life (the embedding narrative] and ‘art’ (the mise en abyme)” (81).  Through enunciation, the mise en abyme draws attention to the production of the work itself through a mirroring of the artistic process.  In this way, Dällenbach emphasizes the ways in which mise en abyme reflects the form and content of the work, all the while underlining the difference between the subject of the work and its reflection.

Recalling Derrida’s Parergon essay discussed in the Introduction, we can continue exploring his schema that rejects the conception of a true inside and outside and use it to help understand and challenge Dällenbach’s discourse on mise en abyme.  As I mentioned above, Dällenbach sets up a discourse in which mise en abyme (parergon) is contingent while the work (ergon) is essential: “By stylizing what it copies, the model [mise en abyme] distinguishes what is essential from what is only contingent” (59).  We can turn Derrida’s theory inward and look at mise en abyme as something “extra;” it is, by Gide’s own definition, a reflection of the discourse, themes, etc. of the work.  Mise en abyme is not an “original;” it is a duplication or mirroring that references some Subject in the ergon.  However, Derrida’s theory would problematize the dichotomy between what is original vs. what is contingent, what is real vs. what is a copy.  Within this logic, we may question what is the true original: the initial image, or its mirrored reflection?

In this chapter, I will explore images and their reflections in the Terza Giornata (Third Day) of the Decameron and Al-Aḥdab Ṣahib Malik al-Ṣīn (The Huncback, Friend of the King of China) of the Nights.  In both these works, the authors use mise en abyme to craft discourses that are not limited by the frame, but instead play with the frames’ insides and outsides to gain momentum and eventually produce a dynamic process of framing.  The third day of Decameron uses mise en abyme to explore the relations of form and content all the while playing with a superficial frame that emphasizes the disconnect between the conceptual interior and exterior.  The Hunchback cycle in the Nights projects myriad mise en abyme relationships across deep levels of embedding in order to create a discourse on the art of story telling, as well as a discourse on form and deformity.  Though mise en abyme is an important and significant feature in the third day of the Decameron, this device runs rampant in the Hunchback cycle and overwhelms us with such an excess of reflection that it is nearly impossible to remain oriented within the cycle and keep contact with Shahrazad’s overarching frame.

Mise en abyme in the Third Day of the Decameron 

With the first story of the third day (3.1), Boccaccio creates a mise en abyme between the communities of the brigata (ten young men and women narrators) and the embedded story that ultimately underlines the need for content as well as form.  The frame of the brigata advances a discourse of balance and equality that ensures a certain order, playing upon even numbers and a fluid yet equal distribution of power [11]. Each individual is queen or king for a day and selects a storytelling theme to which the others’ tales adhere.  Here, form and structure are quite central to the success of their community, as each individuals is equally ruler and ruler, narrator and listener. In 3.1, the narrator mirrors the brigata’s own community by constructing another ten person community within a convent.   Like the brigata, the members of the embedded story’s community are young and secluded from the outside world, and must rely on other members of this small group for everything.  However, the embedded community of ten does not contain the order and balance of the brigata itself, and it reflects a distorted image of the original. In this embedded story, Masetto, a young and virile man, becomes the gardener for a convent of nuns.  As a result of the voracious appetites of the nuns, Masetto effectively becomes the resident prostitute, forced to satisfy the desires of all nine sisters.  However, the distribution of work and power is not even, as Masetto tells the abbess: “un gallo basta assai bene a dieci galline, ma che dieci uomini possono male o con fatica una femina sodisfare, dove a me ne conviene servir nove; al che per cosa del mondo io non potrei durare'” (149). (‘whereas a single cock is quite sufficient for ten hens, ten men are hard put to satisfy one woman, and yet here am I with nine of them on my plate.  I can’t endure it any longer) [12].  Upon this declaration, the community of ten seeks to instill more balance, and they develop a schedule that more evenly distributes Masetto’s time. They do not truly achieve an even balance, however, if we consider that only one man is forced to satisfy nine women, which is nearly impossible according to Masetto.  Though the nuns evenly share Masetto we can infer within the logic of this story cycle that the nuns are not fully satisfied, and thus there is not a completely even distribution of sexual gratification.  Also, reflecting back onto the roles of the brigata, Masetto is like the narrator, or producer, while the nuns are the audience who benefit from his output.  Masetto is the only producer, whereas every member of the brigata takes on the role of giving just as much as they receive.  The skewed distribution of power and energy of this reflected story draws attention to the balance within the brigata.  Thus, this relationship en abyme underscores the need for content (equal power/energy distribution) in addition to form in order to sustain a successful and equitable community.

Similarly, the embedded tales of the third day create a mise en abyme relationship among members of a corrupt clergy who exemplify what it means to put on the show of “correct form” without content to sustain it.  Seven out of ten stories in this cycle contain a male or female member of a religious order who is lustful, impious and greedy, or else an oblivious fool. In 3.8, the Abbot Ferondo is,”in ogni cosa … santissimo fuori che nell’opera delle femine: e questo sapeva sì cautamente fare che quasi niuno, non che il sapesse, ma né suspicava; per che santissimo e giusto era tenuto in ogni cosa” (186) (a veritable saint of a man in all ways except for his womanizing, a hobby that he pursued so discreetly that very few people suspected let alone believed, and hence he was considered to be very saintly and upright in every respect).  Thus, the Abbott’s secret actions belie his outwardly pious nature.  Similarly, the abbess in 3.1, “provando e riprovando quella dolcezza la qual essa prima all’altre solea biasimare” (149).  (repeatedly savoured the one pleasure for which she had always reserved her most fierce disapproval).  Once she tasted the fruits of her disapproval, she could not get enough of them.  In this way, the cycle emphasizes the ironic disconnect between form and content, between a pious outside and a lecherous inside embraced by these debauched holy men and women.

Furthermore, if the clergy are not guileful enough to conduct copious affairs, then they are merely depicted as too stupid to do so. In 3.3, the narrator insists that priests are, “il più stoltissimi e uomini di nuove maniere e costumi, si credono più che gli altri in ogni cosa valere e sapere, dove essi di gran lunga sono da molto meno” (153) (extremely stupid men, inscrutable in their ways, who consider themselves in all respects more worthy and knowledgeable than other people, whereas they are decidedly inferior). Within this story, a clergyman is deceived into acting as a go-between for two lovers, who pass messages to each other through the ignorant priest during confession. So, too, is Friar Puccio unwittingly deceived by the lecherous Ferondo in 3.8, as the latter conducts a lengthy affair with Puccio’s wife right under his nose.  Thus, these members of the clergy all reflect each other in a mise en abyme that shows the possibility of a pious outward form that merely covers up a lecherous or ignorant interior.

