"An Incident," Part Three
To Frame, or not to Frame...
In my first post about “An Incident,” I mentioned the structure of the story. It is, fundamentally, a “frame story,” its essential action book-ended between an introduction (paragraphs 1 and 2) and an epilogue (paragraph 18).
In this post, I want to talk about this device and, specifically, about how the frame justifies itself (how it “earns its keep.”)
I’m sure you can all think of other examples of frame stories (Raymond Carver’s “The Calm,” comes to mind for me). If I’m remembering correctly, Heart of Darkness is another.
I don’t have any big, overarching theories about frame stories, except that the frame and the inner story should, you know, cross-talk, in some way that causes the inner story to be more meaningful than it would if told alone.
The implicit claim of a frame story is: “I’m better with the framing device.”
So, here, re. “An Incident,” let’s pose a hypothetical question: Could we just cut the intro and epilogue?
That is: if we’re being obnoxiously frugal, the story could begin: “It happened during the winter of 1917.” Or, being even more obnoxiously frugal: “A bitter north wind was blowing.” (Aside: I’m aware, because I’ve been teaching for 300 years, that this frugal approach is not for everyone and can lead, in some cases, to writer’s block or to people getting Frugality Fever and deleting their whole oeuvre and hurling their computer out the window. So, if this method of analysis has this effect on you…run away. Or, you know, feel free to not think of it this way.)
But…let’s briefly assume this frugal stance not (just) to be obnoxious, but in order to learn something about the short story form. In a form that prides itself on economy, how do we determine what stays in and what goes? What are the underlying principles — in general, but also for you, in your work? (We might imagine a paragraph asking, in an aggrieved tone, “What’s a guy gotta do to stay in this story, anyway?)
To explore this, let’s first review those two portions of the text:
Six years have slipped by since I came from the country to the capital. During that time I have seen and heard quite enough of so-called affairs of state; but none of them made much impression on me. If asked to define their influence, I can only say they aggravated my ill temper and made me, frankly speaking, more and more misanthropic.
One incident, however, struck me as significant, and aroused me from my ill temper, so that even now I cannot forget it.
Even now, this remains fresh in my memory. It often causes me distress, and makes me try to think about myself. The military and political affairs of those years I have forgotten as completely as the classics I read in my childhood. Yet this incident keeps coming back to me, often more vivid than in actual life, teaching me shame, urging me to reform, and giving me fresh courage and hope.
Now, if the intro and epilogue turn out to be saying the exact same thing, that’s a little boring.
Consider this example:
INTRO: The story I am about to tell changed me forever. It made me believe that ghosts are real.
(Insert body of story, in which the narrator sees a ghost.)
EPILOGUE: And that’s why I believe that ghosts are real.
In this case, I’d say cut both. Nothing is lost but some empty lines of text.
In “An Incident,” I’d claim, the intro and epilogue are not saying exactly the same thing; there’s some development going on between the two.
The (ugh, don’t like this word, but) “takeaway” from the intro is: “Everything that happened to me during my six years in the capital made me ‘more and more misanthropic’” (except for this one thing, which he then narrates).
The Epilogue confirms this, then expands upon it. The incident “causes him distress” and teaches him shame and urges him to reform (all of which we expect, given what’s just happened) but it also gives him “fresh courage and hope.” To my ear, that’s a new development. It is, essentially, a last-minute escalation, a call-back to the driver’s moment of quiet moral clarity. It also says, in a lovely way, that right action is contagious. The driver did what he felt was right, the narrator observed this…and it changed him. What a hopeful message this is. It gives us a reason, in every single moment, to try to do our best.
So, it’s this slight, additional feeling of escalation that, for me, “justifies” the inclusion of the introductory and epilogue paragraphs. The story, in its last lines, continues to grow; that is, its meaning keeps expanding.
Therefore…I’d make the case for leaving the story intact (ha, ha, after the hundred years of its place in world literature).
This concludes our work on “An Incident.”
To read more of Lu Hsun’s work, check out Selected Stories of Lu Hsun. His name is also sometimes spelled “Lu Xun,” by the way, as some of you have pointed out.
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And framing can, at least in my mind, also include what I think of as "braiding" - having two story lines going at once. Same deal - we want to ask: Why am I doing this? And: Is doing this keeping from doing something else (for example, concentrating more on the essence of one of the two storylines)?
Seeing the opening and epilogue together, something else struck me. It seems from the opening that he is still engaged in state affairs (“Six years have slipped by since I came from the country to the capital”). But in the epilogue he says, “The military and political affairs of *those* years I have forgotten as completely as the classics I read in my childhood,” as if he has retired or quit, and entered a new era of life. This could be a matter of translation, but at least in English, it makes me wonder if the driver somehow inspired the narrator to leave his job.