Moreover, this cycle also creates a mise en abyme among many instances of sacraments and religious experiences.  Rather than functioning as outward signs of inner truths, these sacraments function more as deceitful frames that cover up dirty secrets.   Boccaccio introduces us to this theme in the very first tale of the cycle, as two young beautiful nuns consider taking advantage of the virile body of the supposedly mute Masetto. When one of the nuns expresses doubt over having sex with Masetto due to their vow of virginity to Christ, the second one responds, “‘O’ … quante cose gli si promettono tutto ‘l dì, che non se ne gli attiene niuna!  se noi gliele abiam promessa, truovisi un’altra o dell’altre che gliele attengano” (148) (‘Pah! … We are constantly making Him promises that we never keep! … He can always find other girls to preserve their virginity for Him.’) Here, the nun takes her vow of virginity quite lightly, as all of the other eight nuns eventually follow suit.  In 3.10, Boccaccio ironically deals with a sexual awakening that operates under the guise of a religious conversion.  In this story, the young and beautiful Alibech decides to convert to Christianity and ventures into the desert to find a “holy man” who can instruct her in the faith.  The aesthetic Rustico, supposedly equipped with a will of iron, is completely overcome with lust for Alibech, and convinces her that the path towards true conversion is to “put the devil back in hell.”  Rather than relating to religion, Rustico describes a sexual act that Alibech must embrace if she wants to follow the path to righteousness.  Subsequently, Alibech becomes a true “convert” and believer in Rustico’s method of conversion, as she says, “per certo io non mi ricordo che mai alcuna altra io ne facessi che di tanto diletto e piacer mi fosse, quanto è il rimetter il diavolo in inferno: e per ciò io giudico ogn’altra persona, che ad altro che a servire a Dio attende, essere una bestia” (201).  (I don’t honestly recall ever having done anything that gave me so much pleasure and satisfaction as I get from putting the devil back in Hell.  To my way of thinking, anyone who devotes his energies to anything but the service of God is a complete blockhead).  Similarly, Ferondo encourages Friar Puccio to perform “penance” that allows Ferondo to have sex with his wife.  The unfaithful woman tells her lover, “tu fai fare la penitenzia a frate Puccio, per la quale noi abbiamo guadagnato il paradiso” (163).  (You make Friar Puccio do penance, but we are the ones who go to Paradise).  In this way, these sacraments and religious experiences mirror each other in that they are symbols meant to signify a religious truth, but instead act only as smoke screens to disguise sexual encounters and willful deception of ignorant parties.

In this way, Boccaccio constructs symbolic frames within his corrupt clergy that separate their inner sins from their outer piety.  Based on the actions of the nuns and priests, they seem to believe in some invisible limit between their outer and inner lives.  Ferondo puts it quite concisely as he tries to convince Puccio’s wife to sleep with him.  He assures her that sex is merely a sin of the body, while true saintliness resides in the soul. However, Boccaccio challenges this limit, this frame, between the two opposed lives of the clergymen and women, as he tells this whole story cycle with tongue firmly in cheek.  This cycle abounds with jokes and double entendres, several of which I have included above.  This limit between inside and outside is ridiculous, worthy of laughter due to the irony with which it is produced.

Thus, the frame of the brigata along with the frames of this story cycle do not limit Boccaccio’s use of mise en abyme.  Rather his discourse of form and content gains strength with all of its reflections across the embedded tales of this cycle.   Also, these mise en abyme relationships reflect back on the brigata’s frame, not necessarily portraying exact images of the brigata’s functioning, but distortions.  It is through the reflection of the limit between inside and outside that we fully appreciate the harmony, integrity, and form supported by content of the brigata’s community.  As Boccaccio draws our attention to the many deviations of the enframed individuals, he reminds us of the lack of these deviations within the brigata.  Thus, the mise en abymes of the embedded stories, as they reflect back onto the frame, emphasize their lack of substance to sustain their form.

Mise en abyme in The Hunchback’s Tale of the Nights  

The Christian Broker (al-simsār al-niṣrānī) is the first to hint at a relationship en abyme between a character’s profession and his story telling habits within this cycle.  As I outlined in my first chapter, the broker reverses the typical pattern in the Nights of telling a story in exchange for one’s life.  Within this cycle, the broker volunteers a story that is he believes is more amazing than that of the hunchback.  However, his story is not strictly necessary, since none of the four narrators’ lives are on the line.  In fact, this story is frankly excessive within the economy of the Nights, since it does not serve the essential plot function of saving a life. When we examine his profession, we learn that a simsar is, “a broker, one who acts as intermediary between seller and buyer” (Lane’s Lexicon, vol. 4, 150).   Thus, a broker acts as a go-between in order to make a profit, some amount over and above the money or goods exchanged between the two principal parties in the transaction.  We can quite easily view story telling in the Nights as a type of transaction: your life in exchange for your tale.   When the broker steps onto the scene with his story in The Hunchback’s Tale, the scores are all square and accounts all settled.  These even accounts, however, do not guarantee a profit for the broker.  So, he presents his story to the King of China in hopes of attaining something extra, some profit—a reward, in whatever form, for his superior story.  Instead of attaining a profit through his story, however, the broker puts himself and his fellow narrators in debt, now owing their lives.  This broker is much too concerned with making a profit, in augmenting his riches or esteem, in order to fully appreciate the situation of the story transaction.  Thus, the broker’s professional tendencies create a mise en abyme with his story telling tendencies, bringing to the forefront the theme of excess that will importantly inform this cycle.

Similarly, the barber’s profession reflects his story telling proclivities in this cycle.  In Arabic, the word for barber or beautician is muzayyin, literally meaning one who, “adorns, ornaments, decorates, decks, bedecks, garnishes, embellishes or beautifies” (Lane, vol. 3, 445).  As the barber subjects the young man and the Caliph to his seemingly incessant anecdotes and tales, his words effectively adorn, garnish, and embellish the situation.  When the barber tries to prove his taciturnity to the Caliph, he embellishes his single point with six stories.  As I established in my first chapter, the barber reverses his explicit rhetorical intention of proving his taciturnity through his story telling.  In this way, the barber is not so much proving his point as he is ornamenting and adorning it with words.  In this sense, the barber’s professional status as a muzayyin creates a mise en abyme relationship with his story telling strategies, again contributing to the theme of excess.

However, when we dig deeper into more specific tasks that the barber performs we find that they are sometimes concerned with subtraction rather than addition.  Upon meeting his young client for the first time the barber asks, “yā sayyidī turīd taquṣṣ sha’rak aw turīd tanqaṣṣ damm?” (334).  (O my lord, do you want me to shave your head or to let blood?)[13]. Both the verbs for cutting hair and letting blood share two letters of the same root, qaf and ṣad, which relate to removing or detracting something.  While the root for cutting (qaf-ṣad-ṣad) signifies clipping or shearing, the root for letting blood (nun-qaf-ṣad) carries the nuance that: “it lost somewhat, decreased, diminished, lessened, wasted, waned or became defective or deficient or incomplete or imperfect, after having been whole or complete or perfect” (Lane, vol. 8, 95).  This sense of becoming defective or incomplete will play into the overarching mise en abyme of deformity that informs this cycle, which I will discuss below.  In this way, the professional duties of cutting hair and letting blood ought to reflect story telling that is concise and to the point, one that avoids excess.  However, the barber neglects his essential qaṣṣ function in favor for his role as an embellisher.  Also, on a physical level, the barber neglects his duty to cut the young man’s hair, shaving off one or two hairs at a time amidst his verbal barrage.  In this way, his profession as a beautifier directly mirrors his rhetorical actions in its function of augmentation and excess.  Like the broker, the barber is too concerned with excess, adornment, and embellishment, and does not know how to cut what is unnecessary from his discourse.

In the face of two significant narrators who seem only concerned with augmentation and excess, the profession of al-khayyaṭ, the tailor, combines the elements of addition and subtraction, which mirrors his ultimate success in story telling.  Professionally, the tailor cuts fabrics and then sews them back together.  In this way, his work reflects a balance between excess and lack—he removes what is unnecessary and weaves together loose threads to create a cohesive fabric.  Unlike the barber and the broker, the tailor knows when to cut and when to augment.  Out of all four primary narrators, the tailor is the only one who truly weaves together a tale more amazing than the hunchback’s.  He weaves a successful qiṣṣah, “a story, a narrative” (Lane, vol. 7, 56).  This word for story shares the same root (qaf-ṣad-ṣad) with the verb to cut.  Specifically, this verb means to cut things off at the ends, the extremities, as opposed to the middle, as with the other cutting verb, qaṭa’.  In this way, the act of cutting reflects the act of story production, as the storyteller must extract or cut an experience out of reality, memory, or imagination in order to put it into narrative form.  He must cut this entity, story, so that it has a beginning, middle and end, removing the extremities that extend beyond his vision of the beginning or end.

Tying these above elements together, we slowly begin to see that all of these characters work in union to create a mise en abyme reflecting the art of story production, what Dällenbach would characterize as a mise en abyme of enunciation.  While all these characters tell their own stories, they effectively reflect the storytelling process itself.  The barber proffers an excess of narrative, and fails in his task both to cut hair and cut down his words into an effective qiṣṣah.  Similarly, the broker’s entire narrative is an excess of unnecessary words that fail to amaze the King.  It is not enough to merely overflow with words—instead one must reach a balance between excess and deficiency.  Both the broker and the barber have no idea when to cut, and how to weave a story together in order to hold the attention and inspire amazement in the audience.  The tailor, salvation of the group, weaves tales as he weaves fabrics—cutting and sewing, adding and subtracting.  This expert knowledge and craftsmanship of the tailor holds a mirror up to the storytelling process that informs the entirety of the Nights.  As the Nights pauses to gaze at itself in the mirror, it witnesses its own genesis and production.  Through this discourse on form and story production, the Nights takes a break from the moral discourse that all the other cycles have advanced in dialogue with Shahrazad’s frame.  As we drift further and further from the initial frame, we become lost in the intricate stitching and alterations of these tales in The Hunchback, as the characters themselves reflect modes of effective and ineffective story telling.

Form and Deformity in The Hunchback’s Tale  

In addition to the mise en abyme of story production, the concept of qaṣṣ surfaces with a vengeance when we begin looking more closely at the concept of deformity that reflects itself in many aspects of this story cycle.  If we cut too much, then we are left with a certain type of deficiency, lack.  Similarly, if we add too much, then we experience excess that is itself a type of deformity—the more that is less.  Many characters in this story cycle possess physical deformities that lay the basis for the mise en abyme of deformity that they reflect among each other, and with the cycle as a whole.

In Arabic grammar, the af’al pattern functions as both the elative and “deformative” form.  This specific noun pattern does two opposite things, as it both gives more and takes away.  While this form can make an adjective into the elative, it can also express physical deformities, as different roots can be applied to this basic form in order to describe scores of different maladies.  This af’al form is repeated throughout the cycle, beginning with the hunchback himself, al-aḥdab.  Within the tailor’s tale, the barber’s six brothers each have a specific deformity.  They consist of: al-khayyat al-aḥdab (the hunchbacked tailor), al-‘awar (the one eyed), al-aflaj (the paraplegic), al-‘amī (the blind one), maqtu’ al-udhun (cropped of ears), and maqtu’ al-shaftan (cropped of lips).  The deformities of the first four brothers all use the grammatical af’al form.  With the exception of the hunchbacked tailor, the barber’s brothers all lack some essential physical component.  When we return to the barber’s duties of cutting hair and letting blood, we can see a reflection of subtraction in his five brothers.  We can also look back on the root for blood letting, which points to a decrease, deficit, imperfection due to loss of something essential.  Five of the barber’s brothers have lost something essential that leaves them deformed, deficient, imperfect.  While aspects of his brothers have been cut away, the barber ironically has no idea how to cut, whether it is hair or narratives.  Moreover, the tales of his brothers’ deficiencies form the basis of the barber’s extreme narrative excess.  However, we can see the barber’s excess as yet another type of deformity, as it extra-forms or super-forms, and in this way also makes something imperfect.

In this way, where the af’al form can take too much away, it can also create excess that is its own variety of deformity.  When we examine the character of the hunchback himself, as well as the hunchbacked brother of the tailor, we see an example of physical deformity caused by an excessive curvature of the spine.  The root ḥa-dal-ba signifies something, “high or elevated” (Lane, vol. 2, 163), while the word aḥdab itself means, “humpbacked, having a prominent, or protuberant back, and a hollow or receding chest and belly” (163).  Thus, the excessive curvature of the hunchback’s spine propels him into the category of physical deformity, along with those who lack an eye or a limb.  The hunchback is merely on the opposite end of the spectrum: where the others have too little he simply has too much.  It is also remarkable that the hunchback’s deformity is central to his body as it affects his spine.  Rather than affecting any of his extremities, this excess relates to a part of the body that informs his entire physical structure—his deformity is at the very core of his being.

Moreover, the act of storytelling itself exemplifies a process of forming that results in a type of deformity.  As I mentioned above, storytelling necessitates cutting in order to hew out a form that contains a beginning, middle and end.  In this act of cutting, the storyteller performs a sort of violence on the narrative, forcing it into a certain form through inevitable removal of elements at its extremities.  By imposing his craft on narrative, the storyteller decides that certain elements coming before the “beginning” and after the “end” are not necessary to his product.  Each deformed body in this cycle is both a metaphor for and a mise en abyme of the process of narrative.  As a metaphor, the deformed body symbolizes the intrinsic essence of deformity that surrounds a story, as the storyteller violently hews it out of reality, imagination, memory, or from where ever it is that stories emanate—he cuts off elements just as a body might lose a hand or eye.  In addition to, or in communion with this metaphor, the deformed body exists in a relationship en abyme with the narrative process, as each deformed body is a story unto itself.  The deformity of a body produces or recalls a narrative and refers to the process of narrative at one and the same time—every body tells a story, and itself reflects the process that we recognize as narrative creation.

All of these aspects of deformity in the characters contribute to the overarching mise en abyme of deformity that finds a reflection in the form of this story cycle.  Like an over-pronounced curvature of the spine, this cycle explodes with a sheer excess of words and form, seen nowhere else in the Nights.  At the very beginning of this cycle, the hunchback is “murdered” not once, but four times by four different narrators.  After the King’s sense of amazement is satisfied upon hearing the events leading up to the hunchback’s death, the story cycle could very well have ended as no one’s life was on the line.  However, the Christian broker, intent on making a profit, steps forward with his unnecessary tale, creating a deficit that must now be filled by more stories.  With the tailor’s tale, we step into the most intense display of excess of form. The barber’s tales exemplify this excess to the greatest degree with the pure proliferation of tales within a single level of embedding.  In order to prove his (fallacious point), the barber tells not one tale but six.  We have never seen so many tales on a single level of embedding.  Though embedded tales may be lengthy, no one narrator has ever told more than one tale to prove a single point.  Within the barber’s narrative, the device of mise en abyme truly takes flight, as the barber tells six tales that reflect one another in their plots, themes, and main characters.  Briefly, each narrative relates the misadventures of a deformed brothers who falls in love with a woman, is somehow deceived, and finally banished from the city of Baghdad.  It is nearly impossible to prevent the events and characters of these six very similar stories from bleeding into and intermixing with one another.  The mise en abyme of deformity creates a blinding and multifaceted reflection across these six stories, that serves to confuse rather than to clarify.


Many different aspects of this story cycle from across different levels of embedding culminate to produce a deformed cycle.  The different levels of framing produce more opportunities for excess, which build upon each other and result in an explosion of form and deformity.  A dynamic and fluid process of framing informs this cycle—embedded stories just keep adding up until we are completely inundated and forget where exactly we stand within the cycle and within the Nights as a whole.   Frames, here, are not structures that orient us, but rather confuse us and send us spiraling headlong into the depths of this cycle.  Both these discourses on story telling as well as deformity are possible and all the more amazing through mise en abymes that transgress various levels of embedding.  Frames within this story cycle do not contain or delimit discourses—instead, the mise en abymes operate on all sides of the many frames.  Due to the myriad reflections in this story cycle, it is very easy to confuse the characters and to forget just where they fit into the elaborate framing structure.  As the base story structure of each one of the six deformed brothers is extremely similar, it is especially difficult to remember who is who within their six separate frames.  Thus, it is very difficult to separate what is “original” from what is “contingent,” to separate the inside from the outside from an even deeper inside.  Within this story cycle, Derrida’s conception of the frame is quite applicable, as it becomes almost impossible to remember what is the original subject and what is the reflection, who is the narrator and who is the narrated, what is the story, and what is the story about a story.

Chapter Three: Pasolini’s Mirror

Some critics would accuse Pier Paolo Pasolini of removing the frame from the frame tale in his films Il fiore delle Mille e una notte (The Flower of the 1001 Nights) and Il Decameron.  He does away with Shahrazad and the narrators of the brigata, depriving the audience of the familiar mediator that separates/unites them from/with the story world. This seemingly jarring choice on Pasolini’s part is merely the first and most evident step leading towards his prolonged and subtle exploration of the frame. Through these two films, Pasolini advances a discourse that problematizes the concept of the frame as a stable, fixed limit that divides.  Instead, Pasolini views the frame as a fluid, active agent that conducts and facilitates the overlap and interplay of seemingly separate worlds.  Moreover, Pasolini’s discourse discourages us from conceiving of the frame as a static structure, but instead emphasizes its function as an ongoing dynamic process—a process of framing.  These two films overflow with acts of framing, many of which hinge on the central theme of revealing and concealing, such as the following: the gaze, physical space, and the space of the dream. However, Pasolini sets up these frames merely to transgress them, and in this way problematizes the divide between inside and outside, art and reality, as well as dream and waking life.

The Gaze

Pasolini’s essay, “Il cinema della poesia” (The Cinema of Poetry), comments on the use of focalization (point of view or perspective) in film, which he describes using the free indirect point-of-view shot. Pasolini defines this type of shot as, “un monologo interiore privo dell’elemento concettuale e filosofico astratto esplicito” (179) (an interior monologue lacking both the explicit conceptual element and the explicit abstract philosophical element).  The director uses these shots to communicate the views of various characters, that is, the ways in which different characters focalize their experience of reality.  As Pasolini states, “Lo ‘sguardo’ di una contadina … abbraccia un altro tipo di realtà, che lo sguardo, dato a quella stessa realtà, di un borghese colto: i due vedono in concreto ‘serie diverse’ di cose: non solo, ma anche una cosa in se stessa risulta diversa nei due ‘sguardi'” (178) (The ‘gaze’ of a peasant … embraces another type of reality than the gaze given to that same reality by an educated bourgeois.  Not only do the two actually see different sets of things, but even a single thing in itself appears different through the two different ‘gazes’). Here, we could substitute the world “focalization” for “gaze,” as Pasolini suggests that different focalizers experience their worlds in different ways.  The director must convey these different gazes through stylistic rather than linguistic means, and should always allow the presence of the camera to be felt, so that different shots and frames depict the perceptions of different focalizers.

Though Pasolini does not state it explicitly, the director’s own stylistic choices are a mode of focalization. The focalization of the director and each character contributes to this process of framing, as looking through the director’s lens and each character’s eyes is like looking through a different frame. With the cinematic medium especially, the ongoing process of framing is evident as focalization can rapidly move from character to character, shot to shot—within a single scene or from one to the next.  As focalization moves from one character to another, the director creates an ongoing dialogue among all of his focalizers, all through his own primary vision.  This dialogue of focalization truly problematizes the idea of a fixed frame, as the frames so often and so rapidly move from one focalizer to the next.  Just as each character focalizer is an agent that reveals the story world to us, we should also remember that they are also agents of concealment.  Each gaze and each shot excludes just as much as it includes, and duly affects our vision and interpret ations of the actions on screen.

Into the Abyss. Fig. 1 Fig. 1: Nur al-Din’s gaze 


The hapless hero of Il fiore delle Mille e una notte, Nur al-Din, is the lens through which we experience much the story world. Translated from Arabic, Nur al-Din’s name means “light of religion” while his beloved is called Zumurrud, meaning “emerald.”  Though I do not interpret Nur al-Din’s journey as a religious one, he definitely acts as a shining light that illuminates and gives us entry into each new tale.   After a man with ill-omened blue eyes captures Zumurrud, Nur al-Din travels from city to city in hopes of finding his love, his lost jewel. His journey serves as the only connecting thread that winds its way from beginning to end of this labyrinthine film. As a focalizer, Nur al-Din possesses a gaze that is bright and full of amazement in the wake of every one of his new experiences. It is easy for the audience to identify with Nur al-Din, as we share in his virginal wonder in reaction to each amazing narrative he hears and we view on the screen. Nur al-Din, like us, does not have a great deal of agency in the story world, as he is always unaware of what kind of adventure lurks around each new corner, or over each new wall. Though he does make the initial choice to pursue Zumurrud, he merely reacts to each new experience that presents itself along the way. Shortly into his mission to find Zumurrud, he falls asleep in a basket suspended by a rope and hanging in the street. The basket is then pulled up and over the wall by unseen hands, as unknown characters literally drag Nur al-Din into his next adventure. We, too, as an audience, are hoisted up from the street and over the wall into secret and amazing setting—experiencing each new adventure with Nur al-Din’s ignorance, malleability and sense of wonder. His qualities frame and illuminate our experience of Il fiore, and guide us along our adventure through the winding roads of the film.

Through the single frame of Nur al-Din’s gaze, the barrier between two seemingly separate worlds dissipates as we witness a celebration of story telling as an abstract form that flourishes in communion with the body as a physical form.  Our hero experiences the marvels of story telling alongside the marvels of the body, as two separate worlds collide and work together to induce a dual awakening.  For example, after returning home from the market at the beginning of the film, Nur al-Din and Zumurrud have sex, with Zumurrud assuming an instructional role due to the former’s inexperience. Shortly after, Nur al-Din sits at Zumurrud’s feet as she demands, “Ascolta!” (Listen!), and the camera cuts to the first embedded tale in the film.  Here, Nur al-Din’s sexual awakening is followed shortly after by a marvelous tale, intensifying his sense of wonder by engaging his imagination as well as his body.  This pattern of sexual experiences followed by story telling is repeated throughout Nur al-Din’s journey, as he encounters the shopper in the marketplace and subsequently visits the house that she shares with her two sisters.  The shopper initiates a long series of embedded stories, including the tale of ‘Aziz and ‘Aziza, Queen Dunia, and the two dervishes.  After these tales are told, all four gather in the pool for a nude romp that leads to a light-hearted discussion in which the sisters instruct Nur al-Din in various double entendres used for genitalia (see Fig. 2).  Here, Nur al-Din learns about the body through narrative, again engaging in aspects of both the physical and the symbolic.  In this way, Pasolini creates a discourse where two separate worlds collide through the experience of a single character, challenging the separateness of the world of narrative symbolism and the world of the body and sexuality.  We, then, as an audience, share in Nur al-Din’s sense of amazement and awakening, as we encounter these wonders through the frame of his hungry eyes.

Into the Abyss Fig 2.

Fig. 2 Nur al-Din and the three sisters in their pool 

Glancing now to the other side of the cinematic frame, Pasolini himself acts as a key focalizer and, in a way, assumes the role of the displaced Shahrazad from the original 1001 Nights frame tale. He, as the filmmaker and screenwriter, is the only omnipotent persona participating in this work, as we experience every single story through his lens.  His presence is not continually apparent to us, as he literally keeps himself behind the scenes, off camera. In the Nights, Shahrazad herself does not overtly assert her participation in her stories, but instead lets the messages surface through the focalization of other narrators. However, when each story ends and begins, we are reminded of Shahrazad’s role as primary narrator, as the author tells us that morning broke and she fell silent. So, too, do we remember Pasolini’s role as chief narrator every time we glance to the edges of the screen, and recall that we are watching shots that Pasolini chose for us. Thus, with every free indirect p.o.v. shot that Pasolini films, he subtly reminds us that he is the author behind this cinematic experience, and he decides just what and how each focalizer experiences the story world. Pasolini’s role as key focalizer begins to hint at the fact that he does not merely problematize the classic frame tale of 1001 Nights, but instead launches a discourse on the complications of the frame as a concept.

Moving on to his Decameron, Pasolini’s complex focalizational role amplifies his discourse on the fluid process of framing.  In addition to directing, Pasolini also assumes the role of “l’allievo di Giotto” (the student of Giotto)[14] in the film, in this way existing on both sides of the camera, both sides of the cinematic frame.  By straddling the frame in such a way, at least part of Pasolini occupies the world of reality as well as the world of the story.  As he does in Il fiore, Pasolini deletes the original frame story of the brigata, and uses the stories of Ciappelletto and Giotto as loose frames to encase the embedded stories.  Once Giotto steps onto the screen, we essentially look through Pasolini’s camera frame into the story world, and then again through Giotto’s frame onto the embedded stories.  Giotto’s focalization is a powerful one in the film, as his gaze sometimes selects the characters in the next embedded stories.  Once Giotto arrives in Naples, he goes out into the marketplace and observes life around him.  He places fingers in front of his eyes in the form of a square, literally framing what he sees.  The camera then pans to people laughing, vendors selling fruit, children playing, as Giotto sees them through his frame.  At one point the camera shows a young girl laughing along with her parents as, these three characters become the participants in the next tale of Caterina and Riccardo.

Into the Abyss Fig. 3

Into the Abyss. Fig. 4

– Fig. 3 The framer: Giotto observing the market Fig. 4 The framed: Caterina and parents   

With Pasolini’s dual role as director focalizer and character focalizer, he essentially transgresses the cinematic frame as a limit.  Rather than acting as a barrier that separates reality from art, the frame allows Pasolini to take part in both of these worlds simultaneously.  Pasolini is both focalizer and focalized, seer and seen: as a director he focalizes the entire film, while as an actor he is the object of the audience’s focalization.  Then, as an actor within the story world, he goes on to focalize other characters, as his gaze propels them, frames them, into their next tale.  All of these modes of focalization contribute to this dynamic process of framing that refuses to be contained, and instead continually inverts, disrupts, and refers to itself.  The view of the frame as a static limit can contain neither Pasolini nor his discourse, as the director effortlessly moves back and forth through separate worlds.

Furthermore, there is a strong mise en abyme relationship between the personae of Pasolini and Giotto that further problematizes the separation between reality and film.  Both men are creators, artists.  Giotto’s process of painting the wall of Santa Chiara reflects Pasolini’s filmmaking process, as it draws the audience’s attention to the concept of artistic production.  In a sense, Giotto’s work reminds us that what we are watching is a work of art, the fruit of someone else’s production.  Interestingly enough, in the original Decameron, Boccaccio refers to Giotto as an artist whose work could trick the viewer into believing that they were gazing on reality instead of artistic creation.  Within this text at least, Giotto is a creator whose work challenges the frame between art and life.  All throughout his career, one of Pasolini’s driving goals was to present reality to his viewers, and he believed that film was the most appropriate medium for doing so, which I will discuss to a greater extent later in this chapter.  In this way, the persona of Giotto initiates a series of reflections that shine back on the director’s own persona.  Pasolini probably saw part of himself in the character of Giotto, and thus physically inserted himself into that role in the story world.  This mirroring reflects back and forth across the frame, and may lead the audience to question where one persona ends and the next begins.  Thus, this mise en abyme relationships transgresses the limits of the cinematic frame, and strongly contributes to Pasolini’s discourse on its fluidity and ability to act as a conductor between two supposedly separate worlds.

Moreover, the gaze is also an agent that ignites and sustains desire throughout many embedded stories.  Pasolini plays with the leitmotif of gazing through windows or cracks in walls/doors onto the desired object.  This motif also refers to the theme of revealing and concealing, as the object of desire rests within a confined space, and is initially revealed only partially through windows or spaces in walls.

Into the Abyss Fig. 5Into the Abyss Fig. 6

Fig. 5 ‘Aziz’s beloved in the window Fig. 6 ‘Aziz staring up at his beloved’s window 

Pasolini exemplifies the motif of concealed desire to the greatest degree in Il fiore with the story of ‘Aziz and ‘Aziza where windows and desires abound.  Running an errand before his marriage to ‘Aziza, ‘Aziz

catches a handkerchief that falls from above, and glimpses a woman in a window of the building next to him.  She makes cryptic signals with her hands, closes the window, and ‘Aziz remains immobile, staring raptly at her window until nightfall (see Fig’s 5&6).  Seeing this woman partially revealed through the window ignites ‘Aziz’s passion so that he falls completely in love with her and forgets about his impending marriage to ‘Aziza.  The woman’s intentions remain concealed, as she only speaks to ‘Aziz using signs.  Ironically, ‘Aziz returns to ‘Aziza who is able to interpret the woman’s signs, thus revealing her desire for ‘Aziz to return in two days time.  ‘Aziz does so, and continues to receive communications from his beloved through physical signs, and then through symbolic poetry—that is, always through a concealed process.  Throughout their whole interaction, ‘Aziza reveals the hidden messages of the woman’s symbolic communication, all the while keeping her own (‘Aziza’s) love for ‘Aziz concealed. Whenever ‘Aziz and ‘Aziza convene to interpret messages, they do so in her house, usually next to one or more windows, the motif evocative of revelation (see Fig. 7).  As a lover herself, ‘Aziza’s position in relation to her beloved, ‘Aziz, is inverted.  Instead of being separated from him by a wall that impedes their love, they reside in close physical proximity.  ‘Aziza’s own secrecy conceals her love. The windows that always surround ‘Aziza are evocative of revelation, but they always look out onto the empty sky outside, not onto the object of her desire.  Ultimately, ‘Aziza kills herself knowing that ‘Aziz does not love her.  With this story, Pasolini uses space (which I will discuss in more depth in the next chapter) to thematize interactions of the participants in the love triangle.  It seems that ‘Aziz and ‘Aziza are in the wrong physical positions for their love to blossom.  Perhaps it is necessary for the lover to glimpse the beloved from behind the walls in order for his love to be ignited and ultimately challenged through the separation of space.

Into the Abyss Fig. 7


Fig. 7 ‘Aziza by a window in her house 

The Space 

Pasolini uses the physical frames of city walls in Nur al-Din’s tale to delineate a symbolic limit between inside and outside, reality and fantasy—a limit that is consistently transgressed. Throughout most of the film, Nur al-Din traverses through cities framed by high gray walls that give little suggestion of what lies beyond them.  Again, Pasolini plays upon the motif of revealing and concealing, as the world of fantasy is concealed behind the frame of the walls.  Nur al-Din’s desperate and exhausting quest on the outside of the city walls represents his “reality.”  This reality, however, is dominated by a quest to re-attain his lost love, the object of his fantasy.  Whenever Nur al-Din moves from the city streets and enters into residences, he transgresses the symbolic frame of the buildings’ walls and enters into a fantasy world that celebrates the pleasures of the flesh as well as story telling as they are freely revealed to him.  This physical passage through the wall affects his quest in “reality”—once he passes to the other side of the wall, Nur al-Din puts a halt to his search and pauses to have sex, feast, and/or listen to stories.  At one point, Nur al-Din enters a new city and resorts to begging in order to support himself in his continued quest.  When a young, veiled (concealed) shopper sees him, she hires him as a porter to carry her many exotic goods.  From the stark reality of starvation and begging, Nur al-Din passes through the door of the shopper’s house and enters into a space that provides him with pleasures of the flesh as well as amazing stories.  For Nur al-Din, time stops, as he listens raptly to the stories of Aziz and Aziza, Queen Dunia, and the two dervishes. In this way, Nur al-Din temporarily evades his own quest, his own reality, through transgressing the walls of city and taking part in the concealed pleasures.  At the end of the film, however, Nur al-Din’s “reality quest” comes to an end when he finally finds his lost love.  In this way, his object of fantasy and desire, Zumurrud, has become his reality.  These two worlds, then, collide as they become one and the same for Nur al-Din.  The fantasy world of the lovers’ tales that he has witnessed all throughout his quest finally reflects his own waking life, his own happy ending.  Thus, Nur al-Din passes from reality, to fantasy, to reality, and finally to a fantastical reality.  As his hero physically and emotionally weaves in and out of the two realms, Pasolini suggests fluidity between the concept of inside and outside, the realm of wish fulfillment and the realm of stark reality.

Similarly, Pasolini uses frames of underground compartments in Il fiore in order to sustain his challenge of the illusion between inside and outside and to continue with his theme of revealing and concealing.  In the stories of both dervishes, underground palaces are sites of fantasy, luxury and bliss.  The level of their concealment is great, as they are not merely behind city walls, but actually removed underground, and noticeable only when the dervishes stumble upon the trap doors.  Pasolini shoots the discovery scenes almost identically, as both dervishes open the trap doors, climb down a ladder into darkness, and then walk into the underground chamber to find a young and startled person to greet them (see Fig’s 8&9).  The first dervish finds a beautiful girl with whom he begins a sexual relationship.  The second dervish discovers a young boy, and though the relationship is not openly sexual, there is some homoerotic tension when the two bathe together and sleep in the same bed.  Both the young boy and girl are concealed to a great degree, as the young boy is in hiding to avoid a curse, and the girl is held captive by her ‘ifrīt  (spirit similar to a jinn) husband.  However, Pasolini challenges the Eden-esque natures of these underground hiding spaces when tragedy strikes in both places.  The girl’s husband murders her through dismemberment when he discovers she has been unfaithful, and the second dervish unwittingly murders his young friend when he is overtaken by some supernatural power.  In this way, two devastating experiences enter into the concealed realm, as “reality” touches fantasy.  Though the young men thought they were blissfully safe in their underground palaces, safe within a certain frame, Pasolini shows that outside elements may enter in, which ultimately disrupt the balance between the two sides.

Into the Abyss Fig. 8 Into the Abyss Fig. 9

Fig. 8 First underground palace         Fig. 9 Second underground palace 

So, too, does Pasolini set up concealed, sacred spaces in his Decameron only to desecrate their intended holy functions as they are infiltrated by deception, greed and desire. In the first embedded tale, Andreuccio and two thieves enter a church in order to rob the grave of a bishop.  The three comically genuflect before the altar, and proceed to pry open the bishop’s stone casket in hopes of stealing his concealed ruby ring (see fig. 5 below).  In this way, instead of the church and tomb existing as sacred and safe places, they are merely the site of common robbery and deception.  Similarly, in the following story, the young and virile Masetto pretends to be deaf and mute in order to find work in a convent of young, beautiful nuns.  Here, Masetto infiltrates the sacred space of the convent in hopes of satisfying his sexual desires.  This does not prove very difficult, as all of the nuns remove the symbolic habits that conceal their sexuality, and reveal themselves willingly to Masetto.  The convent, instead of providing a space for prayer and celibacy, becomes a place where sexual desires are fulfilled (see Fig. 10).  Similarly, the final scene in the Ciappelletto story shows his shrouded corpse on a pedestal in a tomb (see Fig. 11).  Townspeople and priests gather around, declaring him a saint, and touching his holy corpse.  We, as the audience, know that Ciappelletto lead a lecherous life, and merely tricked a gullible priest into believing in his piety as he delivered a highly sarcastic deathbed confession.  In this way, the town mistakenly reveres Ciappelletto as a saint, defiling the holy space and function of the tomb.  His body is wrapped tightly in a shroud, symbolically concealing his true nature from all those around him.  All three of these spaces act as physical frames that are intended for sacred purposes.  However, the actors in the stories defile these purposes, and bring deception, crime, and desire into the equation.  By bringing the profane into the sacred, Pasolini again builds on his discourse of the fluidity of the frame, showing how elements from different worlds can coexist within the same space.

Into the Abyss Fig. 10 Into the Abyss fig. 11–  Fig. 10: Nuns waiting for Masetto                                  

Fig. 11 Ciappelletto’s shrouded corpse  

Though Pasolini sets up the church of Santa Chiara as yet another sacred space, he does not desecrate it in the manner of the previous holy spaces.  Instead of being invaded by desire or deception, the element that invades it is art, in the form of Giotto’s fresco.  As I mentioned in Section I, Giotto’s fresco contributes to the mise en abyme relationship between the artist and the director, and reflects on Pasolini’s own process.  As Pasolini inserts art into the church, he discontinues his exploration of the profane invading the sacred, but instead begins a new discourse on the interplay of art, dream, and reality, which I will explore further in the next section.

The Dream  

Pasolini believes that the language of cinema is essentially imbued with a dream-like quality, possessing its own unique system of signs.  Unlike literary language, cinematic language is not based on institutionalized, instrumental language, but instead is based on a system of visual signs, or im-segni, that are, “archetipi comunicativi naturali” (Pasolini, Empirismo eretico, 168) (natural, communicative archetypes).  He states, that, “ogni sforzo ricostruttore della memoria è un “seguito di im-segni,” ossia, in modo primordiale, una sequenza cinematografica” (Pasolini, 168). (every effort to reconstruct memory is a ‘series of im-signs,’ that is, in a primordial way, a cinematic sequence).  Thus, the construction of im-signs corresponds to the way that memories and dreams are constructed and reconstructed.  All of this language works to make film a, “monstrum ipnotico [con elementi] irrazionalistici, onirici, elementari e barbarici” (Pasolini, 172) (hypnotic monstrum, [with elements that are] irrational, oneiric, elemental and barbaric).  Unlike authors of literature who must draw their words from the limited possibilities of language, cinematic authors may draw their signs from an “infinite dictionary” of unlimited possibilities, what Pasolini characterizes as “chaos.”  In this way, cinema as an art form is strongly evocative of the dream space.  This space, in turn, adheres to the theme of revealing and concealing, as many psychoanalysts and theorists view the dream as the locus of revealed desire.  Concealed from the conscious mind, dreams fleetingly reveal our unconscious desires while we sleep and dissipate upon waking.

Into the Abyss Fig. 12

– Fig.12 Dunia’s re-frescoed dream 

Within Il fiore, Pasolini depicts the dream space on screen in order to further challenge the limits among dream, art and reality. An excellent example of this blurring of the boundaries occurs in the story of Queen Dunia (Arabic for “world”).  We first glimpse her fitfully sleeping in her room, as the camera cuts back and forth between the space of her bedroom and the space of her dream. The camera shows a white dove soaring in the sky while a pigeon is caught in a net.  Though the dove descends to help the pigeon escape, the latter flies away and leaves the dove now trapped in its stead. Dunia takes this dream as an omen, and from then grows in hatred of men, fearing that marriage will leave her trapped like the dove.  Upon seeing a painting of Dunia’s depicting two gazelles, Tasee declares his love for her and resolves to win her over.  In this way, Dunia’s artistic depiction engenders Tasee’s love, rather than any direct contact between the two.  In order to change Dunia’s negative views on men, Tasee decides to use art in order to reinterpret her dream and hopefully change her perception of reality.  He designs a six-paneled fresco that re-depicts Dunia’s dream, this time adding an image that shows a hawk devouring the cowardly and faithless pigeon (see Fig. 12).  When Dunia sees the fresco, she weeps in amazement over the re-interpretation of her dream.  Her gardener explains, “I sogni avvolte insegnano male, Dunia.  La verità intera non è mai in un solo sogno, la verità intera è in molti sogni” (Sometimes dreams teach poorly, Dunia. The whole of truth is never in just one dream, but in many dreams).  Thus, Tasee’s artistic reinterpretation of Dunia’s dream affects her perception of reality, as she immediately takes him as a lover.  The final scene of Dunia’s story closes as she and Tasee sleep peacefully together, undisturbed by nightmares and ill-omened dreams.  Ultimately, Pasolini uses the story of the “world queen” to imply that we can use art to influence and reinterpret our perceptions of reality, which may be influenced greatly from the beginning by our dream worlds.

Another similarly provocative process of framing occurs in the penultimate scene of the Decameron when Giotto dreams that his fresco has come to life (see Fig. 13).  In fact, the fresco of the character’s dream mirrors the historical painter’s work, Il Giudizio Universale, in the Scrovegni Chapel, with some changes[15]. The film’s fresco thus reflects Giotto’s original, creating a mise en abyme relationship between the two.  From his cot, Giotto gazes on in amazement as the Madonna looks down on him serenely, women weep at the foot of a cross, and choirboys sing. The next morning, the camera cuts to Giotto’s piercing stare, as he gazes at his fresco while his assistants pull the scaffolding away to reveal the finished project—the final panel of the triptych left blank.  Amidst celebration and wine, Giotto stares up at his work, and asks himself quietly, “Perché realizzare un’opera quando è così bello sognarlo soltanto?” (Why execute a work when it’s so much more beautiful to dream it?)  With this musing Pasolini ends his Decameron, and leaves us stranded in the midst of several worlds.  Essentially, the director reflects the historical-Giotto’s painting as a living fresco framed with in the character-Giotto’s dream, the entirety of which is framed within Pasolini’s film.  While Giotto’s fresco becomes more real, more alive within the space of his dream, the one that he painted pales in comparison—it is somehow less real, less beautiful and more stifled than his dream.  Here, Pasolini’s complex process of framing again challenges the boundaries between dreams, life and art, as art exists within the space of a dream, and is somehow more real than the painting in waking life.

Into the Abyss Fig. 13

– Fig. 13:  Giotto’s living fresco 

Furthermore, both Dunia’s and Giotto’s dreams create a mise en abyme relationship with the films themselves.  If we adhere to Pasolini’s theory, the language of film is essentially the language of dreams, as they are constructed in the same way as im-signs.  When Giotto reflects that it is so much more beautiful to dream than to paint, dreaming could also refer to the cinematic process.  If the dream is a frame for true beauty, so, too, for Pasolini is the cinematic frame.  Each dream that Pasolini depicts on screen holds up a mirror to the oneiric film process—the filmed dream reflects the cinematic process, just as the cinematic process reflects the dream process.  We are caught up in dreams about dreams, as they all reflect each other’s natures.

To further complicate the discourse, Pasolini not only believes that films are evocative of dreams, but also that they represent reality.  We directly witness reality on a screen, as Pasolini writes, “Il cinema non evoca la realtà, come la lingua letteraria; non copia la realtà, come la pittura; non mima la realtà, come il teatro.  Il cinema riproduce la realtà: immagine e suono! … Il cinema esprime la realtà con la realtà” (135) (Cinema does not evoke reality as literary language does; it does not copy reality like painting, it does not mimic reality like theater.  Cinema reproduces reality: image and sound! … Cinema expresses reality with reality).  Whatever the validity of this claim, I think it is worthwhile to continue considering Pasolini’s work within the system of his own artistic logic. According to this reasoning, Il fiore and Decameron are works that consistently emphasizes the fluidity of the framing process that separates fantasy from reality, art from life. These cinematic works, in turn, are representations of reality. Then, Pasolini’s discourse on the frame in film reflects how the frame functions in reality, namely, as an ongoing dynamic process that is an agent of overlap and fluidity rather than division and limitation. For the director, there is framing, but it does not really exist (as a barrier between art and life). Inside is outside and vice versa, as Pasolini inundates us with limits transgressed and dichotomies shattered.


The cinematic process itself is a metaformal reflection on revealing and concealing.  The word camera comes from the Latin for “vaulted chamber” that then travels into Italian as the word for room.  The film camera, then, is essentially a room or enclosed space that is the locus for revealing and concealing the story world. We can use it as a metaphor for this motif within both of Pasolini’s films, as they are rife with concealed spaces, characters, and desires that ultimately are revealed.  This metaphor thus initiates another reflection with the story world, creating yet another mise en abyme between the function of the camera and the motifs of the films.

In light of this fluidity of frame and significant reflective process, we can also conceive of the relationship between Pasolini’s films and the written works of 1001 Nights and Decameron as a certain type of mirror, or an intratextual mise en abyme. Pasolini latches onto various aspects of the films, such as their spirit of amazement, proliferation of framing, and motifs of revealing and concealing. The director then reflects these elements through his own frames back onto the original work, creating a dialogue between the two. The Nights and Decameron can now look into Pasolini’s mirror and see aspects of themselves reflected, distorted, multiplied or completely effaced. Through this mise en abyme, Pasolini’s films transgress boundaries of time, genre, and medium.

Into the Abyss Fig. 14




Towards the end of his essay on the frame, Jacques Derrida tells his reader “The parergon—give it up for lost.”  This thesis, in a sense, has been an effort to do just that.  In other words, I have attempted to move away from schools of thought that paint the frame as a fixed entity and agent of division and classification.  The Nights and Decameron, along with Pasolini’s film adaptations, are works that truly help to illustrate this concept—it is not about the frame, it is about the framing process.  The very nature of this process is fluid and dynamic, one that may invert or break itself.  The authors of the Nights and Decameron initiate and sustain these processes of framing through the use of layers of focalization and mise en abyme.

Focalization is our window onto the world of the text and significantly affects our perception therein.  Both the Decameron and Nights distinctively contain a multitude of narrators who pass the role of focalizer back and forth, and thus create a dynamic process of framing in the texts.  The Hunchback’s Tale in the Nights buries itself in deep levels of embedding and myriad narrators, and makes it nearly impossible to maintain contact with Shahrazad’s frame.  These layers of focalization in themselves create a process of framing as each narrator is a frame in himself.  The Decameron’s sixth day also contains a plethora of narrators, though the brigata’s equal sharing of narrative power add some order to the focalization/framing process.

This process of focalization/framing in both works lays the groundwork for the ways in which mise en abyme transgresses the limits of the frame.  As it reflects characters, images and themes, it crosses the boundaries of the frame and creates relationships that exist across this supposed barrier.  Mise en abyme is not limited by the frame as a structure, but rather utilizes the insides and outsides of many frames in order to gain momentum and produce a dynamic process of framing.  Boccaccio employs mise en abyme in the third day of his Decameron and produces a discourse on form and content, at the same time dealing with a superficial frame that emphasizes the disconnect between an outer piety and an inner sinful nature.  The author of the Nights completely inundates us with mise en abyme in The Hunchback’s Tale that spans deep levels of embedding and many narrators.  With this device, the author of the Nights perpetuates a discourse on the art of story telling as it is tied to form and deformity.  The excess of mise en abyme in this cycle is quite distinct, and its use in the Decameron does not come close to the extent of the reflections in The Hunchback. 

I believe Pasolini’s films, in fact, illustrate framing’s dynamic and fluid nature to the greatest degree.  His Decameron and Il fiore are celebrations of the process of framing, bursting at the seams with all manner of frames.   Like The Hunchback’s Tale, Pasolini does not merely give us a taste of framing, but rather inundates us.  He sets up frames so that he may bridge them, transgress them, and ultimately witness their implosion.  Within the films, Pasolini challenges boundaries between inside and outside, dream and waking life, art and reality.  Though these discourses are contained within cinematic work, Pasolini is making a statement the world we inhabit.  Whatever the validity of this statement, Pasolini believed that cinema was the only artistic medium capable of representing reality.  His cinematic discourses would then seem to be his discourses on reality.  Frames, for Pasolini, in cinema or in life, are fluid entities that conduct us from one realm to another, uniting rather than dividing seemingly separate aspects of existence.  With Pasolini’s discourse on framing in mind, we can return to the Nights and Decameron with a new awareness.  Pasolini latches on to the process of framing that informs these works, dramatically interprets it on screen, and draws our attention to this tendency that has been a part of the works all along.

Works Cited

Almansi, Guido. The Writer as Liar. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975.

Boccaccio, Giovanni. Il Decameron.  Basiano: Galleani & Chignoli, 1969.

Boccaccio, Giovanni, trans. G. H. McWilliam. The Decameron. 2nd ed. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995.

Cerisola, Luigi. “La questione della cornice del “Decameron”” Aevum 49 (1975): 137-56. JSTOR. Web. 15 Sept. 2012.

Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1978.

Dällenbach, Lucien.  The Mirror in the Text.  Trans. Jeremy Whitely.  Chicago: U Chicago Press, 1989.

Derrida, Jacques. “The Parergon.” Trans. Craig Owens. October 9 (1979): 3-41. JSTOR. Web. 12 Feb. 2013. <;

Fido, Franco. “L‘Ars Narrandi di Boccaccio nella Sesta Giornata.” Il Regime delle simmetrie imperfette. Studi sul “Decameron” Milano: Franco Angeli, 1988.

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[1]  See Barthes’ Essais Critiques, 1972

[2]  See Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, 1928

[3]  See Chatman’s Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, 1980  

[4]  All Italian to English translations are mine unless otherwise noted.

[5] See the Introduction for a more detailed explanation of focalization   

[6] In terms of Arabic and Persian examples of this literature, see al-Ghāzalī’s Nasihat al-Muluk (Counsel for Kings), Ibn Iskandar’s Qābus Nāma (A Mirror for Princes), and Ibn al-Muqaffa’s Kalilah wa-Dimnah 

[7]  All Alf Layla wa-Layla translations by Husain Haddawy

[8]  I will focus more on specific types and uses of form in the next chapter

[9]  All Decameron translations by G.H. McWilliam

[10] “In a work of art, I rather like to find thus transposed, at the level of the characters, the subject of the work itself.  Nothing sheds more light on the work or displays the proportions of the whole work more accurately.  Thus, in paintings by Memling or Quentin Metzys, a small dark convex mirror reflects, in its turn, the interior of the room in which the action of the painting takes place …What would be more accurate … would be a comparison with the device from heraldry that involved putting a second representation of the original shield ‘en abyme’ with it” (André Gide, Journal 1889-1939, 41).

[11]  See Chapter One for a more detailed explanation of the brigata’s structure and even power distribution

[12]  All Decameron translations by G.H. McWilliam

[13]  All 1001 Nights translations by Husain Haddawy

[14] Most critics refer to Pasolini’s character as Giotto, not Giotto’s student.  I, too, will refer to Pasolini’s character as Giotto in this paper, but this distinction would bear further analysis as Pasolini puts himself in the role of the apprentice, one who is learning his craft, learning to see.

[15] I will not specifically address Pasolini’s re-interpretation of this painting (as well as several other famous pieces) in this paper, though it would bear further study in light of mise en abyme